- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

June's here and wedding bells are ringing.

But there's a difference between today's couples and their parents. Both brides and grooms are older than they used to be.

The average age of first marriage today for men is 27. For women, it's 25. In the 1960s, it was 23 for men and 20 for women.

"Our society has a low-commitment, low-trust mating culture not oriented to marriage," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project.

"There are casual, easy to get in and easy to get out of relationships. We call it 'sex without strings; relationships without rings.' "

Despite recent publicity about a Cosmopolitan magazine survey showing that many 20-something women prefer being housewives over a career, there's little sign that American society will suddenly go conservative and opt for earlier marriages.

Carol Marino, a wedding consultant for A Perfect Wedding in Fairfax, says most of her clients live together before marriage for economic reasons.

"These people come out of school and they want to get established first," she says. "They are paying for a good part of their weddings and they both feel they have to have careers. It's easier to live together and save."

The 1998 Census Bureau's current population survey showed women ages 15 and over, working full-time, are making an average of $26,855. Men in the same category are making $36,252. Both averages were up only slightly from previous years.

Widespread surveys indicate sex is rarely put off until marriage. In an April 1992 survey conducted by Glamour magazine, 75 percent of women polled said they had sex before they were 19, and only 20 percent remained chaste throughout their 20s.

Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin has found that 430,000 people lived together during the 1960s. That number has increased 10 times to 4.26 million people cohabiting today, according to the Census Bureau. Between 1960 and 1990, there was a 41 percent decline in marriage.

Conversely, the number of never-married people rose from 21 million in 1971 to 46 million in 1996.

"The sexual revolution showed women descending to the promiscuous nature of men," says Mike McManus, a syndicated columnist and president of Marriage Savers in Bethesda, Md. "For women to agree to cohabit means that they have forgotten what their mothers told them: 'You don't buy the cow if you can get the milk for free.' "

Danielle Crittenden, a D.C. resident and author of "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," is not surprised that young people delay marriage.

"The generation of the '60s urged people away from marriage and into the work force," she says. "It goes to show that the radical ideas of one generation, pursuing education and a career over marriage, become the conventional ideas of the next."

Gloria Allred, a feminist lawyer in Los Angeles who has favored the working woman, now says that she is "very concerned" with the rise in cohabitation rates.

"I wonder whether women are protected in these relationships," Ms. Allred says. "A lot of babies are being born, and the fathers are not acknowledging responsibility. The legal lines are more clearly drawn with marriage."

However, "Many men are not really ready for marriage," she adds. "Marriage is for people ready for a serious relationship. I would rather have men wait and be sure and get the sexual adventures done with rather than fantasize about what could have been."

But Mike Robinson, 32, a single graduate student studying culture at Bowling Green University in Ohio, says it's not just a question of men not being "ready."

"It is absolutely not just the guys," he said. "Maybe fear of divorce or the relationship going bad is a factor. Or, maybe one of the individuals is not ready to just jump in. But, saying it's the guys' fault for not asking is an old stereotype."

Mr. Robinson used to think it should be a legal requirement for people who were getting married to live together for three to six months, but now he is not so sure.

"I do not think living together is a bad thing," he says. "I think it would be horrible not to spend 24 hours with the person you are marrying. Wanting to spend a significant amount of time together is a good signal for getting married."

But several surveys, including one done by the University of Wisconsin, have shown that people who cohabit before marriage divorce at twice the rate of those who do not cohabit. Forty percent of those cohabiting break up before marriage.

Some observers advise bucking the trend and getting married earlier in life.

"If you get an offer at 21 and you love that person, why not marry him or her?" Mr. McManus asks.

He believes that all couples, no matter what their age, should take a premarital inventory and undergo counseling before committing to marriage. "It is one way of pledging to put a safety net under couples," he says.

Stephanie Koontz, author of "The Way We Never Were" and a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says that, historically, there have been many periods when the age of marriage was almost as high as it now.

In the olden days, the reasons people waited to get married were either because the man did not have property or the woman did not have a dowry.

"The new reasons people wait to get married are because they have enough resources on their own," Mrs. Koontz says. "And, although the sexual revolution did not cause a decrease in marriages, it did change the patterns of proper conduct for men and women."

During the 1960s, more than half of all women between the ages of 15 and 29 were married, the census says. Today, that number is around 28 percent. For men ages 20 through 34, 70 percent were married in the '60s. Now, only 40 percent are.

However, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the age of first marriages for men was close to that of today. Newlywed women, however, averaged 22 years.

"It was not until the late 1940s that people started getting married earlier in life," Mrs. Koontz says.

"The two main explanations for people getting married younger when we hit the '50s are psychological and economical," she says. "After the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, men and women were looking for an oasis. Additionally, the government was very supportive to young families in the form of homeownership, health care and college tuition."

The age of first marriages is steadily creeping higher than ever, and researchers see no sign of the trend being reversed anytime soon.

"Some things would have to happen culturally for a shift back," says Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. "People would need to become more religious. We would have to celebrate the career changes, and move back to the vision of family over career. I don't see any signs of it happening yet.

"Before, it made economic sense to have the woman stay home and the man go to work because they had different roles," he says. "Now, both want to have careers and personal goals."

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