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Fewer Couples Say 'I Do'

Marriage has weakened as an institution in the United States, with fewer people saying "I do" than at any time in the nation's history, according to a new study.

Moreover, fewer people who tie the knot report being "very happy" in their marriages, according to findings released Thursday by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

The study, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, found that the national marriage rate has dropped 43 percent over the past four decades to its lowest point ever.

The study reviewed statistics on marriage and divorce from the last four decades to find out how many people were getting married, at what age, and how many of those marriages lasted. It also based some conclusions on interviews, which included discussions with teens on their views of marriage.

David Popenoe, the Rutgers sociologist who co-authored the study said that the young generation's outlook on marriage is troubling.

He says that today's teens, "still have the goal - fortunately - for having a long-term relationship. But they just are increasingly less sure that they're going to be able to make that goal. And, of course, the reasons are all around us."

Researchers blamed the declining trend on more couples opting for alternatives such as living together outside of marriage or putting off the vows until later in life.

"I'm worried most because of the teen-agers," Popenoe said. "With the breakdown of the family, peer culture -- which includes pop culture -- has gotten stronger. Nothing could be more anti-marriage than much of popular culture."

Before declining slightly in recent years, the nationwide divorce rate had grown since 1970. Today, nearly half of married couples in the U.S. eventually split up.

According to the study, only 30 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys responded that married people are happier than those who stay single or live with a mate out of wedlock. In the late 1970s, about 39 percent of girls and 38 percent of boys agreed with that statement.

Teen girls especially seem to have lost some faith in the idea of finding a lifetime mate.

From 1976 to 1980, 68 percent of teen girls surveyed thought it was likely they would stay married to the same person for a lifetime. In 1995, it was 64 percent.

However, the percentage of boys who thought they would have only one mate has increased, from 57 percent during the 1976-1980 period to 59 percent in 1995.

The study also showed that most teen-agers surveyed thought a good marriage and family life was important. Of boys, 72 percent thought a good marriage was important, as did 83 percent of girls.

Those numbers have increased from the mid-1970s, when 69 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls thought a good marriage was important.

Popenoe said teens seemed to believe in marriage, but were negative when it came to themselves. He said so many teens have seen or livd through divorces and don't have good examples of marriage to emulate.

"Teens don't even know anyone who's happily married," Popenoe said. "They become scared and pessimistic."

He said the data shows that the institution of marriage is seriously weakening.

"As an American society, we ought to look closely at what is happening and try to, at least, start a discussion to see what we can do to help save this important institution," Popenoe said.