First comes love, then comes marriage and then comes a woman with a baby carriage.

The belief that that's what women want has long been held by many. But many women are choosing to embrace love without marriage.

Bonnie Eslinger is one of those women.

"There's no piece of paper that is necessary if you have it in your head and heart to spend the rest of your lives together," Eslinger says. "Marriage is not necessary for emotional or intelligent commitment."

She apparently is part of an altar-avoiding trend. According to U.S. Census data, in 2000, 44 percent of American adults were unmarried. In 1970 the number was 36 percent, in 1980 it was 39 percent and in 1990 it was 41 percent.

Eslinger says that the wedding industry is a billion-dollar business of happily-ever-after that is "almost mythical."

"I don't need to change my name, and the whole giving away (the bride) -- what is the point of it?" Eslinger asks.

Although Eslinger does not plan to marry her partner of four years, Jeff, they had a ceremony in July to reaffirm their love for each other.

They also have purchased a home together, and the financial responsibilities are a 50/50 split. She says they have also had frank conversations about the responsibilities of owning a home without being married.

Destructive Myths

In their book "Why Women Shouldn't Marry: Being Single By Choice," Cynthia and Hillary Smith, a mother-daughter duo, discuss several reasons women are choosing to remain unmarried.

The book deals with young women who no longer need the prestige of a "good marriage" because of their own fulfilling careers; widows who say never again to laundering dirty socks and the possibility of becoming a nurse to a husband; and divorced women who don't want to deal with potential problems of remarrying with kids.

Cynthia Smith says her book is also a tool to empower women to know that they can be happy no matter what their status.

In one chapter, the book deals with the soul mate checklist.

The list says that some women are looking for a man to be a companion, a best friend, someone to talk to and support her, someone who is always there and ready to commit to her, someone who always puts the woman first and who loves her for who she is.

Smith said many women buy into the impossible quest of finding someone perfect who matches those traits.

"The soul mate myth is destructive because it will keep you from forming authentic relationships that have a chance to thrive instead of fail," the Smiths write. "Don't marry because you think you have found your soul mate; it is bound to buckle under the unbearable weight of expected perfection."

Smith, who was married for 35 years before her husband died, said many women want their spouses to be everything to them. She says women should depend more on their network of friends and family members.

That way, if her partner does not want to go to the ballet, she can take a friend, she said.

"It seems to me that people are looking for a clone," she said. "'He supports me. He believes in me.' Marriage can't be me, me, me. What does he get out of it?"

Smith said she and her daughter are not against marrying. They are against marrying for the wrong reasons.

"Nowadays, it doesn't have to be that (women) want to marry a doctor ? because she is the doctor," Smith said.

What Is Key To Happiness?

Zandria Marcuson of Alexandria, Va., says many women believe that marriage will lead to happiness because people see it as the logical next step.

"Have fun in your 20s, get a good job, get married, have a family. That path will make some women happy, but for others it won't," she says.