Ironic Union

September 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Walk by any newsstand and you can bet that the fattest magazines are those aimed at America’s brides–dense tomes of dress ads and china ads, advice on bridal bouquets and bridal etiquette. The brides seem quite there, nestled between the Cosmo girls and the sultry starlets and modelettes that grace many another cover. You can only conclude that weddings are still big business in end-of-the-century America.

For all the hip young women who are strutting their stuff in MTV-Land, there are millions of others still dreaming of walking down the aisle in white lace splendor, even all those children of divorce who are willing to take a gamble on marriage. What a funny contradiction we are–marrying in record numbers, 90 percent of men and women eventually marry, and divorcing in record numbers. Half of all marriages come apart, as do half of all remarriages.

In short, we are serial marriers and serial divorcers. There’s now a full tilt phalanx of the culturally concerned that say it has to stop, that divorce is the root of all social evil. You can find their work in the bookstores and on the op ed pages. Their general lament: that too many spoiled adults won’t honor those wedding day commitments, won’t tough out tough marital times, but, instead, follow their hearts or libidos out the familial front door, leaving broken families and brokenhearted children behind.

SINGER IN BACKGROUND: Your mind is full of rage!

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: They blame the 1960’s, the hot tub hopping, free loving, divorce-advocating, counter-culturites, for leading us all down the path of bliss, selfishness, and divorce. They want to turn back the clock to make divorce harder again. The state of Louisiana has gone so far as to offer marrying couples a choice: They can go the standard “no fault” route, or sign on for a so-called “covenant marriage,” in which they agree not to divorce until after a two-year separation. This kind of cooling off period, both for beginning a marriage or ending one, especially if there are children, might not be such a bad idea for two reasons: One is that the kids of divorce fare less well in school, in life, in their own marriages, than those from intact families.

They carry that family fracture with them from the schoolyard swings to the 12-step programs. The other reason to hang tough is that couples are happier in pre-kid and post-kid marriages. In short, if you can tough it out while the kids are still home, in the full tilt throws of trying to grow up, you might have a happy marriage again on the other side, one of the bittersweet ironies of family life. One of the other bittersweet ironies is that the improvement in women’s lives, their increasing freedoms and incomes, has also added to the divorce rate, even more perhaps than those much lambasted 1960’s.

Because more women can survive on their own now, they have less reason to stay in an unhappy marriage. And it is hard to imagine any state-sanctioned prenuptial agreements keeping them there. The truth is we’ve always had high standards for marriage in this country. We’ve always seen it as a consensual union between, more or less, equal partners. Even the Puritans, way back in the 1600’s, allowed for divorce and remarriage, a precedent-setting break with the old country. In recent years, our expectations have just gotten higher. Witness these glossy tomes of giddy brides, all dolled up to stroll down the aisle into their future. It is precisely that hopeful view that leads us not only into marriage but out of it. That’s the ultimate irony.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.