TRENTON, N.J., June 7 (AP) - Americans in their 20s don't believe love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, according to a study that found young adults are choosing casual sex over courtship and matrimony. The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Brunswick surveyed never-married men and women ages 21 through 29 in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and northern New Jersey for its new study, ``Sex Without Strings, Relationships Without Rings.''

The study, released Tuesday, was based on results of separate ``focus group'' interviews of men and women - about 10 to 12 of each gender - who also filled out questionnaires. The numbers aren't statistically representative of that population, but a larger study is planned for next year, said David Popenoe, co-director of the three-year-old project.

``We put this out as a special report because the material seemed so compelling,'' said Popenoe, a Rutgers sociology professor. Rutgers chose to interview adults who weren't college students or graduates because that demographic represents roughly 75 percent of the population, Popenoe said. ``If you want to look at what's happening in the country, this is the group you want to look at,'' Popenoe said.

The study found nearly identical goals among men and women in their 20s: achieving financial independence and buying a home before marriage - and delaying marriage indefinitely. ``They tend to look at marriage not as a wealth-building thing, but as an economic risk'' because of the high costs associated with divorce, Popenoe said.

Among those in their late 20s, though, there was a difference. Men still wanted the single life. Women were getting more serious about finding a husband, the study found, but more disenchanted about their chances of landing a good one. ``The women were very pessimistic and they had grown very distrustful of men,'' Popenoe said. One reason he suggested was that the women were more sure of themselves, but the men surveyed were more immature and less goal-oriented.

Participants were more likely to see personal satisfaction as the purpose of marriage, not raising children together. Many of the men did not want any children, and both sexes said having children outside of marriage was acceptable.

The study also found that participants were likely to idealize marriage - despite regarding it as difficult work - and support marriage preparation as a good way to prevent unhappy marriages and divorce. ``Although the study participants expect their future marriages to last a lifetime and to fulfill their deepest emotional and spiritual needs, they are involved in a mating culture that may make it more difficult to achieve this lofty goal,'' said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the project's other co-director.

The ``Sex Without Strings'' report is part of a larger study, the project's second annual report on the health of marriage in America, called ``The State of Our Unions: 2000.''

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