The Attraction Of Stability In an Age of Divorce

Toward the end of his new movie, "Everyone Says I Love You," Woody Allen, who plays a divorced father, strolls along the Seine with his ex-wife. As they reflect on their post-divorce lives she says, a bit wistfully, "You know, over the years I've often wondered what would have happened if we had stayed together." He agrees, adding, "We'll never know."

That unanswerable question probably lingers in the thoughts of many divorced couples, whatever the circumstances surrounding their breakup. Even Madeleine Albright, now enjoying high-visibility success as the first female secretary of state, admitted on "60 Minutes" last Sunday that her "greatest setback" was her unexpected divorce after 23 years of marriage. She said, "I had expected to continue doing what I was doing and live happily ever after."

This is the week when dreams of happily-ever-after float through the Valentine's Day air. By coincidence, it's also a month when the sad finale of hearts-and-flowers romance - divorce - is making headlines as well.

In her popular new novel, "Le Divorce," Diane Johnson portrays the economic and emotional fallout when a Frenchman leaves his pregnant American wife for a mistress. At the same time, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is spurring debate with her nonfiction book, "The Divorce Culture," which describes the consequences for real-life families when marriages end.

Calling divorce "an American way of life," Ms. Whitehead laments the rise of "a society of single mothers and vanished fathers" and the accompanying decline in the well-being of American children. "In the vow to marry 'for better, for worse,' " she explains, "we have been keenly attuned to the 'for better.' "

Whitehead is hardly the first author to describe the lasting hurt children can experience when families break up. But she may have the advantage of a more receptive social climate. Already there are signs of a shift in attitudes, among them discussions about the not-always-salutary effects of no-fault divorce.

Many altar-shy couples are marrying later, perhaps promoting greater stability. Thoroughly modern brides are also favoring thoroughly traditional gowns and lavish weddings, as if to proclaim, to themselves and everyone else: This marriage will last.

Even vocabularies are changing. In a period of "family values" rhetoric, exhortations to "fulfill yourself" are giving way to talk about "responsibility," a softer word for sacrifice.

When I was a child, I had a great-uncle and great-aunt who had been married nearly 50 years. They were a sweet couple and always seemed solicitous of each other. Not until years later did I learn that my uncle, unhappy in the marriage, had wanted a divorce in middle age. Although the children were grown, his father said no. Divorce still carried a social stigma, and he wanted no blot on the family's name. So my uncle stayed.

Today that kind of filial obedience seems astonishing. Did my uncle, in a reversal of the Woody Allen question, ever wonder privately what would have happened if he and his wife hadn't stayed together? Or did he find a measure of contentment in his later years, surrounded by a close-knit family? No one will ever know.

Nor will anyone ever know what the true divorce rate would have been in decades before the 1960s, when people like my uncle stayed married despite their desire to separate.

Divorce has been around for centuries and will always be necessary. But the measure of what makes a marriage intolerable changes as the mood of the culture changes, becoming now more strict, now more permissive. For the moment, the much-publicized fact that nearly half of American marriages end in divorce seems to have had a shock effect, making at least some couples more determined to preserve their marriage not only because of what they owe their children, but because of the stability they owe themselves.

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