In Search of Soul Mates

With divorce rates only a bit below their all-time highs, one might suppose young adults don’t take marriage seriously. Oddly enough, the reverse is true. A new report suggests they have such exalted (albeit narrow) views of marriage that they’re less likely to put up with an imperfect one. The National Marriage Project, a research effort housed at Rutgers University, finds Americans in their 20s envision marriage as a highly demanding union of “soul mates”-an intensely private “SuperRelationship” that has lost “much of its broad public and institutionalized character.” Among never-married singles in this age group, 94 percent want a spouse to be their soul mate, “first and foremost”; 87 percent feel they’ll find this person when they’re ready to marry. They assign less importance to marriage as an economic partnership or a path to parenthood. Nor do they see it as an extension of their religious traditions. Because such marriages tend to be “emotionally deep but socially shallow,” they’re particularly vulnerable to internal disruption. One example: 80 percent of female respondents (married and single) said it’s “more important to them to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings than to have a husband who makes a good living.” Very nice, but if those deepest feelings come to seem banal over time, mightn’t she wish the fellow at least made decent money? The study also finds that the soul-mate ideal of marriage “intensifies the natural tension between adult desires and children’s needs.” Just 16 percent of respondents said the “main purpose” of a marriage is to have children. When kids do rear their wrinkly heads, then, “some couples may find it difficult to make the transition between couplehood and parenthood.” Moreover, the high expectations embedded in the soul-mate ideal can prompt parents to break up “at a lower threshold of unhappiness than in the past.” This leads the report to forecast that “marriages with children are likely to remain at high risk of breakdown and breakup.”