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Jewish World ReviewFeb. 2, 2006/ 4 Shevat, 5766

Suzanne Fields

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What's love got to do with it? | Foreign affairs get the big headlines, but a celebrity divorce on the inside pages offers more titillation. Ronald O. Perelman, No. 34 on Forbes magazine's list of the richest Americans, served divorce papers the other day on his wife, movie star Ellen Barkin (she of "The Big Easy"). It's all over after five years of marriage, but she earned $20 million for her trouble.

The pre-nuptial agreement set a date for how much the marriage would be worth dependent upon how long it lasted, and if Mr. Perelman had not acted when he did, he would have had to pay considerably more. His lawyers take great care with the fine print because Mr. Perelman likes changing wives. He paid $8 million to get rid of his first one, $80 million to get rid of the second, $30 million to shed his third.

The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, are very different from you and me, but rich and poor share some things, and the changing nature of marriage is one of them. Now Congress is tempted to get into it.

The House is considering changes in welfare reform that will make "healthy marriage" grants to the states, with as much as $150 million a year going to states to spend on programs to curb domestic violence without requiring matching funds. Not everyone thinks the feds ought to get into marriage counseling, but there's a strong movement to get the government into marriage promotion, particularly among the poor. Some states sell marriage licenses at a discount if the couple will participate in counseling courses. Other states distribute marriage guides to applicants for licenses. Still others encourage group programs in "relationship skills."

A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, in the famous formulation of Dr. Johnson, but if you're a billionaire in Ronald Perelman's bracket, $20 million is merely pocket change, and timing a divorce to the tax schedule is good business. The pre-nup is a little like selling short in the stock market — betting against the longevity of the marriage. There are lots of rich men out there willing to reinvest and lots of women eager to become trophy wives, even trophy ex-wives if the price is right.

It's still easier for a man to marry down, with "down" meaning money more than what was once quaintly called "breeding." Henry Walker, a sociologist, suggests that the reason so many black women have a hard time finding suitable husbands is because they earn enough to be particular about what they keep and what they throw back when they fish from the pool of eligibles. The issue for them is a first marriage, not a second or third. There are lots of second marriages in retirement villages, where men enjoy a buyer's market; they're even enabled to indulge the search for "a nurse with a purse."

Serial marriages are fashionable not only because of the breakdown in moral mores, but because we're living longer. The rich have always been able to afford their misbehavior, but society suffers when the rest of us need help. Hence the impulse toward government marriage counseling. Some of these programs sound touchy-feely and warm and fuzzy to a fault, but the people who administer the programs say they reduce the stress that escalates into violence. Research is scant, but anecdotal evidence is positive.

"The Future of Children," a journal of the Brookings Institution and Princeton University, describes how marriage has always been a public issue, but public policy changes as trends in marriage change. Homosexual marriage is the hot button issue in the current debate, but those who pay for cultural changes are, as always, the children.

Therapeutic programs to encourage marriage for parents with children and to help them develop "communication" skills have mostly been tested on white, middle-class, educated couples, so it's not clear how much the programs will help poor couples who grow up unfamiliar with the model of the traditional family. If the government is going to get into the marriage business, research evaluating their worth is essential.

In a Capitol Hill forum on how to help low-income couples, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, one woman, now engaged to the father of her children, described how a candlelit dinner after a day of stress brought her closer to her husband. Piped up Joe Jones, president of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development: "And you learned how not to clock him with a frying pan." A joke, but with a serious point. There's no big payoff in divorce for most of us.

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© 2006, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate