The soulmate generation

Maggie Gallagher

6/20/2001 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
"What's a girl supposed to do?" asked Brielle, an articulate 28-year-old woman, who wondered as she read my column on deliberate fatherlessness just how out of it a 40-year-old married mom could be. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to meet a good man these days? Should I just wait and wait until I hit 50 and realize it's too late to do the one thing I've always wanted because the right guy just never came?" she lectured me.

When it comes to marriage, Brielle, like many in her articulate, empathetic, wounded generation, has both embarrassingly high aspirations and embarrassingly low standards, as a new report by the National Marriage Project reveals. The longing for emotional connection is achingly near the surface.

Ninety-four percent of single twentysomethings say that they are looking for a spouse who is a soulmate, and 87 percent believe they will find that "special person, a soulmate." More than 80 percent of women claim it is more important to them to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings than to have a husband who makes a good living. (Memo to guys: Don't buy it. This will last, if you are lucky, until the baby comes, when suddenly your soulmate will find listening to the deepest feelings of a guy who can't pay the rent inexplicably unappealing.)

These children of the divorce revolution hate the idea that love might fail. Eighty-eight percent say there are too many divorces, and 60 percent of those in their late 20s say they personally worry their marriages will end in divorce. Almost two-thirds endorse co-habitation before marriage as a way to avoid divorce, despite the endless research showing it doesn't work, and 43 percent would actually refuse to marry somebody who wouldn't shack up with them first.

Almost two-thirds agree with Brielle that it's OK for an adult woman to have a child on her own if she has not found the right man to marry. More than four out of 10 young adults describe adults who choose to raise a child out of wedlock as "doing their own thing." Religion? Unimportant in a mate, say the majority. Kids? Just 16 percent think they are the main reason to marry. Increasingly young Americans see marriage as private, not public. Eight out of 10 agree that marriage is nobody's business but that of the two people involved. A substantial proportion (45 percent) say that the government should not be involved in licensing marriage, and about the same think co-habitors are owed the same benefits as married couples.

Soulmate marriage, preceded by a sensible period of co-habitation, is their solution to the anxiety of love in the Age of Divorce. If that fails, there's always single motherhood, for those girls aching for a love that lasts.

My sympathy for the next generation of young adults is deep; they have been abandoned by a generation of boomer parents who have found the exercise of moral authority -- the obligation of the adult generation -- personally distasteful. Besides, it might imply the need for us parents to rein in our own behavior, to "practice what we preach," and who needs that?

Better, like Mayor Giuliani, to retain the perpetual right to trade in your wife for your soulmate, as many times as necessary, no matter who gets hurt. The heart wants what it wants, as Woody Allen so famously quipped -- and so do other body parts, no? We have words (hypocrisy or sin, take your pick) for people whose private behavior does not live up to their public utterance.

But we have no word for the deeper corruption of leaders who lower public standards in order to legitimate their own private desires. So Rudy, the toughest of tough guys, now seeks to become the Princess Di of American politics, courting sympathy with tales of vomiting (chemotherapy, not bulimia) and reportedly courting a fairy-tale Gracie Mansion wedding to re-establish him as a stand-up guy with respect for the institution of marriage.

What can I tell Brielle and her generation? God loves you -- does that make him a loser who settles for second best? People who think only soulmates are good enough to love often end up in middle age like Rudy Giuliani: a self-righteous failure as a family man, simultaneously callous, mean, whining and pathetic. Surely, Brielle, you can do better.