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The Future of Marriage: Part I

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

This is the first article in a series about the role of marriage in society.

It's a familiar tale: Guy meets girl, romance blossoms, girl pushes for commitment, guy walks. End of story.

At least it's the end of that story. But according to a recent study by the National Marriage Project (NMP) at Rutgers University, it's a scenario that has become commonplace in recent years. Dr. David Popenoe, co-director of the NMP, discussed the trend when he presented a preview of the report, Why Men Won't Commit: Exploring Young Men's Attitudes About Sex, Dating and Marriage at the George H. Gallup International Institute's "Ideas for Progress" seminar last month.

Recent Gallup Poll figures* indicate that overall, the attitudes of men and women toward the moral role of marriage in American society are fairly similar: while men are slightly less likely than women to think that sex between an unmarried man and woman is immoral (45% of women versus 38% of men), they are no less likely to think that having a baby out of wedlock is immoral (49% of women versus 53% of men). Furthermore, men and women are closely aligned when it comes to divorce -- just over one quarter of men and women feel it's morally wrong.

But the new NMP report suggests that on a more practical level, younger men and women tend to view the goals of marriage differently. With the average age of first marriage now at 27 for men and 25 for women -- the oldest in the nation's history -- Popenoe and the NMP's other co-director, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, conducted focus groups with unmarried men, aged 25 to 35, in four metropolitan areas to explore their attitudes about why it's taking them longer to find the perfect mate. Here are the reasons the men in the focus groups offered:

  1. They can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past.
  2. They can enjoy the benefits of a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.
  3. They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.
  4. They want to wait until they are older to have children.
  5. They fear that marriage will require too many changes and compromises.
  6. They are waiting for the perfect soul mate and she hasn't yet appeared.
  7. They face few social pressures to marry.
  8. They are reluctant to marry a woman who already has children.
  9. They want to own a house before they get a wife.
  10. They want to enjoy single life as long as they can.

The NMP's recent report coincides with another recent bombshell -- a new book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett titled Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Hewlett advises women to speed up their timetables -- marry and have children early because their biological clocks run out much sooner than many women realize.

"There's a gender war going on out there," Popenoe explained in a later interview for Tuesday Briefing. "Men can outwait women -- biology is in their favor."

Looking to the future, there is no significant difference between the proportions of teen-age American boys and girls with regard to their plans to marry and have children. Virtually all plan to do so -- 94% of boys plan to marry and 92% want to have children versus 92% and 90% for girls, respectively**. As previously reported (see "Kids and Divorce" in Related Items), those figures are up approximately 10 points since Gallup first asked teens about their marriage and family plans in 1977.

So is there a solution to the timetable conundrum? When asked whether technology might eventually solve the problem by making it possible for women to have children into their 60s, or if men would eventually change their ways, Popenoe doesn't hold out much hope for either solution. He feels that because women may be more hardwired to reproduce than men are, they'll need to take the initiative. "Women are wasting precious years (living together) when their marriage prospects are still pretty high," he says. "In most cases, ongoing cohabitation should be a warning signal for women to ‘get moving.'"

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 6-9, 2002. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**Findings are based on interviews conducted with a cross section of 501 American teens, aged 13 to 17, from December 2000 through February 2001. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.


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