WHY, in mid-1980s America, does marriage matter? Beyond the flurry of statistics, the theorizing about causes, the shadow of divorce, and the currents of cohabitation, this question stands preeminent.

America, after all, is still overwhelmingly committed to marriage, both in practice and in attitude.

There are some 50 million married couples in the nation. And survey after survey shows that a good marriage ranks at the top of most people's sources of satisfaction -- above wealth, fame, and status, above good health and good jobs, above other friendships and relationships.

Nor is it seen as merely a means to some other end. Again and again, happily married couples and marriage professionals acknowledge it as an end in itself.

What is it, then, that marriage offers?

At their home in Wellesley, Mass., Maggie and Andy Ferrara reflect on the most important characteristics -- the real bond -- within their 24-year marriage.

``For me it has to do with sharing,'' Mr. Ferrara says. Mrs. Ferrara nods, adding, ``I think for me, commitment.''

Mr. Ferrara, a pharmacist by training who recently left an executive position with a major drug company to start his own high-tech firm, puts these two ideas together. ``I think sharing is for me the rationale for why I chose to want to get married,'' he says, adding that ``I think commitment is what I've learned, and what makes it very successful.''

Hattie Wilkerson, a retired cook in Charlottesville, Va., makes a similar point. The purpose of marriage, she says simply, is ``to share with each other.''

Her husband, Melvin, a retired deputy sheriff, talks about the commitment needed to sustain a marriage -- and its results.

``If it wasn't for Hattie,'' he says of their 48-year marriage, ``it would have been curtains for me years ago, because I was an awful drinker. I fell in love with her, and she has helped me tremendously. She has given me some high points in life. I couldn't be in here pulling against her, doing things that were not satisfying to her. We've got a good home life, and we enjoy each other very, very much.''

From their suburban Hartford, Conn., home, Carolyn and Jim Stewart make the same points about sharing and commitment in a slightly different way.

``I've thought so much about whatever will happen to people who don't have -- in later years, in the years we're going through right now -- the companionship and the friendship of a husband,'' says Mrs. Stewart about their 45-year marriage. ``It's such a wonderful time of life, and we have time now to be more friends than we used to be.''

``You don't give yourself enough of a chance to make it work if you don't go into it with the firm commitment that it will,'' says Mr. Stewart, a retired insurance executive. ``That, in and of itself, is a requisite to making the thing turn out right.''

``Both of us came from strong, happy families -- so that it was really uncontemplated by us . . . that [marriage] was anything but for real and forever. We were committed to having family ourselves.''

Over a lunch-hour break at their sign-letter manufacturing business in Los Angeles, Virginia and Leonard Schulze pick up similar threads.

``We made the commitment, and that was it,'' says Mrs. Schulze of their 21-year marriage. ``We stuck to it. I don't think Len and I have ever had thoughts of getting divorced. There's been hard times, but there's been the good times, and you've made the commitments and that's the way it is -- and we love each other, too.''

Her husband, defining his feelings for her, speaks of the sharing in their marriage. ``She's always been very honest to me,'' he says. ``She was always very patient and understanding, and would talk to me.

``I think that's the biggest thing,'' he adds with a chuckle. ``We do talk, maybe too much. We're always talking.'' SHARING and commitment, commitment and sharing: These two ideas run like a drumbeat throughout strong marriages, researchers say.

When author Francine Klagsbrun finished interviewing 87 couples who had been married at least 15 years, she set out to define what she called ``the characteristics of long, satisfying, happy marriages.''

The list included ``an ability to change and tolerate change,'' ``trust,'' ``a balance of dependencies,'' and ``a shared history that is cherished.'' It also included commitment (what she calls ``an assumption of permanence'') and sharing -- ``an enjoyment of each other.''

In a survey of 351 couples married 15 years or more, Jeanette and Robert Lauer of the United States International University in San Diego found that a key to strong marriages was ``a belief in marriage as a long-term commitment and a sacred institution.''

``Many of our respondents,'' they wrote in the June issue of Psychology Today, ``thought that the present generation takes the vow `till death do us part' too lightly and is unwilling to work through difficult times.''

