Love and Marriage, '70s-style


April 16, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Does anybody remember when the 1970s began recycling? First, those god-awful bell-bottoms started to reappear. Now, the imperative to let it all hang out is making a comeback.

From California comes the news that couples may have an obligation to tell each other their inner-most negative-most feelings. We are re-running those wonderful yesteryears when people wounded each other in the name of honesty.

There is, however, a 1990s wrinkle on this old scenario. Today, if you withhold some cruel truth from your mate, you may end up getting sued.

This is what happened to Bonnette Askew. When she and Ronald Askew were married, her husband transferred the title on some property he owned to her. Eleven years, two children, and a divorce later, he sued to get the property back on the grounds that she had deceived him.

It wasn't anything Bonnette had said. It was something she hadn't said. She had not told him that she was not sexually attracted to him.

In court, the ex-husband claimed that during their courtship he had often discussed honesty and repeatedly asked her if she had anything important to tell him. She had said no. If he'd known her sexual feelings or lack of them, he said, he never would have signed over the property or, presumably, married her. He'd been the victim of fraud.

Bonnette testified, however, that she had loved him. Theirs was not a loveless or even sexless marriage. Witness the two kids. The fact that he didn't turn her on (in '70s-speak) only came out in marital therapy. She hadn't deceived him, she'd simply not wanted to hurt his feelings. Or as she put it -- now that she'd stopped caring about his feelings -- she didn't want to hurt ''his male ego.''

Well, last week an Orange County jury of six men and six women sided with Ronald. By withholding the messages of her hormones, she'd committed fraud. He'd been gypped out of his property and she owed him $242,000.

I suspect there is something romantic in the jury's verdict. I'm willing to bet the mortgage that it was based on a deep sense that Bonnette shouldn't have married Ronald without being sexually attracted to him.

At some point, the former wife said of her former husband, ''I think he's confusing sex and love.'' Our culture has not confused the two, it's fused them.

Hormonal harmony is often now considered a prerequisite of marital bliss, an idea that might seem odd in countries where they're still getting used to the idea that love comes before marriage. It might have seemed odd in California a century ago when the marital contract involved ''obligations of mutual respect, fidelity and support.'' Not sexual attraction.

In other times and places, under other contracts, women may have married for economic support and men for sex. But nowadays, the notion of marriage without sexual attraction has become an indecent proposal.

The jurors may have been sympathetic to a husband's ''right'' to a sexually eager partner. They may have been more disapproving of a wife who would marry a man without being hot for him.

Now I'm all in favor of sex, rock 'n' roll and honesty in marriage. A spouse who deliberately faked love to get his or her hands on the unloved one's fortune ought to be hung out to dry.

But marriage, emotions and motives are often more complicated than that. Desire comes and goes. If every couple was required to fill out a prenuptial agreement for full disclosure of feelings toward each other, we might avoid many divorces. There'd be so many fewer marriages.

This case sets a disastrous precedent. As Grace Blumberg, a family law professor at UCLA reads it, ''The implications are that any gift can be taken back if you didn't find the person sexually attractive.'' It suggests that anyone who fakes it -- affection, attraction -- is liable for fraud.

In most relationships, there are moments when truth competes with restraint, and honesty competes with kindness. There are times when the possibility of splitting competes with compromising.

Given his druthers, even Ron might have lived happily with less enlightenment. But the Askew decision creates an affirmative obligation to tell your beloved if you can't stand his love handles or her love-making.

Let it all hang out. Share your feelings. The bad ones. Didn't we try this before? All dressed up in bell-bottoms. Now it's the law.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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