June 13, 2001 -- Marriage has lost its standing among today's young adults, no longer viewed as a route to financial stability, parenthood, or religious affirmation, according to a national survey released today. Instead, 20-somethings are primarily looking for a soul mate in a spouse not merely a friend or even a best friend, but a "superfriend" in an intensely private and spiritualized union. So concludes a Gallup Organization survey of 1,000 single and married men and women in their 20s, commissioned by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Just what the findings mean depends on whom you ask. David Popenoe, who heads the Marriage Project and has devoted his career to revitalizing the institution of marriage, worries that today's expectations are so idealistic that they may inadvertently set off a new round of divorces as couples become disillusioned. "It used to be that people looked for a marriage partner who would help with the tasks of life child rearing, bread winning, and homemaking and also hopefully be a good friend," said Popenoe. "This new standard, seeking an intimate relationship to resolve the isolation of today's fractured society, is unrealistic and may contribute to a high number of fragile marriages. Young people say they're desperate to avoid divorce, but they may be working against the very thing they're striving to achieve." Others say the shift is the culmination of decades of social change, including women's growing financial independence. "What's different now is that women are prepared to say, If I don't find a soul mate, I can provide for myself," said Stephanie Coontz, co-chairwoman of the national Council on Contemporary Families who is writing a book on the history of marriage. "What that means is that women can now afford to be as romantic about marriage as men have been." The survey also found:
42 percent of single young adults believe it is important to find a spouse of the same religion.
Only 16 percent of young adults think the main purpose of marriage today is to have children. Six in 10 say it's acceptable for an adult woman to have a child on her own if she hasn't found the right man to marry. More than eight in 10 young adults agree it is unwise for women to rely on marriage for financial security. More than 80 percent of women believe it is more important to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings than to have a husband who makes a good living.
The shifting role of marriage is not new. By some accounts, it started in the 1920s, as parents and society in general began to lose control over courtship and, ultimately, marriage. Courtship moved from the front porch (under the watchful eyes of the woman's parents) to dates away from the home a change that allowed couples to explore relationships according to their own criteria. A cult of youthful romance flourished, worrying traditionalists and prompting
one sociologist in 1928 to write a book titled "The Crisis of Marriage."
In the decades that followed, women gained more economic independence, entering the workplace in growing numbers. Society became more secularized. And the state took over many of marriage's historic functions, including providing for destitute women and children. With the increasing education of youth and a growing freedom to make decisions unhampered by one's parents or community, the underpinnings of marriage frayed.
Nevertheless, even in the Sixties and Seventies, women still weren't earning enough to be truly independent. Love was important, but so was a man's reliability in bringing home a steady paycheck.
By the late Eighties and Nineties, the wage gap for childless young men and women had narrowed so much that it almost disappeared. By then, the stigma of single life also had waned, as had the disgrace of childbearing out of wedlock. Marriage was no longer the only route to financial stability or the only acceptable context for raising children.
"The practical goals of marriage have gone by the wayside," lamented Popenoe on Tuesday. "As a result, marriage's role in society has been diminished." Staff Writer Ruth Padawer's e-mail address is padawer(at)northjersey.com