Americans are less likely to marry than ever before, according to a new study, and fewer people who do marry report being "very happy" in their marriages.

The report, released yesterday by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project and touted as a benchmark compilation of statistics and surveys, found that the nation's marriage rate has dipped by 43 percent in the past four decades -- from 87.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 1960 to 49.7 marriages in 1996 -- leaving it at its lowest point in recorded history.

The percentage of married people who reported being "very happy" in their marriages fell from 53.5 in 1973-76 to 37.8 in 1996.

The historically low marriage rate, coupled with a soaring divorce rate, has dramatically altered attitudes toward one of society's most fundamental institutions. Although Americans still cherish the ideal of marriage, increasing numbers of young adults, particularly young women, are pessimistic about finding a lasting marriage partner and are far more accepting than in the past of alternatives to marriage, including single parenthood and living together with a partner outside of marriage, according to the report.

"Young people today want successful marriages, but they are increasingly anxious and pessimistic about their chances for achieving that goal," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project.

Funded by Rutgers in conjunction with several private foundations, the project is a research institute that tracks social indicators related to marriage -- an area of study its directors contend is frequently overlooked.

"Nobody is focusing on marriage," said David Popenoe, the project's other co-director. "It is not in the national debate."

Rather than directly examining Americans' attitudes toward marriage, researchers have tended to focus on the flip side of the coin, tracking social trends such as the increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households over the past two decades. In the immediate post-World War II generation, 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents. That number has dipped to 60 percent.

Before declining slightly in recent years, the divorce rate had soared more than 30 percent since 1970. Today, nearly half of U.S. marriages are projected to end in divorce or permanent separation.

These changes have ignited a national grass-roots movement to discourage divorce and promote marriage. Many states are reexamining their no-fault divorce laws, and at least two states, Louisiana and Arizona, have instituted "covenant marriages," which require marriage counseling if a relationship falters and narrowly restrict grounds for divorce. "Marriage education," a term that entered the national lexicon less than a decade ago, has become a growing concern.

Last year in Florida, legislators passed a law requiring marriage education skills to be taught in high schools. In addition, adults preparing for marriage in Florida receive a substantial discount on their marriage licenses if they choose to take a marriage education course.

"People are so distressed about the state of marriage in America," said Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. Her District-based group is hosting a conference in Arlington this week that is being attended by 1,000 people seeking marriage education training.

"We think about marriage counseling in terms of therapy," she added. "But we realize that we can teach skills to people to make their marriages strong. What distinguishes marriages that go the distance from those that end in divorce isn't whether couples disagree, but certain behaviors between them."

The National Marriage Project report blames the declining marriage rate on people postponing marriage until later in life and on more couples deciding to live together outside of marriage. According to the report, nearly half of people ages 25 to 40 have at some point set up a joint household with a member of the opposite sex outside of marriage.

As a result, the report's authors argued, marriage is no longer the presumed route from adolescence to adulthood and has lost much of its significance as a rite of passage. Moreover, marriage is far less likely to be associated with first sexual experiences, particularly for women, the report said. Whereas 90 percent of women born between 1933 and 1942 were either virgins when they married or had premarital sex only with their eventual husbands, now more than half of girls have sexual intercourse by age 17, and on average they are sexually active for about eight years before getting married.

These changes in marriage patterns have contributed to new attitudes toward the institution. Although the percentage of teenagers who said that having a good marriage and family life was "extremely important" to them has increased modestly in the past two decades, the percentage who said they expected to stay married to the same person for life has decreased slightly. More dramatically, the percentage of teenage girls who said having a child out of wedlock is a "worthwhile lifestyle" increased from 33 percent to 53 percent in the past two decades.

Whereas the report's findings led its authors to conclude that "the institution of marriage is in serious trouble," other researchers who track marriage trends said there also was reason for optimism. For one, they note that demographers predict that 85 percent of young people will marry at some point in their lives, a substantial figure, even though it is smaller than the 94 percent that pertained in 1960.

"There is some evidence that marriage is in trouble," said Kristin Moore, senior scholar for Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization that tracks trends in family and child well-being. "But there is also much evidence that marriage remains highly valued."

A HITCH IN MARRIAGES

The number of marriages has declined consistently over the past four decades. Divorces have declined recently, and more young people say it's good to live together before marriage.

Number of Marriages Per 1,000

Unmarried women age 15 and older

1960: 87.5%

1996: 49.7%

Number of divorces per 1,000

Married women age 15 and older

1960: 9.2%

1998: 19.5%

SOURCE: The National Marriage Project

CAPTION: Percentage of high school seniors who "agreed" or "mostly agreed" with the statement "It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along." (This graphic was not available)