Big bore ... or revealing glimpse?

Reunions: More spouses stay home, but they may miss a big lesson in what makes their mates tick.


Fill in the blank: The last thing you need at your high school reunion is ...

Your spouse.

It's class reunion season, the annual interval that heats up now and runs through fall. Former classmates everywhere are planning cocktail parties, dinner dances and picnics.

Their spouses are cringing. What's to celebrate? A drawn-out, nostalgia-laden talkfest of adolescent antics, old jokes gone sour and rebonding of friendships that have little to do with life as we currently know it.

Couples are staring hard at reunion invitations, even harder at the high ticket prices, and wondering whether Mr. Alumnus or Mrs. Alumna should go it alone. It's a new question for many: Why drag our significant others through another class reunion?

Reunions have evolved over the years, expanding and contracting, becoming more expensive. But one particularly interesting trend is emerging, say some alumni, organizers and event professionals: leaving the spouse at home.

"Fewer and fewer spouses are attending; it seems to be an OK thing to do," said Katy Anderson, president of the National Association of Reunion Managers. "I've seen a big drop."

Marilyn Rue, a 1958 graduate of Southwest High School in Kansas City, Mo., left her husband home when she attended last year's 40th reunion. The purpose of the reunion, she figured, was to renew old friendships. It's not much fun for the spouse.

"You wander off and leave them sitting in their chair, then you have to go back and say, 'Oh yeah,' " Rue said. "They're just kind of left in limbo. It's a very awkward situation."

Spouses probably aren't going to have a rollicking good time, the theory goes, so efforts toward that end are mostly wasted. Better to go with a group of local friends -- as Rue has done with classmates Merikay Lott and Barbara Gattermeir -- or arrange beforehand to meet up at the reunion with some of your favorite former classmates.

Lott said her husband had no problem skipping the last reunion. And it allowed her to focus on visiting classmates, including out-of-towners she doesn't see often.

"I didn't even invite him," she said about the 1998 reunion. "We've been married 35 years, so it must be OK."

The change is partly cultural, Anderson said, especially for women. A married woman out for the evening without her spouse isn't so unusual anymore. And it's partly about money. Ticket prices to reunion events keep going up, she said, even more so with the advent of professional reunion organizers. Reunions often can cost $45 a ticket.

Some reunion committees work hard to keep spouses occupied, such as a casino area, which gives them something to do while alumni gab, said Anderson.

Still, the phenomenon of the terminally bored spouse or significant other is real. Anderson's staff at reunion registration tables tend to attract bored spouses throughout the evening, she said.

Opposition to the going-it-alone trend is vocal. Some consider it just plain tacky for married people to attend parties without spouses. Others are worried that any equation that factors in alcohol and old high school flames may have undesired results.

Then there's the more philosophical objection. Reunions aren't just about activating the way-back machine. They should also tap into life now, and for many people that means spouses, children and grandchildren.

Fred Mayfield, a family therapist in Kansas City, said it's certainly OK to leave spouses at home. But he thinks they will miss a rare opportunity.

One quality of a successful marriage is knowing your spouse well, Mayfield said, and reunions are a great place of discovery. You put names to faces and places, hear about important and silly happenings, and learn about early relationships, a crucial part of a person's history.

"What those relationships meant are going to be very telling about the mate," Mayfield said. "When we get together with my old high school and college cronies, my wife has the most attentive look on her face. She's grinning from ear to ear. It's very revealing to her."

Jeff Herring, a family therapist and newspaper columnist, said the No. 1 complaint he hears about class reunions is that spouses feel abandoned the moment they walk into a reunion event. Couples need to talk beforehand about how to handle meeting and greeting and how much time apart is reasonable.

Reunion strategy for couples

Taking your spouse to the class reunion? Consider these ideas:

* To relieve some of the pressure, ask the reunion committee to plan fun activities, such as a casino area or class videos to watch.

* Couples should discuss beforehand the rules of engagement. Will they stay to the bitter end, then head to breakfast with the old crowd? Will they stick with each other all night or plan some time apart?

* Avoid potential surprises. Make sure your spouse knows about old flames and the odd anecdote you never got around to telling.

* Spouses and significant others should accept the role of outsider. This is your mate's night.

* Mates should take advantage of the evening to soak up information. Old stories can give you insight into what makes your partner click.

* Spouses should hook up with other outsiders. A new friendship or business connection might result.

Pub Date: 07/04/99

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