WHEN the subject is marriage, Americans cling steadfastly to two misconceptions:
First, they believe that couples in earlier generations - those of their grandparents' era, say - enjoyed more domestic harmony than husbands and wives do today. Not so, says sociologist William J. Goode. He calls this illusion ``the classical family of Western nostalgia,'' pointing out that the stigma attached to divorce in the past locked many couples in bad marriages.
Second, Americans often assume that rampant divorce is largely confined to the United States. Wrong again, according to Dr. Goode. Analyzing new data from more than 30 countries, he finds that almost all highly developed nations are becoming high-divorce-rate societies. He points to substantial increases in Europe over the past four decades, including Roman Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy. In Sweden, about half of marriages fail. Although Japan has the lowest rate of any industrialized nation, divorce is increasing there. Even Arab countries see a rise in mother-headed families.
The causes of this worldwide phenomenon defy easy explanations. Urbanization, industrialization, and changing sexual mores all play a part. So does a general liberalization of divorce laws during the past 30 years. In addition, what was once a deeply entrenched familial duty to stay married ``for the sake of the children'' has given way to an emphasis on individual interests and happiness.
That desire for self-fulfillment carries a high price: In country after country, mothers and children receive insufficient support, requiring state help to survive. So devastating are the consequences that Goode, who has devoted much of his career to studying divorce, proposes fundamental changes in attitudes and policies.
Rather than continuing to be surprised by family dissolution, he states, countries with high divorce rates must recognize divorce as part of the system of modern family patterns. They must control the damage of family breakups by ``institutionalizing'' divorce - accepting it the way marriage and other institutions have been accepted, then building in protections and safeguards to make it work as well as possible.
Goode, a former professor at Columbia, Stanford, and Harvard Universities, is skeptical that a return to restrictive divorce laws would work. Although he sees few signs that divorce can be controlled, he says it is possible to lessen its consequences.
Writing in an engaging new book, ``World Changes in Divorce Patterns'' (Yale University Press), Goode calls for governments and individuals to ``work out social customs (and not only laws on paper that generate more lawsuits) which define post-divorce care as both an individual and a collective responsibility.'' As he sees it, those customs and laws must include making greater demands on men. Divorced fathers, he charges, manage to escape their court-ordered responsibility to pay child support to an ``astonishing extent.''
Another solution involves emphasizing what Goode calls the ``principle of partnership'' by including all types of property in divorce settlements. Policies already in place in Germany and Italy award an ex-wife a share of her husband's pension.
After years of brave talk about alternative life styles and self-sufficient single-parent families, Americans are witnessing an encouraging backlash against the notion that children don't need two parents. Reaffirming the importance of the traditional family, as President Clinton did last week in California, might help women avoid unmarried motherhood, but it may not substantially change long-term divorce rates.
Is institutionalizing a process as difficult as the breakup of a family an admission of defeat or simply a realistic solution? Probably both. But given the extraordinary costs, financial and emotional, attached to marital dissolution, openly acknowledging the needs of divorced families could be the most compassionate approach.
There could also be promise in a proposal in England that would require couples to register a troubled marriage, then spend a year working with a local advice center. Counselors would give parents practical advice, particularly about the well-being of children.
Divorce is by nature an emotional issue, and a messy one. The unconditional promise of ``til death do us part'' is far more satisfying than the disenchanted resignation of ``til divorce do us part.'' Under the most amicable of circumstances, it is always a sad and traumatic conclusion for ex-lovers to break up. But it is almost as cruel to allow regret for the unhappy event, and sometimes moral condemnation, to obscure the need for more systematic social support to relieve the damage borne most often by mothers and children.