In an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins University, Andrew J. Cherlin put these ideas into the broader context of social structures. ``I believe that people have a deep-seated need for secure, stable, long-term relationships,'' says Professor Cherlin, author of the highly regarded book ``Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage,'' ``and that marriage, which involves a public commitment to that kind of relationship, is a form that people still need and want.

``In a marriage the partners make a public commitment to their friends and their family and their community to remain together, and I think that public commitment still has meaning,'' he continues. ``It makes the relationship not totally a private bargain between two people.''

Patricia Cox of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., points to the role of the wedding ceremony in reinforcing that commitment.

``There is something about the marriage ceremony and the panoply, the ritual, the commitment which is discussed -- brought up and emphasized -- I think that has a bearing,'' she says in an interview about her own 40-year marriage. ``It seems to me that it's more of a cement than the ones that [couples] wrote for themselves and went out in a field and said, `We're going to live together for ever and ever and be happy.' ''

Yet what Cherlin calls ``a private bargain between two people'' describes what is sometimes considered to be one of the greatest threats to the institution of marriage today: cohabitation.

Are there values to marriage that cohabitation does not offer? Some argue that the distinctions are unimportant -- if, that is, the relationship is a long-lasting one. What difference does a piece of paper make? they ask.

Why should something that involves the intimate relations of two individuals be brought into the purview of governmental authority or religious tradition?

Why not keep one's options open, avoid the hypocrisy that has so often plagued individual marriages, keep oneself free to develop one's own individuality?

Why not live in a form of union where, says French sociologist Louis Roussel, ``we take the risk to be constantly choosing to negotiate -- as though we got married again every morning''? IN fact, the very basis from which the questions are asked points to some major changes in our conception of marriage. As social historians explain -- and as happily married couples confirm -- the marriage tradition is tightly interwoven with the expectations and values of a larger society.

``Our society wants to make individuals the most important thing,'' says Prof. Alain Girard of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris. But given the social need for childbearing, and the demand for two-way relationships between parents, ``the individual can't be the most important thing,'' he says.

Katharine Whitehorn, a newspaper columnist for the Observer, in London, agrees: ``If you've got a society that puts personal satisfaction and sexual fulfillment at the top of its list, then other things [like stability and childbearing] will come second and third.''

Many sound marriages, it appears, don't give top priority to self-satisfactions. One characteristic common to many happy marriages, in fact, seems to be a conscious awareness of the marriage itself as part of a long and honorable tradition -- and as something connected, loosely or tightly, into the broader sense of family.

Recalling her early years, Carolyn Stewart remembers ``a very happy, wonderful home.'' So when her young husband, Jim, went to war for three years, she says, ``I took my two [children] and went home -- it was just natural and all part of the family.''

``We felt that we had a lot of support,'' Mr. Stewart adds. ``There were times when we had financial support when we kind of needed it. So I guess we didn't have a lot of things that tend to tear and destroy [a marriage].''

These very supports, however, operate less strongly for many cohabiting couples. In the United States (unlike some other countries, particularly in Scandinavia), cohabitation often engenders disapproval from other family members -- so cohabiting couples tend to be less tightly bound into the supportive kinship patterns that many married couples find valuable.

Another characteristic of many (but by no means all) sound marriages is a religious basis. The Congregational Church, says Mrs. Stewart, was ``was very important as the children were growing up.'' They are still regular church-goers, she says, adding that ``the church has meant a lot in our family through the years.''

Maggie Ferrara, who, like her husband, Andy, is a practicing Roman Catholic, says religion is ``very important'' in their marriage. Mr. Ferrara, using language reminiscent of the New Testament, notes that ``people are going to singles bars looking for love. Well, you can find it anywhere, if you are love yourself. But you've got to first be love.''

``At least for me in my house, marriage was intended to be a lifelong contract and commitment,'' says John Buchanan of People for the American Way, a public-policy organization based in Washington, D.C. As a Baptist, he says that ``the vows are very real, and they do have, for those of us who are of religious faith, strong religious connotations.''

That such ``religious connotations'' tend to operate less strongly within cohabitation than within marriage is not surprising, given the strong and explicit Christian prohibitions against adultery and fornication. Here, too, cohabitation serves to distance a couple from a structure that some married couples find helpful. THEN what do married couples have to say to teen-agers and young adults weighing the alternatives of cohabitation or marriage?

