St. Louis--Love and marriage - as the old song from "Oklahoma!" suggests - still go together quite neatly in the United States. Americans revere wedlock. Nearly 9 out of 10 of them will tie the knot sometime in their lives, more than the citizens of most other countries. There's only one problem. Americans seem more enamored with the institution than with each other.

Although marriage looks likely to remain a predominant fixture of US society well into the 21st century, a still-high divorce rate and the lack of a practical or religious underpinning to many relationships threatens to undermine the wedding vows of today's young couples.

If today's Gen-Xers go through the same experience as their predecessors, then divorce rates won't drop and could even rise a little to a record 50 percent, according to a report released today by the US Census Bureau. Such an outcome would prove especially bitter for Gen-Xers, experts say, because they hold marriage in high regard. "For many young people, they have this ideal of this lifelong egalitarian marriage," says Pamela Paul, author of a new book, "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony." "Many of them had parents who were divorced growing up. [But] they kind of wrote off a lot of those divorces as belonging to a different era [and say] 'I won't make the same mistake.' "

In the view of some experts, America's newest newlyweds, for all their idealism about finding a soul-mate, often fall short on the glue that makes matchups last. "There's a certain hollowness," says David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University and a founder of the National Marriage Project, a think tank looking into marriage trends. Young people "want marriage very much, but they're not willing to do what it requires to have a long-term marriage."

Whether Gen-Xers will do any better than their parents remains to be seen. In 1996 (the latest Census data available), two-thirds of 25- to 29-year-old women had gotten married but only 12 percent had been through a divorce. Using a mathematical model and assuming today's newly-married couples go through the same transitions as their predecessors, the Census projects half of their marriages could fall apart.

"Those figures are really ballpark," cautions Rose Kreider, a family demographer and co-author of the report. The larger point is that unless something changes for Gen-Xers, divorces could remain a common experience.

Anecdotally, the evidence isn't encouraging. For her book, author Paul (herself a Gen-X divorcee) interviewed more than 60 individuals whose marriages ended while in their 20s. What she found was that her generation was seemingly more involved in planning a lavish wedding than a multi-decade partnership.

That's pushed in part by a booming wedding industry, in part by popular culture, she says. Average cost of a wedding? $20,000. A recent issue of Bride's magazine weighed in as the largest consumer magazine ever. Several TV sitcoms (think "Friends") portray single people as neurotic and always looking for the right person.

Meanwhile, Gen-Xers she interviewed who had been married often hadn't broached basic questions - how many children, handling money, flexibility on a spouse's career moves - during their courtships. The result: what she calls the "starter marriage," which lasts no more than five years and ends with no children.

It's a tough way to learn hard lessons about lifelong relationships, she says. "My personal ideal ... is lifelong marriage, particularly when child-rearing is involved," she says. Her interviewees repeatedly said they would have benefitted from pre-marriage counseling or education - something their parents didn't provide.

Perhaps they couldn't. According to today's Census report, grandparents did a better job than parents at long-term commitment. For example, 92 percent of the men born between 1925 and 1934 had married and only 15 percent divorced by the time they reached 40. Early male Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1954) nearly equaled the marriage rate (88 percent) but had double the divorce rate by the time they reached 40. "We're very, very good at rushing into things," says Marian Salzman, worldwide director of strategy and planning for Euro RSCG Worldwide, an advertising agency network based in New York. "We're also very good at rushing out of them."

On the other hand, having seen first-hand the impact of divorce, some couples are taking their time before making a commitment. Statistically, at least, such relationships last longer. "Our expectations were probably lower than our parents were when they got married," says Joanna Brinen-Klein, the child of divorced parents who got married last May. "On the other hand, we got married later in life so we had a better sense of the person who would be right for us. I don't anticipate any division in the future."

On the whole, the institution - if not the marriages themselves - looks likely to remain a fixture in American life. "Marriage is an institution that is clearly surviving in the US in the 21st century," says Ms. Kreider of the Census Bureau. The marriage rate remains high compared with other countries. In 1999, for example, Americans notched 8.3 marriages per 1,000 population, according to United Nations statistics, while Belgians and Swedes stood at roughly half that rate.

But the US divorce rate remains stubbornly high, too: higher than France and Germany, twice the rate of Romania and Portugal.

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