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Dear Twentysomethings:

A new poll of your attitudes toward marriage says most of you think the essential ingredient for success is a good "soul mate." Ah, youth.

Good luck, kids. I wish you the best in your quest. But you might want to water down your expectations just a tad.

Remember, for example, that most of those couples you see cursing at each other and hurling chairs around the stage on "The Jerry Springer Show" used to think they had found their "soul mate," too.

Marriage, like life, comes with no guarantees. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. With luck and foresight, you might be able to avoid making "the worst" even worse.

I'm only trying to help. Politicians, sociologists, social activists and busybodies like me are poking our noses into marital habits a lot these days, as we try to figure out where the institution is going. Marriage seems to be falling out of favor, and many folks are worried about it, especially when it involves kids.

About a third of children are born out of wedlock. Recent census figures show the percentage of households that contain the traditional two-parents-plus-kids arrangement is shrinking to record lows, while divorce rates are reaching record highs of almost 50 percent.

So you will not think of me as a single-parent basher, allow me to sound a note of admiration for those single parents who do a heroic job of raising their children.

Still, by almost every statistical measure, most children raised by single parents do much less well than their counterparts who are raised by two parents. As a result, some states are beginning to take unusual steps to strengthen marriages. After all, if children are raised more successfully at home, there's a better chance they will become taxpayers themselves, not tax users.

Some states now offer a refund of marriage license fees for completing premarital courses. Oklahoma, Arizona, Maryland and Florida have passed such initiatives as marriage-education classes, handbooks in marriage skills and high school courses in relationships.

These programs are pretty new, so it is hard to tell how much of a difference they make. But, as one who has known marriage from the inside, I recommend premarital counseling, dear twentysomethings, and anything else that tempers your deep romantic love with a dose of hard-boiled reality.

"State of Our Unions: 2001," the above-mentioned poll conducted by the Gallup Organization for the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, surveyed 1,003 married and single adults in their 20s. Almost all said they want to get married, and an eye-popping 94 percent believed that "when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." Most of them also believe there is one right person, a "soul mate," out there somewhere, according to the poll, and they don't think their own marriages will end in divorce.

Well, of course not. If people didn't have faith that their marriage would work, they wouldn't even try it. But it might be a mistake to look at the marriage rate alone as an indicator of how well a society is doing, says Dorian Solot, co-founder of the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project.

Of industrialized countries, out-of-wedlock birth rates have risen fastest (past 50 percent) in the Scandinavian countries, where social support systems for children are the most generous. Programs like parental leave, flexible working hours and universal health insurance make it easier for single parents to make ends meet and have healthier, happier children.

"I'm interested in how the children are doing, not how marriage is doing," Solot said.

She makes a good point. If we Americans really want to make sure no child is left behind, how far are we willing to go to help them to have a good life, whether their parents are together or not?

That's the sort of thorny question we Americans have only begun to ask. The solutions, like finding the perfect "soul mate," won't come easy, but the quest is worth it.

Chicago Tribune

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