And The Sauce Has A Funny Taste

ALICE STEINBACH

June 14, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Generally speaking, most people do not like to question their own long-held beliefs. Usually this is because long-held beliefs are absorbed -- in a process that resembles psychological osmosis -- from our families and our culture.

And, of course, once they have settled in, most of us don't like to stir up these comfortable assumptions. Still, like it or not, occasionally something will happen that just goes ahead and raises our consciousness anyway. You can tell when this is happening because it's usually accompanied by the Click! of recognition that signals a new insight.

A lot of us felt that Click! the other day. It had to do with Joan Lunden and alimony and stereotyped gender assumptions that hang on tenaciously.

Here's the deal: Last week a judge ordered "Good Morning America" co-host Joan Lunden to pay her estranged husband, Michael Krauss, $18,000 a month in temporary alimony pending the resolution of their divorce battle.

Lunden, who shares custody of three children from her 14-year-marriage to the now unemployed TV producer, was also ordered to pay his mortgage and property taxes, electricity, fuel, insurance and cable television bill. Her income is reportedly in the neighborhood of $2 million a year.

Her reaction? She announced she'll appeal the decision, saying: "Why the courts don't tell a husband who has been living off his wife to go out and get a job is beyond my comprehension."

Krauss' lawyer said the alimony award was fair: "Here you have a man working side by side with his wife, pushing her career, and suddenly she says, 'You should get a job.' That's not so easy after 14 years."

Ouch!

Question: Is this deja vu all over again? Except that this time the deja vu's on the other foot?

You bet it is.

"It's the I-put-him- through-medical- school-and-I'm- entitled-to-some-of-his-future-earnings scenario in reverse," is how one divorced, alimony-paying man assessed the Lunden situation. Then he added: "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."

Actually, in discussing this matter I heard that sauce/goose, sauce/gander phrase a lot. From both men and women.

I suppose you could interpret such an observation as meaning: Alimony should be genderless.

Well, legally, of course, alimony laws were declared sex-neutral by the Supreme Court in 1979. But the number of men who actually receive alimony is so small that neither the Census Bureau or the IRS have any figures to report.

Which is almost beside the point. Particularly since most women don't receive alimony anymore either. Current figures show that about 1 in 6 divorced women receive alimony payments.

No, what a lot of men and women were reacting to about the Lunden story was the emotional jolt elicited by the role reversal aspect of it.

And the confusion as to how they should react.

This is not, after all, similar to the divorce case of Joan Collins and Peter Holms, her husband of 13 months. In that case, Holms asked for $80,000 a month in alimony. And then failed to show up for the hearing.

No, this seems to be the case of a real marriage with children and stability. Or at least an image of stability. In other words, take away the $2 million salary a year and it was more or less your typical -- or to be more precise, stereotypical -- marriage.

And it was hard not to react -- initially, anyway -- in a stereotypical manner to the Lunden story.

Women, for instance, at first expressed outrage that an able-bodied man with a profession thought he was entitled to "sponge" off his wife. But then they wondered: Might this be how men feel when wives who are able to work decline to do so -- feeling instead they are entitled to continuing support from their husbands?

And the men who at first expressed a kind of "Now we'll see how you like it" attitude had second thoughts, too. Said one man: "Because they don't earn as much as men, even divorced women who work may need some financial help."

It's odd: You could make a case that alimony was once considered a "traditional value" in our society. Divorced wives were entitled to it; husbands had to pay it. Growing up, I knew women whose whole lifestyles were based on a generous alimony settlement.

But those days are going, going, gone. Nowadays, divorced women have other problems to address. See, real life is always different from celebrity life. Or as one divorced mother told me: "I don't know anybody who gets alimony. I only know women who every month have to fight for their child support checks."

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