Passionate about marriage

Relationships: Stars help give long-term commitment a new boost in popularity and respect.

January 07, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

In the annals of celebrity weddings, 2000 certainly had some shockers.

The young Welsh beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones, who could have almost anyone she chose, hunkered down with Michael Douglas. Hollywood glamour boy Brad Pitt exchanged rings with Jennifer Aniston. And then there was the famously unmarried Gloria Steinem -- who spent decades saying marriage turned a woman into a "semi-non-person" -- who wedded South African political activist David Bale.

After years of dropping marriage rates in America, commitment, it appears, could be making a comeback -- or, at least, could be on the new list of "in" things to do, according to pop culture. (No matter what those busy singles on "Sex and the City" may say.)

As Marcia Gay Harden, Pitt's costar in "Meet Joe Black," said in People magazine's recent issue, which anointed him 2000's Sexiest Man Alive: "Sexiness isn't just about the single bachelor and good looks. There's something gorgeous about his commitment."

But the spotlight on commitment isn't just limited to celebrity circles, relationship experts say.

The marriage rate in the United States is lower today than ever before -- 58 percent of men and 54.8 percent of women 15 and older were married in 1998 compared with 69.3 percent of men and 65.9

in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. Even so, today's young generation is placing more emphasis on finding a lasting marital union, said David Popenoe, codirector of the Rutgers University National Marriage Project.

"There is a seemingly conservative trend in the air," said Popenoe, a professor of sociology who charts relationship trends in the National Marriage Project's annual "State of the Unions" report. "Young people today are hoping more to have a long-term marriage than perhaps their parents did. They believe that long-term marriage really is a good thing, and there's a pullback from the kind of hellbent-for-career attitudes of their parents."

Popenoe said his poll of today's younger generation shows that they value marriage partly as a reaction to the prevalence of divorce in recent decades.

"What's the old saying? What the parents do, the children are going to do something different?" he said. "You have a generation that was a big marrying group in the '50s and then the Baby Boomers coming along and going in a different direction. Now you have a group of children who see the problems that their parents had and they want to do a better job of combining work and family than their parents did -- not to go back to the '50s, but to build a better connection between family and work life."

And the notion of commitment being in vogue is reflected in the recent number of new books with titles like "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better off Financially."

Iris Krasnow, a journalism professor at American University, said she found attitudes similar to those Popenoe did while researching her book "Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives and Other Imperfections" (Talk Miramax Books, $22.95), which will be published in spring.

"Many children of the divorced revolution are afraid to get married," said Krasnow, who lives in Annapolis. "But there is this overwhelming sense to do whatever it takes to get it right and that commitment is a very sexy thing. ... It's definitely a trend."

A romantic notion

In fact, the romanticizing of marriage has been so popular that Ivillage.com created two months ago a section called "Happily Married" at the request of several registered users, said Eileen Livers, the site's relationship expert. Livers said she received requests for a site where people could read upbeat, encouraging stories about married life.

"Some people say, 'Look at those swinging singles in 'Sex and the City,' but isn't [the show] all about finding the right man?" Livers said. "In the end, that's what it all boils down to. The bottom line is, people want to be part of a couples society."

But Krasnow speculated that people need to accept that marriage isn't perfect and requires work before the marriage rate starts increasing.

"What needs to change is these unreal expectations of marriage," Krasnow added. "Once you choose to stay married and you make the commitment, you find that there's a real notion of surrendering, that I can fight with this person, I can loathe this person, I can even get attracted to other people, but I'm with this person. ... It took me years of confusion and disappointment to figure it out."

And if these books and experts don't manage to convince the young masses, there's always Brad and Jennifer -- the Pitts, that is.

"He is Hollywood's biggest heartthrob and he could have anybody he wants and as many people as he wants and he chose one person to settle down with," said People's assistant managing editor, Elizabeth Sporkin, who puts together the magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue. "They did the old-fashioned thing -- they got married before they had a baby. It romanticizes it."

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