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COMMITMENTS : I Do, I Do--for Now : Ah, young love, disposable love. Gen Xers seem to be using first marriages as practice runs.

November 28, 1994|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The weeping woman grabbed a stranger's arm--anybody's would have done.

She tugged and twisted it before wailing, "I am trying. I am trying so hard to like him. (Sniff). But I . . . (sniff, pause, sniff) doooon't."

Her sobs intensified as she watched her 24-year-old daughter, wearing a black bridal dress, nuzzle the neck of her soon-to-be son-in-law one recent Saturday.

Then a bell tolled, beckoning them into the Little Church of the West Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. Daughter gave mother a thumbs up and, in front of the groom, shouted: "Don't look so sad, Mom! If it doesn't work, we can always get a divorce."

That attitude, experts say, is more and more common among people in their 20s--a generation often depicted as stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood, not taking much of anything seriously.

It's an attitude that worries not only parents, but also the academics, attorneys, counselors and clergy who have noticed that young people are expressing increasing indifference toward matrimony.

Most people in their 20s marry with intentions of forever. But when problems--even petty ones--muddy the expected marital bliss, young couples are quick to call it quits. And of those who divorce within five years, experts estimate one-third of them entirely discount their first marriages.

"I know people who act like the first marriage is a dress rehearsal," said Kym Jones, 24, a saleswoman in the Northeast, voicing sentiments shared by many in her age group. "It's the second one that counts, the real big show."

These "beginner marriages" concern psychologist Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and co-author of "Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love" (Jossey-Bass, 1994).

"Young people have this mentality of, 'Oooops, there goes my first marriage. I hope it will be better the second time,' " Stanley said.

Indeed, a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that married people younger than 24 have the highest chance of divorce, 33.8%, compared to 24.7% among couples 25 to 44. NCHS researchers analyzed an estimated 204,000 marriage and divorce records of people from an 18-state region.

In a separate report, preliminary 1993 data from NCHS shows that 38% of couples between 25 and 34 divorced--a 5% increase from 1973, with that group's population fluctuating only slightly.

Researchers have produced few studies on beginner marriages. Stuart Walzer, a California divorce lawyer for 43 years, said it's easy to dismiss young divorces because most do not involve children, property or other assets.

"Unfortunately, young people matter less since they're not a tremendous burden on the (legal) system," Walzer said. "But they should matter, especially if people want divorce to decrease in the future."

He advocates that marrying couples undergo a mandatory four-hour class on commitment and marital responsibilities. As a primary reason for those throw-away marriages, experts point to the bleak success rate of all American marriages over the past two decades: about half fail. After all, those in their 20s are the children of mothers, fathers and even grandparents who have severed nuptial ties.

As co-owner of the Las Vegas chapel, Greg Smith has witnessed parents marrying and remarrying. He's also recognized their children marrying and remarrying.

"I don't know if that signals a lack of commitment," he said.

He does know that a chapel minister is concerned about a casual attitude toward marriage, particularly in young people. "A lot of them have requested that (the minister) omit the 'till death do us part,' " Smith said. "As if they're planning for a divorce."

Divorce is even called easy or "no big deal" by some in their 20s.

"A lot of young people don't understand what commitment means," said Marion Solomon, a West L.A. psychologist and author of "Lean on Me: The Power of Positive Dependency in Intimate Relationships" (Simon & Schuster, 1994).

Add to that a generation deluged with politicians, celebrities and talk show guests bypassing accountability in favor of blaming someone else for their problems. "Young people think it's always somebody else's fault if their marriage doesn't work," Solomon said.

*

In retrospect, Ronald Alexander, now 43, is happy his seven-year marriage failed. Wed at 24, he recalled meandering through the relationship in dazed anomie.

In the beginning, "the ecstasy was at a high," reflected Alexander, who has remained single since his divorce. "Then it shattered, as it often does when you find out the person sleeping next to you is not the one you thought you had married."

Now he can chuckle about it. "I learned a lot about who I am," said Alexander, a Santa Monica psychotherapist and chairman of the graduate psychology department at Ryokan College in West Los Angeles. "Most people in their 20s are looking to find out who they are. It's a time of uncertainty."

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