AMERICANS reach out for good news about marriage the way a bridesmaid grabs to catch a bridal bouquet. Most statistics and studies paint a gloomy picture of modern marriage, showing divorce and infidelity to be rampant and portraying the institution as fragile and risky - almost an act of bravery.
Now a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago offers a far more encouraging view. It finds that only about 15 percent of married or formerly married Americans have ever cheated on a spouse. In a given year, the study says, just 3 to 4 percent of husbands and wives are unfaithful. These figures have remained basically unchanged in five separate surveys from 1988 to the present, according to Tom W. Smith, a researcher for the center.
``There are probably more scientifically worthless `facts' on extramarital relations than on any other facet of human behavior,'' Mr. Smith said in presenting the report to an American Enterprise Institute seminar in Washington earlier this month.
Some of those earlier ``facts'' have included a claim in 1990 by Dr. Joyce Brothers that half of wives have had affairs. And in 1976, Shere Hite, author of ``The Hite Report,'' stated that three-quarters of women married more than five years had had affairs.
Even 40 years ago, when Dr. Alfred Kinsey published his famous study on women and sexual behavior, he reported that 50 percent of men and 40 percent of women had been or would be unfaithful after marriage. Life magazine, which devoted 12 pages to the book in August of 1953, highlighted the statistics in a chart labeled ``measure of indiscretion.''
Statistics on divorce can be equally unsettling. The most commonly quoted and widely accepted figure holds that nearly 1 out of 2 marriages now end in divorce. Although that statistic refers to new marriages, not all marriages, it gives an impression of instability that may be more than a little skewed.
The tyranny of these numbers obscures other evidence, seldom reported, that gives a more reassuring perspective. The National Center for Health Statistics notes that golden anniversaries are on the increase. And last year Reader's Digest reported that 1 in 8 couples will celebrate a 50th anniversary.
As another measure of the enduring nature of many unions, the Greetings Office at the White House annually sends out what spokeswoman Lori Abrams describes as ``tens of thousands'' of cards to couples celebrating their 50th, 60th, and even 70th anniversaries.
Over the years, Americans have been sold a dark and fatalistic bill of goods about marriage. Anthropologist Margaret Mead advocated ``serial monogamy,'' on the theory that it is unrealistic to expect people to sustain a single lifelong relationship. The word dysfunctional, so commonly applied to families, often seems to describe the state of marriage as well.
The assumption of the 1960s still persists that you can make up your life as you go along - reinventing marriage like anything else to suit your own terms, with the option of discarding the institution entirely if your terms aren't met. Indeed, the demise of marriage has been pronounced almost as often as the death of the novel. Yet the term has endured even in the absurd self-contradiction, ``open marriage.''
Few post-adolescents escape a phase when they are absolutely certain they will never marry, succeeded by a phase when, like Charles Darwin, they draw up solemn lists headed ``Marry'' and ``Not Marry.'' But certain emerging needs have a way of surprising young singles - the subtle desire to ``settle down'' and the not-so-subtle desire to have children, combined with the deepening urge to avoid loneliness by making ceremonial vows to a lifelong friend. At that point, those in each generation who marry are persuaded less by their own logic than by the historical circumstances that created monogamy in the first place.
Is a maturing culture collectively at that point? Does the new figure of 85 percent fidelity suggest that those guarded by marriage feel a renewed impulse to guard their marriages in return? While declaring herself a feminist, Caryl Rivers wrote of marriage: ``Don't bulldoze the institution, rehab it instead.'' If post-modern couples are describing this kind of circle back to tradition while retaining their freedom to modify that tradition, the future of marriage may look better than it has for decades.