NEW YORK — There are more than a million divorces a year in the United States and matrimonial lawyer Eleanor B. Alter says one-third of them marked the end of perfectly good marriages.
It is a middle- and upper-class phenomenon, Alter says, and one that troubles many divorce lawyers.
"I have been practicing matrimonial law for 20 years," said Alter, a senior partner in Rosenman, Colin, Freund, Lewis and Cohen, one of the largest law firms in the United States. "I see perhaps five new people a week, along with current clients, and I listen to their stories.
"I estimate about a third of them are people who really are in terrible marriages--marriages that are violent, that have drug or alcohol problems, marriages where there is no sex relationship and never was. Even when children are involved, these people are better off apart."
She said another third of her clients are involved in short-term marriages with no children--marriages whose viability she cannot judge.
"It is the last third I am talking about--people who have been married for 15, 20, even 30 years or longer," she said. "Either by their own admission their marriage has been good, or I can tell by hearing them describe the facts."
It's a good marriage, she said, when people admit they did love each other, talk about their three fabulous kids, say they have always done a lot of things together and share mutual respect and companionship.
"That's a pretty good marriage," she said. "But then things happen--just because they are successful, people get seduced by the glamour of other people or they feel their spouse is not quite up to them any more.
"A man will say he still loves his wife, but not the way he loves Miss Wonderful, who he met last month."
More Women Disenchanted
Alter said the phenomenon used to be confined mostly to men, but now women are joining the ranks of the disenchanted.
One reason people are willing to discard a perfectly good marriage is their fantasy about the single scene.
"The fantasies are incredible," she said. "People tell me stories that make my stomach churn. Women tell me what they are doing--picking up men in bars, going with married men, being with five or 10 men a week. These are decent people raised in normal ways. What do they think they are doing to themselves? I'm not even talking about disease."
As for women who have been led by media stories to dream about younger men, she said bluntly, "Thirty-year-old men don't want 40-year-old women. Why should they?"
Another part of the problem is people's unwillingness to put up with boredom or each other's faults.
Turn-On Doesn't Last
"Part of being an adult is learning that some of the time you are bored," she said. "Instead, they want the excitement that comes with a new romance. That's a great turn-on for everybody, but it doesn't last long. A lot of people want that feeling all the time, but I don't know anyone who feels that way a lot of the time after years have gone by. Sleeping next to the same person every night is a killer for that.
"It happens with the new person--but three years down the road, they're back where they started. They want to think continually that the earth is moving, but the only way to keep that going is to have a lot of different people in sequence."
Equally unrealistic, she said, was the middle-aged woman client who discovered her husband had been unfaithful and was adamant in demanding a divorce.
"It didn't sound like much of an affair," Adler said, "and it was over. There even were circumstances that made the affair more understandable. People shouldn't end a good marriage over an affair, especially one that was over.
"I told her I thought she ought to talk to a psychiatrist. I didn't hear from her for a long time and suspected she had gone to another lawyer. Then she called and wanted to take me to lunch. She told me she had gone to a luxury spa, missed her husband and called him. They went into therapy together and they are staying together. She wanted to thank me."
Alter said she does not know how to correct the divorce situation, except that the problem is social, not legal.
"Socially it is so much more acceptable to be divorced," she said. "I don't want a return to the old days when a divorced person was a pariah--I'm divorced myself. But today people don't seem to feel a sense of failure in divorce. In my case, I know it wasn't a unilateral failure, but I feel I failed terribly. But a lot of people now don't regard divorce as a failure--just as a fact of life. If you don't like your marriage, find something better.
"Most marriages go through very hard times--you just don't walk out the door. You can't replace a marriage between two people who have grown up together and had children--and it's the children who pay a very big price."