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Saying I do is in fashion again

This is the season of Lohengrin and love. It is a time when many thoroughly modern brides - no longer described as blushing - are exchanging old-fashioned vows as they plight their troth to the equally modern grooms with whom they may already have been sharing the breakfast table for years.

What a difference a generation makes in premarital habits and expectations.

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Yet even in a marriage-wary, divorce-weary culture, these couples' hopes run high. Just ask Kate Cohen, the author of "A Walk Down the Aisle" (Norton, $22.95). Ms. Cohen was only 19 when she fell in love with a fellow Dartmouth College student, Adam Greenberg. Although they knew they would spend their lives together, their decision in 1997 to marry after seven years of living together produced a serious question: Why marry at all?

As Cohen explains in a telephone interview, marriage for most couples no longer represents "the beginning of your adult life, the beginning of your sexual life, or the beginning of your domestic life." She adds: "Now that couples have to choose to wed, since it's simple enough just to move in together - now that it's so easy to divorce - marrying and being married mean more, not less."

Noting that she "had to think a lot about what I was willing to promise my husband," Cohen says, "You get one chance to gather all your loved ones together to express not just your love for the person that you're marrying, but also what your community and family and friends mean to you." Getting married, she adds, "changed our relationship to the world."

Cohen, now the mother of a 7-month-old son, is not the only author writing about marriage this spring. In "Surrendering to Marriage" (Talk Miramax Books, $22.95), Iris Krasnow urges readers to dismiss the idea of divorce. Her message: "Stick with your marriage. Nothing better lies on the other side of the fence."

The basic components of marriage, Ms. Krasnow argues, have little to do with "bursts of bliss." Instead, by "letting go of fantasy and embracing the ordinary grind," couples can create unexpectedly fulfilling relationships.

That ideal will warm the hearts of those in the marriage-preservation movement. It will meet resistance from realists who counter that not all marriages can be saved.

Last week the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families in New York ended a five-day conference in which scholars on both sides of the "family values" debate explored views on marriage, divorce, and cohabitation.

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Some researchers, the council reports, find that while happy marriages offer significant emotional rewards and health benefits, unhappy marriages appear to harm women more than men. Thus, they say, making divorce harder to get does not necessarily protect women.

Other researchers note that high-conflict marriages are generally worse for children than divorce. But children in low-conflict marriages may be disadvantaged by divorce.

The good news, according to sociologist Steven Nock, is that divorce rates have fallen by 26 percent since 1981.

Arguing for more-realistic portrayals of marriage, Cohen says: "Our image of married life as being always comforting, always happy, always joyful probably contributes some to our high rate of divorce. We set standards so high that our marriages fail to live up and then fail."

As wedding bells peal this spring, couples will display a touching determination to succeed. For them, the hopes of well-wishing guests will center around an old-fashioned formula for marital happiness: commitment, constancy, and a willingness to stay the course, come what may.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor