Second Thoughts After Happily-Ever-After

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 14, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Afew years ago, a friend of mine published a book bearing the standard spousal acknowledgment. She wrote: ''To my husband, without whom this book would never have been written.''

Twelve months later, the book was headed for paperback, the marriage was headed for divorce court and the author wanted to change the inscription. She wanted to write: ''To my husband without whom this book would have been written 10 years earlier.''

Since then, I have been aware of how thoroughly people rewrite the scripts of their marriage after the book has slammed shut. The wife who earns her PHT -- Putting Hubby Through school -- may get gratitude at graduation. But when the bloom is off the marriage, he has a better memory of her hampering his studies than paying his bills.

A husband who stands by his wife while she climbs the corporate ladder is dutifully dubbed ''supportive.'' But when she jumps out of the marriage, she remembers him as the ball and chain rather than the helium of her ascent.

All sorts of story lines change when the happily-ever-after is abruptly ended. Did her dinner parties help his promotion or did her fallen souffle nearly ruin his career? Was he the savvy manager of her career or merely a hanger-on? Ask their lawyers.

This re-evaluation of marriage has been a running joke of rich and famous men and their ex-wives. In the postscript to divorce, the pampered wife becomes the money-grubbing ex-wife.

But what is different now is that it's happening to rich and famous women as well. Man bites dog. Or, rather, husband sues for alimony and half the estate.

This variation on the theme dropped into the tabloid consciousness early this summer when ''Good Morning America's'' Joan Lunden was ordered to pay her ex-husband of 14 years $18,000 a month in alimony. Ms. Lunden who is said to earn some $2 million a year called it, ''a deplorable and shameful statement on how working women are treated today. Why the courts don't tell a husband who has been living off his wife to go get a job is beyond my comprehension.''

Her, and other, howls of protest have reappeared everywhere from People magazine to the latest Redbook to your friendly neighborhood dinner party. Whether it's actress Jane Seymour or Seema (the ex-Mrs. Ivan) Boesky, the women have money and the men want it.

According to my own sample of conversations about these men and money, attitudes divide into three parts. Pre-feminist Consciousness I says simply that no self-respecting man should take money from a woman. Feminist Consciousness II says that what is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. Post-feminist Consciousness III laments that equal rights works better for men than for women: As soon as women go to work, they get taken to the cleaners.

Our outlook may have less to do with changing consciousness than with the constant of emotional cost-accounting. As Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been studying marriage for decades, says: ''People don't like the economic side to marriage and pretend it isn't there.'' Basically she says, ''People still want the economic contract to be tied to sentiment. They think they shouldn't have to pay for something they don't like.''

The economic worth of a husband or wife, she says, ''is a very hypocritical, unexamined and always dangerous topic in a marriage.'' If you want to know what people really want to give each other, she adds with a clear, even cynical eye, look at the terms in prenuptial agreements: ''There's a notable lack of generosity.'' The message of these contracts is, ''I will keep you in the style in which I want to live but only while I feel good about you.''

If such pre-marital agreements are still relatively rare, Ms. Schwartz says, ''It's because they can't get the person they love under those conditions. So they promise, 'Everything I have is yours.' But they really mean what's in the agreements.''

Compared to Ms. Schwartz, I may be a hopeless romantic. I do belong resolutely to Consciousness II. Either spouse can get a prenuptial agreement and either can sue for support. But that's only partially out of a belief in equality. It's mostly out of a belief in -- blush -- marriage.

It seems to me that most married couples already belong to two competing economic systems. We work as individuals. There's one name on a paycheck. On the other hand we think of marriage as a partnership. Family life is the one thing we still try to separate from the values of the marketplace.

When marriage succeeds, it's by muting the relationship between money and power. Indeed, if marriage is to work, it must operate more like a mutual fund.

But from the front lines of divorce, we are learning a dirty little secret: Many husbands and wives were keeping book on each other all along.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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