For Andy Ferrara, marriage is tightly bound up with the values he frequently discusses with his four children. Marriage, he tells them, provides him a kind of harbor. ``I find myself filled with pressure and questionable values against my own set in the outside world today, and so for me I find it very comforting to be here [at home] and to become refreshed with a group of people who I know share my set of values.''

How does that relate to cohabitation? ``People who have what I would construe as a value set that . . . keeps them from making a commitment to marriage,'' he says, ``have that same value set in everything they do in their life. And so you find in the business world that there's far more job-hopping.''

As a business executive involved in hiring young professionals, he finds that such people are often ``not doing as much problem-solving as I think they are issue identification -- and then leaving it up to someone else to solve [the problems].''

``Marriage is happiness, success, purity,'' says Melvin Wilkerson, the retired sheriff's deputy. ``I don't care who you are,'' he adds vehemently; ``if you're shacking up with somebody like that, you don't have the respect for that person that you do for your legal married wife.''

``As far as I'm concerned,'' he adds, ``if you're married you're both of one accord. There is no [couple] that's living together [that] can live happily, because there's always going to be a split, a dispute in that [kind of life].''

For Patricia Cox, the answer lies in the rewards of working to maintain a satisfying marriage.

``If you're working very hard together to attain something,'' she says, ``it's very hard to fall apart, or to grow away from one another. I'm sure you have to work at cohabiting, too. But maybe you don't work quite so hard if you don't feel a commitment to making this liaison work out.''

On that point, Jim Stewart agrees. In cohabitation, he suggests, ``the chances of [the relationship] being successful are to a certain extent mitigated by the fact that there is no firm commitment to trying to make it work.''

``The act of trying is a very important thing, because it causes people to be more mutually understanding and probably better able to cope with differences which always do occur.''

``If [young people] could only hear from their parents,'' says Carolyn, his wife, ``what it means later on to have a good marriage and a happy family -- it's everything in the world!''

Leonard Schulze is hesitant to condemn. Asked what he would reply if his son were interested in cohabiting, he says he would urge him to ``be careful.''

``I guess I'd just say that it would be unfair to [his partner],'' he says.

Later, however, in discussing his own 21-year marriage to his wife, Virginia, he says that ``I couldn't imagine living with this girl or that girl. I like [marriage] -- I like the idea of compromising. It's a beautiful thing, and I can't see any other way of having it.

``I'd tell him,'' he concludes with a chuckle, ``it's just the greatest thing since peanut butter.''

The last three decades have indeed been tumultuous ones for the institution of marriage. But the challenges to marriage have proved the strength of the institution -- and forced many individuals to think deeply about values they once took for granted.

And while most marriage professionals would not use Mr. Schulze's ``peanut butter'' metaphor, they convey the same idea.

Looking back on more than 20 years of marriage counseling in New York City, Dr. Jessie Turberg concludes that ``marriage can be impossible -- but I don't know anything that's better.''

G. William Sheek, an author and marriage counselor in Emmaus, Pa., explains why. ``One of the things that marriage offers, that almost no other kind of relationship offers, is a sanction for continuity.''

``Continuity is one thing you can have in a stable relationship that you can't get from a variety of other relationships,'' he adds. ``That, to me, is very important.''

``I think what's happened in the United States today is that there's a longing for intimacy that is coming back to the fore,'' says John P. Kildahl, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, ``and people are seeing that it's worth a lot, that it's worth giving up, it's worth sacrificing some of the freedom.''

``Love,'' Dr. Kildahl explains, ``is still the most important value in all of life . . . .''

And is that still what people want?

Yes, indeed, says John Buchanan, a self-described ``Baptist Christian.''

``We, as a people, are capable of honor and we can be motivated in the wrong direction. We also as human beings tend to have a hunger for strength, for purity, for honest goodness, for true love relationships, to be responsible people and worthwhile people.''

He sees those qualities reflected in sound marriages.

``I would expect that most people, if you asked them, `Is a marriage between a man and woman that is loving and mutually supportive which lasts for a lifetime a good thing?' -- I guess almost everybody would say yes.'' Last of five parts. Preceding stories appeared Nov. 25, 26, 27, and 29.

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