ABOUT TWO this afternoon, Kathleen Heagney expects to be walking down the aisle of a Virginia church on the arm of her beaming father. She'll be dressed like a princess in a long, white gown with flowing train, and crowned with a glittery band anchoring her veil.
Over months of planning, she found herself yearning for traditional flourishes, including a full Catholic mass and a niece singing "Ave Maria," to celebrate this Valentine's Day wedding. After all, it's her first, and she's 50.
"I'm probably going to cry," she predicted.
At a time when marriage is mocked on reality TV and used as a wedge issue in political campaigns, it's tempting to label today's union of Kathleen and Eric Pittelkau a triumph of hope over inexperience.
But it is more truly a testament to the enduring human drive to find a life partner; to connect and commit in a relationship recognized by the community.
"Sociologists would say we're hard-wired to pair bond," observed Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of a research project on marriage at Rutgers. "Marriage remains an overwhelming aspiration for Americans, the vast majority of whom will be married at least once in their lifetime."
Marriage is fragile, though the 50 percent chance that any given union will end in divorce has dropped from a 60 percent peak in the early 1980s. And it is far less centered on child-rearing than it used to be -- to the detriment of children, now more likely to be living in single-parent households, and not in high style.
Americans are also waiting longer before marrying, and more frequently living together before marriage or indefinitely without it. Nontraditional families, often repackaged pieces of broken homes, are winning broader acceptance. And President Bush has signaled support for civil unions between gay partners -- though not same-sex marriage now under fierce debate.
Yet, whatever its form, the romantic fantasy of life with a soul mate turns as brightly as ever. Surveys show three-quarters of high school seniors rank a good marriage and family life as "extremely important."
Commitment, in fact, is more fashionable now than in the 1970s when Kathleen fled from the first of four near-marriages.
At 25, she considered "till death do you part" a jail sentence and her professional career enabled her to maintain her independence. Such commitment phobia -- inspired partly by the high divorce rate -- is believed to have contributed to a 900 percent increase over the past three decades in the number of couples who chose to live together before or without marriage.
Kathleen always envisioned having a husband and children someday. But delaying marriage, and moving through a series of long-term relationships, made it harder to find the right partner when the time finally seemed right. At one point, she considered adopting a child on her own.
Like lots of older daters, Kathleen has relied heavily in recent years on personal ads and Internet Web sites to find kindred spirits. That, too, brought frustrations and false starts until a year and a half ago when she linked up with Eric through an online dating service.
A big, athletic bear of a guy, Eric was romantic yet respected her need for space. Now 52, he had a first marriage that ended in divorce. But his two college-age daughters will be at his side during the wedding and help fill the other void in Kathleen's life.
So, fret for single parents, worry for the kids, but fear not for marriage. The instinct is too powerful to be easily denied.