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And They All Lived Happily Ever After . . . : Three sets of O.C. spouses share their secrets after participating recently in the California Perfect Couple competition in Sacramento.

August 10, 1993|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The world has grown suspicious of anything that looks like a happy married life." --from Oscar Wilde's 1892 play, "Lady Windermere's Fan"

It's hard to listen to the "ordinary" people who tell all on television talk shows without getting cynical about the institution of marriage.

The shows feed on stories of deception, betrayal, mental and physical cruelty and aberrant sexual behavior, giving viewers the impression that getting married is the surest way to set themselves up for a lifetime of misery.

Sylviane Sydney Kitchen of Galveston, Tex., was so tired of hearing people complain to Donahue and Geraldo about their spouses' transgressions that she turned to her husband about six months ago and asked with great exasperation, "Are we the only happy couple in this country?"

Kitchen, a native of France who married an American 19 years ago, decided to find out. She created a nationwide competition that will culminate in October with the crowning of "America's Perfect Couple" during a pageant in Houston.

As soon as she began seeking contestants, Kitchen discovered that there are plenty of satisfied couples out there who have nothing disparaging to say about their mates. Among them are three from Orange County who joined nine other well-matched pairs at the California Perfect Couple competition in Sacramento recently.

Kitchen said during a phone interview that after an article about the Perfect Couple competition appeared in USA Today in March, she received more than 2,500 phone calls--mostly from happy husbands who were eager to talk about the secrets of marital bliss.

Statewide competitions have since been taking place around the country, and Kitchen hopes to have couples from all 50 states vying in Houston for the Perfect Couple title, $45,000 in prizes--and a second honeymoon.

Kitchen, who points out that her grandparents have been married for 62 years and still worship each other, said she wants the competition to draw attention to positive role models who can let young people know that, in spite of the high divorce rate and what they see on TV, they shouldn't give up on marriage.

Kitchen wants those who are exposed to her "perfect couples" to be able to say, "They're married and they're happy--why can't we do the same thing?"

*

Carla and Michael Burke of Villa Park, Kathy and Cliff Fleming of Santa Ana and Cathy and Andy Steedman of Irvine (who placed third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Sacramento pageant) share Kitchen's desire to give the younger generation--and skeptics of any age--a positive view of marriage. That's why the three couples sent in applications to become Perfect Couple contestants, even though none of them believes that perfection is a prerequisite for happiness.

"I have a problem with the 'perfect' concept," said Carla Burke, who has been married to Michael for nearly 30 years. "We all make mistakes. We do the best we can, and that's all we can do."

"There's no perfect couple--it's a matter of striving for perfection and finding out what works and what doesn't work," Michael added.

The Burkes said their involvement in the competition has stirred up lively discussions at social gatherings about what it takes to have a good marriage. They and the other contestants relish the chance to talk freely about how content they are. They haven't always felt comfortable revealing the depth of their marital satisfaction to others, especially those whose marriages are shaky.

"We've been frustrated because we see so many people who are unhappy that we almost feel we have to stifle our impulses to share how happy we are," Kathy Fleming said. "There are people who don't even believe a happy marriage exists."

*

The competition was a rare opportunity to be surrounded by couples who, as Cathy Steedman put it "were in love, genuinely wanted to be together and had nice things to say about each other."

Her husband, Andy, said he felt a powerful chemistry between all the couples--even those who had been married for many years.

Cathy and Andy, who have been married four years and are both 27, were the youngest couple at the Sacramento event, and they said they were particularly moved by the strong commitment they saw between the San Diego pair who won first place.

That couple, married 47 years, took the Steedmans aside at one point and shared some success secrets. Cathy said they advised her and Andy to keep things in perspective, be open and honest with each other and never stop feeling young.

There were many opportunities during the two-day pageant to reflect on what makes marriage work. The couples' extemporaneous answers to questions on the subject were the main judging criteria, according to Kitchen. (The couples were also judged on the basis of the poise they demonstrated while modeling evening and sports wear; Kitchen said this was important because America's Perfect Couple will be promoting marriage on the speaking circuit.)

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