Cold-footed bachelors have provided comedians with surefire material for centuries. The latest study of American marriage suggests, however, that more and more young men are contracting an allergy to commitment — one whose social consequences will be no laughing matter.

That's one of the leading conclusions of this year's “State of Our Unions” report, an annual survey of trends affecting marriage and family life in the United States. Pro-family scholars Barbara Whitehead and David Pope-noe of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University produced the report.

On average, U.S. males marry for the first time at age 27 today. (Women's median age for marrying is 25.) That's the latest it's ever been for men. And while the social sciences indicate that marriages contracted too early (i.e., before the early 20s) generally result in divorce, nothing is gained in terms of marital stability if marriage is pushed off into the late 20s or early 30s.

Delayed marriage does, however, bring other drawbacks. This year's report focuses on “Why Men Won't Commit” and even offers 10 main reasons for commitment phobia. One of them, simply translated, is that the older men are, the more set they are in their ways and less prone to compromise.

Last year's report focused on the quest for “the perfect soul mate.” The marriage project has been studying American dating patterns and expectations, and concluded that many single young people today are seeking an ideal “soul mate” whom they still haven't found in real life. Absent Mr. or Ms. Right, they have been willing to remain in the dating market, often cohabiting with non-soul mates. The dissonance between future expectations and current behavior has never been greater.

This year's report reconfirms the ongoing search for a “soul mate” among American males (at least in the 25-33 age bracket). These men want Princess Charming and have been alone long enough not to compromise on their sometimes-unrealistic expectations. This lack of practice in compromise also augurs ill for another aspect of family life: child centeredness in marriage. The presence of kids in a marriage forces adaptation and compromise in relationships — skill sets in which growing numbers of American males seem lacking.

In the past, there were pressures to wed. Now boys can remain boys indefinitely.

Other factors figure in the failure to temper unrealistic expectations in a future spouse and in the tendency to avoid marital commitment. For one thing, there are ever-fewer social pressures to marry. A generation or two ago, social pressures nudged men toward the altar. Today those forces have largely dissipated, often reduced to a “mild teasing.” The report puts it bluntly: “In the past … men might drag their feet about getting hitched, but there were pressures to wed. Marriage was associated with growing up and taking on male adult roles and responsibilities. … Now those pressures are mild to nonexistent. Boys can remain boys indefinitely.”

I Don't Wanna Grow Up

The fluidity of many young men's living and job situations reflects this prolonged adolescence. Starting in the 1980s, articles began appearing about boys who moved back into the family home after college. The marriage project notes that a typical current progression is moving out of an apartment with roommates into a cohabitation arrangement.

Women have also surrendered a powerful trump card in getting men to commit by depreciating virginity. The marriage project notes that, in general, men can easily get sex without marriage today. And the “spousal” benefits available without marriage aren't limited to sex. Marriage typically enables two individuals to enjoy greater purchasing power through “economies of scale.” For example, most spouses make do with one set of silverware rather than two. To the extent that cohabiting couples combine assets to achieve those economies of scale (something not all that frequent, since cohabitation relationships often strive to avoid too many ties that bind), unmarried men living with women save. They also have somebody to feed the dog when he has to go on a business trip.

The implications for women don't end with feeding Fido. To the extent that they further delay marriage, men's marrying age will start bumping up against women's biological clocks. A first marriage at 27 likely means first kids around 30 (who will graduate college when Mom is around 50 and probably undergoing menopause). The men in the latest marriage-project study had some interest in having kids, but this need was never as immediately felt as among women of the same age. When pressed to consider this problem, many male respondents dismissed it as “their [women's] issue.”

Finally, the double standard is still alive and well. While men are willing to cohabit, a single woman with a child comes in low on the totem pole of desirable marriage partners. Ditto for women who want babies. (Male fear of paternity entrapment remains strong.) So, too, are women who want sex on the first date. Women in whom men are interested are women who postpone sex, says the study. Postponement, however, isn't that demanding, as the marriage project observes without further comment: “Apparently, ‘waiting’ for sex typically means holding off until the fourth or fifth date, though one man said he waited seven months.” The authors report that “[o]ver half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together.”

Almost two-thirds of the respondents in one survey also believed that cohabitation is a good way to avoid “an unhappy marriage and eventual divorce,” even though the evidence suggests that those who cohabit suffer from higher incidences of eventual marital dissatisfaction and divorce.

In the Name of Love

If “Why Men Won't Commit” isn't sufficiently distressing for young American women, it should also sound some alarm bells for social policy-makers. As Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher showed in their book The Case for Marriage, a wedding ring is a powerful prophylactic against destructive male behaviors like excessive drinking, drug abuse, bad driving, general recklessness and antisocial behavior. When men put off marriage, it's not just their girlfriends who suffer. Untempered destructive behavior has social ramifications, too. The community has a vital stake in good marriages. The most powerful incentive to marriage today should not just be a big drop in your car-insurance rates.

The data drawn from this year's report is chilling. The report suggests that the mindset of the contemporary culture, especially among young men, is significantly at variance with a Catholic vision of marriage and family life. This is particularly alarming because most observers will concede that the pastoral outreach of the Church in the United States is probably most anemic among unmarried young adults.

Some of the problem probably comes from the basic difference between the sexes: Men's knees have often had to be shored up on the way to the altar. But many of these problems also come from the dissociation of marriage from parenthood and sex from marriage. The upshot, unfortunately, has been a trail of victims — people used in the name of “love.”

The marriage-project report should cause the Church to quadruple its efforts in outreach to young unmarried adults (or they won't get married). It should also drive us to proclaim the truth about marriage and family life in ways that take account of the real consequences that flow from rejecting that truth. It should cause us to think seriously about today's dating climate. And, finally, it should cause us to pray.

Once upon a time young Catholic women prayed for a “good husband.” They're still looking for a few good men. One hopes there's still at least a few out there.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw, Poland.