Americans still romantic despite marriage's decline

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: February 05, 2003

Take heart this Valentine's Day. Americans overwhelmingly report they have romance in their lives.

Nearly three-quarters of adult residents of the United States say they have a "significant other" or someone with whom they enjoy a secure romantic relationship, according to a survey of 1,039 people conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

"Not only do we have biology and instinct at work, but we have a basic social need for close human contact. That endures regardless," said Florida Atlantic University psychologist David Niven, author of the new book "100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships: What Scientists Have Learned and How Your Can Use It."

"We have a basic need (for intimacy) that remains a constant. But how we fulfill that and how we reach out for it has changed over time," Niven said.

One of the big changes in the last 50 years has been a decline in matrimony as the primary vehicle for romance and intimacy. The survey showed that 72 percent have a significant other in their lives while only 52 percent of those surveyed were married.

"The marriage rate has been dropping," said Martin O'Connell, chief of the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch at the Census Bureau. He said the 2000 census recorded that 52 percent of all households are run by married couples, down from 55 percent in 1990. About 5 percent of all households are unmarried couples living together, up slightly from a decade ago.

"Even so, the married to unmarried ratio in America is about 10 to one," O'Connell said. "People, when they form couples, are still much more likely to walk down the aisle to the altar than just to ask a landlord for an extra key."

But there are also signs that many Americans have abandoned hope of finding a permanent relationship. Twenty-eight percent of the people in the survey said they do not have a significant other, and more than two-thirds of those said they don't want a permanent relationship.

Unattached women are twice as likely as single men to say they aren't looking for long-term love.

"Too many women have heard that once past the age of 35, they are more likely to be hit by lightning than to have a happy marriage," Niven said. "That isn't true, by the way. There are a number of studies of people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who are finding relationships. Research shows there are no age barriers to relationship success."

Yet the poll found that Americans seem to be very age conscious when it comes to romance. Fifty-five percent of unattached people between the ages of 25 and 44 say they are looking for a relationship. But among 45 to 60-year-olds, only a quarter are looking for someone. And among people 65 or older, the number of romantic hopefuls drops to a paltry 7 percent.

Education and social status have an enormous impact on whether Americans have a relationship or are seeking one. People who have graduated from college or attended post-graduate studies are nearly twice as likely to have a significant other or to be seeking such a relationship.

Similarly, people in wealthy households are also much more likely to have or want to have a romantic liaison.

"There are certain cultural norms that accompany increased education and income and the expectation of personal stability is one of them," Niven said. "Educated people are more focused on achieving this."

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Jan. 17-30 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey. The margin among single people, for example, is 8 percent.