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ANN CONWAY

Society Can Be Fickle When Spouses Decide to Call It Quits

June 28, 1993|ANN CONWAY

Her marriage looked so loving her pals nicknamed her Ms. Turtle Dove.

But it was a facade, the young Newport Beach socialite says now.

"I could relate when I saw Loni Anderson and Burt Reynolds on the cover of People magazine and everybody was shocked that they were splitting up. That's how it was for me.

"I was the perfect wife. He was the perfect husband with the perfect job. We had the perfect child, the perfect home on the water--the perfect marriage."

But not really. "It was a fantasy, something I tried to perpetuate at the expense of my inner self," she says. "It's nice to get a diamond necklace for your anniversary, but, I learned, that's not what it's about.

News of this popular couple's split amazed Newport Beach society.

"It made me sick to see them go their separate ways," says a good friend. "Divorces can be very stressful for friends. Nobody likes to see a fairy tale end."

When it comes to divorce, society can be fickle. Loving, successful couples are preferred on the social scene. A newly divorced husband or wife can wake up one morning and find the phone has stopped ringing, the invitations have stopped coming.

Which partner gets the society friends?

"Usually, the one with the most clout," says society fixture Mary Ann Wells of Newport Beach. "Normally, it's the man. But if the wife is truly loved (by the society crowd), has made a splash in the community, she's going to survive."

Wells, who has been married since 1945 to Lon Wells, has observed that if one of the divorcing partners is a chatterbox about his or her marital problems, friends are more apt to take sides.

"If a couple gets a divorce on the quiet side, it's easier on everyone," Wells says. "You don't know what has gone on. Your thinking remains unbiased.

"What's shocking is to have watched a couple travel together, party together, do all of these wonderful things together and then break up," she said.

"I get crushed. I walk around the house, shaking my head saying, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it,' " she said.

*

People don't like change, notes Linda Algazi, a Corona del Mar psychotherapist.

"Any life change is uncomfortable. And when change is beyond their control, they get even more uncomfortable. Divorce shakes the social foundation of friends."

Generally, Orange County society doesn't frown on divorce, Wells says. "This is the '90s. Nobody likes to see a couple unhappy."

But it can sure play havoc with a dance card. "Used to be, when people were making up party guest lists, they'd just think of couples," Wells says. "It was easy." Dinner for 12. Luncheon for eight. Cocktails for 10.

"Now, we find that we have lots of nice single friends and we're happy to include them," Wells says.

In her book, "The New Manners for the '90s," Letitia Baldridge advises friends of divorced couples to not take sides, probe for information or gossip about the situation.

"If you are friends of both," Baldridge says, "extend an equal number of invitations to them the first year of their separation so that one won't suffer the added crisis of feeling the other has taken away his or her good friends."

She adds: "Of course, if one member of the divorced couple behaved badly in the marriage, there is no reason to keep your friendship flourishing with that person."

*

After she moved into a "dungy apartment"--taking only her CD collection and pictures of her family--the young Newport Beach socialite dreaded finding out who her real friends were. "I felt like I had the burden of the world lifted off my shoulders. But I wondered if my friends were really my friends. Were they part of the facade, too?

"At first your friends go into denial," says the former Ms. Turtle Dove. "They don't want to believe you're going through with it."

But she was one of the lucky ones.

"To my surprise, many of them invited me over for dinner. I learned that people genuinely loved me for who I am, not the house I lived in, the car I drove.

"And I learned something else. When my marriage went up in smoke, it made my friends look at their marriages.

"Some of them are afraid. They're thinking: 'Wow, this could happen to me.' It's scary for them."

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