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Singles Seek Soul Mates for Marriage

by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe


PRINCETON, NJ -- A new study of young adults' attitudes on love and marriage reveals that the "soul mate" ideal has become the most desired characteristic of marital partners for American men and women, ages 20-29. Ninety-four percent of all never-married singles want their spouses to be soul mates first and foremost -- surpassing matters of religion, economics, and the ability to be a good mother or father.

The findings are based on a representative national survey of 1,003 men and women ages 20-29 conducted by The Gallup Organization from January through March 2001 for the National Marriage Project. The study and survey results are featured in the National Marriage Project's annual report on the social health of marriage in America, "The State of Our Unions: 2001."

The SuperRelationship

The study shows that, while marriage is losing much of its broad public and institutional character, it is gaining popularity as a 'SuperRelationship' -- an intensely private spiritualized union, combining sexual fidelity, romantic love, emotional intimacy and togetherness. Many of the larger social, economic, religious and public purposes once associated with marriage are receding or missing altogether from young adults' portrait of marriage.

For example, 80% of women feel that a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings is more desirable than one who makes a good living, and only 42% of singles think it is important to find a spouse of the same religious faith. These findings depict marriage as a relationship that is emotionally deep -- but socially shallow.

About the Children

The survey also finds a weakened link between marriage and child rearing. Only 16% of young adults think the main purpose of marriage today is to have children and 62% think that, while it might not be ideal, it is acceptable for an adult woman to have a child on her own if she hasn't found the right man to marry. This pattern shows a continued trend towards the de-coupling of marriage from child-rearing.

That Special Someone

Among single men and women, a large majority (88%) agrees that there is a special person, a soul mate, waiting somewhere out there. Never-married singles are highly confident that they will be successful in locating that soul mate; a substantial majority (87%) agrees that they will find that special someone when they are ready to get married.

Will It Last?

Although young adults are confident that they will be successful in achieving a soul-mate marriage for themselves, they are less confident about the state of marriage in general. A substantial majority (68%) say that it is more difficult to have a good marriage today than it was during their parents' generation, and slightly more than half (52%) say that one sees so few good or happy marriages that one questions it as a way of life. Women, and those with a high-school education or less, are more likely than others to agree that there are very few people who have really good or happy marriages.

As one might expect, the generation that grew up in the midst of the divorce revolution also worries about the risks of divorce. Slightly more than half of all single adults (52%) -- and an even higher percentage of those in their late twenties (60%) -- report that one of their biggest concerns about getting married is the possibility it will end in divorce.

Moving In Together

The high aspirations for a soul mate may be one reason why so many young adults are cohabiting before they take the plunge into marriage. Among the young adults surveyed, 44% had at some time lived with an opposite-sex partner outside of marriage.

Although there is no evidence to support the view that living together improves the chances of staying married, a majority (62%) agree that living together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. More than four in 10 (43%) say they would only marry someone who agreed to live together first.

Survey Methods

These findings are based on a representative national survey conducted for the National Marriage Project by The Gallup Organization. The survey consisted of telephone interviews of 1,003 single and married men and women ages 20 to 29, made from January through March 2001. The study and survey results are featured in the National Marriage Project's annual report on the social health of marriage in America, "The State of Our Unions: 2001."

David Popenoe, Ph.D., a professor and former social and behavioral sciences dean at Rutgers, is co-director of the National Marriage Project and author of Life Without Father, Disturbing the Nest, and many other scholarly and popular publications on marriage and family.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Ph.D, is an author and social critic who co-directs the National Marriage Project and writes extensively on issues of marriage, family, and child well-being. She is the author of The Divorce Culture and the widely acclaimed Atlantic Monthly article "Dan Quayle Was Right."

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