LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Summer hyatt stood before family and friends in a small country church in Rison, Ark., a bouquet of yellow and white roses in her hands, the long white train of her dress stretching behind her. This college student was about to join the ranks of married folks with her tuxedo-clad groom, Jason Allison.
After dating on and off for four years, they were ready for the "real thing."
"It seemed right at this very moment," she says. "We wanted to be together, and marriage was the logical step. Why wait?"
The Allisons aren't alone. Indeed, America appears to be on the verge of a marriage boom. It's fueled by a resurgence of family ties - and the stability of the strong economy - and is reminiscent of the altar-going craze that followed World War II.
In 1997, 9.1 couples married for every 1,000 Americans. That's up from 8.8 the year before. It's the largest increase in the US since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By contrast, between 1990 and 1996, the marriage rate dropped 10 percent.
Several shifts in society are driving the trend: "A drop in abortion, a rise in virginity, and a booming economy. These emerging patterns allow marriage to fit right in. It's just the beginning of a major trend," says Pat Fagan, Fitzgerald Fellow in Family and Culture at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
As in postwar America, the economy has stabilized. Job availability, for instance, improved greatly last year: Unemployment reached a decade low in 1997 at 4.9 percent.
"Having enough money to acquire things like homes and other consumer goods influences our opinions on marriage," says Hugh Floyd, a sociology professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Indeed, the Allisons considered their financial status before heading to the altar.
He works as field technician for a local Tyson Foods chicken plant. She still attends college and will graduate next May. They realize tough times could come at some point, but now the joy of living as a couple outweighs any monetary conflicts.
"Marriage is hard," says the new Mrs. Allison. "But it's worth it all to be with someone who loves you, and it's the right thing, really the moral thing, to do when you are in love."
Attitudes such as hers are more common, especially among twenty- and thirtysomethings.
Seventy-three percent of Generation Xers favor a return to more traditional standards in family life, according to a 1997 poll by New York-based Yankelovich Partners.
That's a marked change from the long-prevalent view that marriage is a fading institution.
In fact, for the past 30 years, the US has seen a steady decline of the marriage rate and a rising divorce rate. Since 1980, there have been about 1.2 million divorces per year and about 2.4 million marriages each year.
Still, nuptials haven't won the popularity contest since the 1950s.
"Over the last 40 years there has been a pendulum swing away from marriage and tradition," says Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, a conservative research and education group in Little Rock.
"That pendulum has started to swing back to embracing traditional values," he says. "The younger generation is realizing that the way their parents did things may not have worked."
IT is, indeed, the baby boomers' first-born children who are riding this new wave toward wedlock. They may be taking a second look at commitment and adopting feelings of domestication.
"Our parents stayed together, and so will we," says Mrs. Allison. "I want to be a good wife and work hard to make this marriage work. I didn't go into it thinking I could get out. This is for life."
Indeed, this shift toward stability is similar to the one just after World War II. The previous decades had been very turbulent, with World War I, rapid urbanization, the free-loving 1920s, and the Great Depression.
Now, as then, the "take-it-or-leave it" approach to marriage may be starting to become less common.
"It will all hinge on how many divorces take place," says Heritage's Mr. Fagan. "But I think we will start to see a decline in that as well. There's hope for America and marriage, yet."