03 July 2001

Looking for a soulmate?

If you expect your spouse to fulfil your every spiritual and emotional desire, there's a good chance you're in your 20s - and you've never been married.

If you expect your spouse to fulfil your every spiritual and emotional desire, there's a good chance you're in your 20s - and you've never been married.

Men and women between the ages of 20 and 29 put "soul mate" at the top of their list of requirements for a marriage partner, according to a new survey by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

The vast majority - 94 percent - of never-married singles agreed that "when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." And 88 percent said there is "a special person, a soul mate, waiting for you somewhere out there."

"Our study suggests young adults have put marriage on a pedestal," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project. "These young adults see marriage as nothing more than an emotional and spiritual connection between two consenting adults. They do not see marriage as something to do in order to accomplish major life goals, such as putting together a solid economic foundation and raising children."

With a "soul mate" relationship as top priority, other reasons for marriage - including the larger social, economic, religious and public purposes once associated with marriage - have slipped in priority. And where once marriage was a social institution, it's now seen as "nobody's business but the two people involved," Whitehead said.

The survey's findings:

  • Less than half (42 percent) of single young adults believe it's important to find a spouse who shares the same religion.
  • Eighty-two percent agree it's unwise for a woman to rely on marriage for financial security.
  • More than two-thirds of singles, both men and women, believe it is extremely important to be economically "set" before getting married.
  • 62 percent say that, although not ideal, it's OK for an adult woman to have a child on her own if she has not found the right man to marry
  • More than 80 percent of women agree it's more important to have a husband who can communicate his deepest feelings than to have one who makes a good living.
  • About 68 percent believe it's more difficult to have a good marriage today than in their parents' generation.
  • Almost half (46 percent) believe laws should be changed to make getting a divorce more difficult.

Attitudes toward marriage have changed dramatically in a generation.

"Seeking a compatible mate who shares similar values is not new," said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project. "But what is new and surprising is that the soul mate ideal has become the most desired marital-partner characteristic for this age group - surpassing religion, economics and even the ability to be a good mother or father."

Whitehead sees pitfalls in over-idealising marriage. Life has its ups and downs, its stresses and tragedies. If young people expect their spouses to be perfect mates, or if they think they can sustain a high level of intimacy and connection every day of their life, they are in for a rude awakening, she added.

"We need a much more realistic appreciation of marriage rather than this hyper-romantic soul mate relationship," Whitehead said. "It's an unrealistic expectation if you want the relationship to last a lifetime."

Most 20-somethings do expect their marriages to work, according to the survey of 1 003 young adults. About 80 percent said they would not get married unless they were prepared to stay together for a lifetime. Slightly more than half (52 percent) say one of their biggest concerns about getting married is the possibility it will end in divorce.

About 44 percent had at some time during their 20s lived with an opposite-sex partner. Although there is no evidence to support living together improves the changes of staying married, 62 percent believe living together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. About 43 percent say they would only marry someone who was willing to live together first.

Sanford Braver, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, said the new study is consistent with other studies gauging young people's attitudes toward marriage. People who are in their 20s now are the first generation for whom divorce became commonplace, Braver said.

The rate of divorce began to accelerate in 1968 through 1980. It has since levelled off. Now, projections say that about half of couples married today will eventually divorce, although some estimates put the figure lower, Braver said.

"We are seeing the reaction to parents' divorce," Braver said. "Some are delaying marriage. Some are not getting married. Others are saying 'I won't marry unless everything looks perfect'."



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