(WOMENSENEWS)--A new study from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University finds that twenty-somethings are looking for a "soul mate" to marry. They aren't willing to settle for an OK marriage, but are holding out for a person with whom they will be emotionally in tune. Young people polled by the Gallup Organization (1,003 of them, ages 20 to 29) believe that they will find a partner with whom they can share their hopes and dreams for a lifetime.
Sociologist David Popenoe, who heads the marriage project, worries that young people are setting their sights too high. He thinks that young Americans have seen so many divorces among their parents and grandparents that they may be setting standards for themselves that are unrealistic.
But there's an alternative explanation for their attitudes, rooted in the social and economic changes of the past 30 years.
The marriage contract has fundamentally changed, so much so that some old cliches are headed for the waste bin. Mothers used to tell their daughters, "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor man." And, it was said, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
Both sayings reflect the facts of marriage in mid-century America and earlier, in which an implicit trade-off occurred. While romantic love was always the message of movies and pop ballads, the economic reality was often that women swapped sexual and valet services for economic security. They were expected to find "good providers."
Men, on the other hand, were advised to marry nice girls who hadn't had sex but did have domestic skills. They'd stay home and darn the socks and wouldn't take their love to town. Women had no economic resources and, once married, couldn't leave. Men were expected to be incompetent in the kitchen and in the nursery, letting women manage their emotional lives.
Women No Longer Need to Swap Sexual, Valet Services for Economic Security
This has all changed quite dramatically. Perhaps the major difference is that women now have economic resources to bring to a marriage. Seventy percent of women are paid for their work. Women now outnumber men in college classrooms, and the largest growth in the female labor force is not in low-paid service sector jobs, but in well-paid professional jobs.
At the same time, men's wages have been stagnant or have declined over the past two decades. The 30-year industrial jobs that allowed a man to support a family for a lifetime are fast disappearing. Young men no longer see themselves as the sole economic engines of the family. They expect their spouses to work, and they see themselves as being very involved in raising their kids. For the first time, according to the National Study of the Changing Workforce, men are now spending more time with their children than on their own interests and pursuits.
A study done by the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute last spring found that unlike their elders, men 20 to 39 are more likely to give family matters top billing over career success. Eighty-two percent put family first and 71 percent said they would sacrifice part of their pay to have more time with their families.
And men no longer see women as either Madonnas or whores. In the past, men's first sexual experiences were often with "bad girls" of a lower class or with prostitutes. They were expected, however, to find "good girls" to marry. Today, young men's first experiences tend to be with their peers and they no longer have to marry in order to have sex with "nice" girls.
Young women, on the other hand, don't have to set their caps for good providers. When they have their own resources, women can seek other qualities in a mate--and they do. New research indicates that in societies where there is gender equality, women do not look for older, richer men to marry. They seek other qualities, including empathy and an ability to care for children. Women can look for a "soul mate."
Seeking Qualities of Heart and Mind May Not Be Unrealistic Today
So, young Americans may not be unrealistic when they seek qualities of heart and mind in a partner, qualities that will intrigue and comfort them for a lifetime. A man doesn't need a household servant. He can marry an investment banker and do the dishes himself--and help the kids with their homework. A woman doesn't have to settle for a good provider who doesn't meet her emotional needs. If she has a decent job, she can marry a man whose paycheck isn't very big but whose heart is, and who is great with the kids.
There is simply no one-size-fits-all marriage anymore. Overall, men and women are becoming true partners in bringing home the bacon and in raising children. This isn't always easy; sometimes it's very hectic. But many men and women would regard busy lives as a sound trade-off for the old gender straitjackets.
And young people are marrying later, so they have a good chance of knowing who they are and what they want. In the fifties and sixties, a woman of 25 who didn't have an engagement ring on her finger was headed to "old maid" territory. Many of the young marriages of those days ended in divorce or misery, because the people who entered into them were very immature.
Modern contraception and the availability of abortion means that couples aren't rushed into "shotgun marriages" because of unwanted pregnancies. While some of those marriages may have worked out, they were too often the crucibles of conflict, abuse and unhappiness.
Today's twenty-somethings, it seems, should not be seen as starry-eyed because they are holding out for soul mates. (There were no gender differences in the poll.) They may indeed see the divorces around them as cautionary tales, but they are practical as well as idealistic.
Perhaps more than ever before, young people have an opportunity to choose a partner on the basis of personal qualities and shared dreams, not economics. They are also freer to disregard old gender scripts. If she makes more than he does, that's fine, if the chemistry is right. If she's not a domestic goddess, who cares, if they both laugh at the same jokes?
Who knows? They might even make divorce go out of style.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.
For more information, visit the National Marriage Project, Rutgers University: