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Jewish World Review June 13, 2000 / 10 Sivan, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

The state of our unions -- "SEX WITHOUT STRINGS, relationships without rings" might sound like it comes from a movie review. But the term was actually coined by the directors of the three-year-old National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, to describe the findings of their just released study on the marriage and dating attitudes of today's young singles.

They found that never-marrieds in the 21 to 29 year-old age bracket are not only very open to casual sex and short-lived liaisons -- no surprise -- but that they are not oriented to marriage as previous generations have been. They don't talk of "falling in love" but of "sex" and "relationships." They see lying, cheating and dumping as typical, expected behavior in these hook-ups. A majority of them will at some point choose to live with someone outside of marriage, though the women are far more reticent than the men about cohabiting. And again no surprise -- they have a deep fear of divorce.

This preliminary study of twenty-somethings in several major metropolitan areas around found that they idealize marriage and want soul mates. But the women, much more so than the men, are not confident that they will ever find a suitable marriage partner and that pessimism increases as they approach their late 20s.

In fact, Whitehead told me, the women report feeling like they are on a playing field geared to the interests and sexual habits of men. They don't like it, but feel powerless to do anything about it. More than half said they would consider unwed motherhood an "option" if they don't find a mate. And that's becoming more likely. The annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women dropped by more than 30 percent from 1970 to 1996.

These early focus group findings were included in the Marriage Project's annual "State of Our Unions" analysis of data on marriage, divorce and families in the United States. The final report on the twenty-somethings, which will be a statistically representative analysis and a more in-depth study, will be completed next year. (The study focused on twenty-somethings who were not college students or graduates, because that demographic represents such a majority -- 75 percent -- of this age-group.)

What does all this mean? Popenoe and Whitehead put it best when they noted that "Marriage is a fundamental social institution. It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the 'social glue' that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole. It is also one of the most highly prized of all human relationships and a central life goal of most Americans."

So a growing avoidance of marriage because of a pessimism about its success, or delaying it to the point where it doesn't happen at all, could have devastating consequences personally and culturally.

Here we see the fallout of our divorce culture for yet another generation. Can we fix it? One step in that direction is correcting common misperceptions about marriage and what causes divorce, Popenoe and Whitehead contend. For instance, while living together has become the lifestyle of choice for many who think it will minimize the chance of divorce later, the fact is that couples who cohabit before their marriage later divorce more often than those who don't. (Whether because of the cohabitation itself, or because the type of people who cohabit are more likely to divorce anyway, is unclear.)

Nor is there any evidence to show that delaying marriage much after the mid-20s increases one's chances for marital success. And we as a society shouldn't rationalize negative marriage trends by suggesting that in weeding out or preventing "bad marriages" those that remain will be higher quality. Because the rate of self-described "happy marriages" has actually declined over the last 25 years, reaching a low in 1994.

Of course, it doesn't help that today one can often get out of a marriage contract easier than a lease-contract for an apartment. Still, the Marriage Project directors say, their study showed it's families, not the popular culture as one might think, that plays the most important role in determining how the next generation views matrimony. Loving parents, divorced or not, surely want their own children to have committed, life-long marriages. So while it's true that children of broken-homes are more likely to experience failed marriages themselves, even divorced parents can exert a powerful effect on their kids if they speak positively to their children about marriage, and hold up the commitment and institution of marriage as a good and desirable thing.

As Whitehead explained it, we have to be hopeful and realize that there's always a next generation that can still be saved from the devastating consequences of divorce and "sex without strings, relationships without rings."

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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