NEW YORK — New York. -- The 95-year-old couple went to divorce court after 70 unhappy years of marriage? The judge asked them why they hadn't split long ago? The couple said, ''We were waiting for the children to die.''
That joke made the rounds back in the 1970s, when cultural barbs were pointed at people who stayed together ''for the sake of the children.'' But when I recycled this oldie to lunchmates at a recent conference on marriage held by the Council on Families in America, they'd never heard it.
It turns out, though, that ''staying together for the sake of the children'' is very much on the minds of council members -- an impressive collection of scholars, think tankers, and culture watchers who range politically from mid-left to mid-right. Together, they have cobbled together a report on ''Marriage in America'' which is also a report on unmarriage in America.
Their central point is that ''the divorce revolution -- the steady displacement of a marriage culture by a culture of divorce and unwed parenthood -- has failed.'' It's failed children. And it's time to turn our attention back to strengthening marriage.
This report constitutes a brave leap into the middle-class heart of the family matter. In the ongoing family-values debate, Americans have so far pointed their collective finger at relatively easy targets like unwed mothers and disappearing dads. Indeed two of the council's members -- Barbara Whitehead who wrote the provocative ''Dan Quayle was Right'' piece for the Atlantic and David Blankenhorn, author of ''Fatherless America'' -- helped create that consensus.
But in sheer numbers, divorce is the chief culprit in the breakup of the family and the deteriorating well-being of children. And we have indeed been, as the report says, ''curiously silent on the subject of marriage.''
In an era when every other marriage ends, the extent of divorce has served to stifle us. Even Dan Quayle, in a second ''Murphy Brown'' speech last fall, insisted ''I'm not talking about a situation where there is a divorce.'' His own grandmother was divorced, he demurred, as were half of his cousins. Not to mention an entire roster of ''pro-family'' Republican leaders from Gramm to Dole to Gingrich.
We're also silent because divorce strikes at a central conflict between two sets of American values. One is the value we place on individual freedom, on striking out and starting over, on the pursuit of happiness. The other is the value we place on commitment, building communities and stable families.
The report on marriage is unequivocally and unapologetically written from the perspective of children. The stated goal is to increase the number of children growing up with both parents.
But what's missing from this pro-marriage advocacy is the view of marriage as a relationship as well as a child-raising institution. It's worth noting that in the entire treatise, the word ''love'' only comes up once in a bloodless reference to ''the love attachments of marriage.''
At the conference, Sylvia Hewlett of the National Parenting Association acknowledged, ''There is a real trade-off between adult choice and child well-being.'' But the report tiptoes around this trade-off by talking about divorces that ''may occur simply because one partner is unhappy or because a better partner has been located.''
William Galston, an outgoing member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, praised the authors of the report for having ''the courage to say that middle-class parents who blithely divorce'' are every bit as damaging to their children as unwed 17-year-olds. But in my experience, ''blithely'' is a word that people often attach to other people's divorces.
At the height of the ''divorce revolution'' Americans may have falsely comforted themselves with the idea that children were better off in broken than warring homes. In the counterrevolution, we can't wish away marital problems as trivial.
There is more than enough intellectual firepower among the council members to jump-start an important national conversation about marriage and how society can support it. Their laundry list of recommendations ranges from the worthy to the wishful, from a simple plea that the entertainment industry stop glamorizing infidelity to a controversial suggestion that legislators reconsider no-fault divorce laws.
But if we're to rebuild a culture of marriage that works for adults and children, we have to be as concerned with the quality as with the longevity of marriage. One of the scholars here said, ''We decided to put relationships between men and women off to the next report.'' That may not be so easy for the men and women themselves.
8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.