Forever began for Kelly and Mike of Baton Rouge, La., a year ago, when they wed in a covenant marriage. But for New Yorkers Adam and Cindy (not their real names), forever won't come for 18 years after their wedding day last month--if then. That's the point at which their legally binding prenuptial agreement self-destructs.
These are just two modern variations on the old-fashioned notion of partners for life. They may be hard for the parents of the two couples and others of their generation to understand. When early boomers and those who came before them marched down the aisle, most assumed their marriage would last; that was the bargain. Whether that ultimately happened or not, today's parents of marriage-age young adults want to see their offspring married happily and long. Many say they are frustrated by how long it's taking their kids to "settle down"--or that they are puzzled by the forms modern partnerships are taking.
So let's put this in context: today's young adults, who grew up amid the debris of an older generation's failed relationships (between the mid-'60s and 1981, the divorce rate more than doubled), are wrestling with the very notion of forever in marriage and finding it unattainable or even suspect. Young couples have not trashed the idea of lifetime partners. Instead, they are creating their own models.
At one end of the spectrum are long-term cohabiting couples who don't want to marry at all. At the opposite end are couples in Louisiana and Arizona, the two states that offer covenant marriages, who have opted to back up their marriage vows with tougher, legally mandated divorce standards. In between are lovers at every point on the continuum, from those who live together briefly before marriage as a test of compatibility to those who wed only after long and searching courtships. Many of these are strategies to avoid divorce, says David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.
Divorce, however, is not the only factor, says Philip Cowan, a director of the Council for Contemporary Families. "It's the prospect of many of the lifeless long-term marriages they grew up with," says the psychologist, who with his wife Carolyn Pape Cowan--both at the University of California, Berkeley--has followed more than 200 families for 10 to 20 years.
The good news is that most young men and women still hope for a lasting love. They're just struggling with the best way to get there. Here are some of the options:
COVENANT MARRIAGE: LOCK IN FOREVER, AND THROW AWAY THE KEY
"With a covenant marriage, you eliminate the option of walking out from a mind-set point of view," explains Mike Johnson of Baton Rouge. Mike, a 27-year-old attorney, wed Kelly, a 26-year-old teacher, a year ago in a covenant pact. "We're saying, 'Let's not do marriage lite,'" says Mike. At which point Kelly interposes, "It's marriage heavy."