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Divorce, in All Its Angst

COLUMN ONE

In Germany, the rapidly growing legions of those who have loved and lost now have their own magazine: War of the Roses.

December 16, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — You're a divorced, middle-aged German guy thumbing through the new War of the Roses magazine when you discover on page 8 how much the dating scene has changed since you and your disco threads were last on the prowl: The Billy Boy condom company wants to rent you a "flirt dog."

It's not a designer prophylactic. It's a real dog. German women love dogs, which, by extension, means they might consider going out with the guy on the other end of the leash. The dog is the "ultimate secret recipe for the successful flirt," states the magazine, which also has advice on how to cook salmon in the dishwasher.

War of the Roses, the only magazine of its kind in Germany, and possibly Europe, is written for the lost, hurt, mending, defiant, neurotic souls of the divorced. It is a mix of intriguing snippets and longer, probing stories on custody battles, psychological syndromes, divorce law, investment tips and the perils of online dating.

"People are telling us, 'Why didn't this magazine exist when my divorce was going on?' " said Mike H. Neumann, who edits the magazine with colleague Marion von Gratkowski. War of the Roses debuted in October and was named after the 1989 Hollywood black comedy in which Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas played a couple in the midst of a brawling divorce.

RosenKrieg, as it is known in German, prints 35,000 copies of each bimonthly edition, with a core readership of men and women between 25 and 50. Its design is a mix of muted glitz and matter-of-factness, like pasting a provocative cover on a mathematics quarterly. A muscular naked man enfolded in thought fronts the December issue.

The headlines and profiles elucidate the whimsical vagaries of love and the sting of solitary reality:

"No one and nothing will ever take my freedom again," states a dour-looking guy named Georg, pictured on page 36 wearing a leather jacket and leaning against a silver-studded Harley. Georg's "nightmare" marriage cost him 250,000 euros, or about $300,000, and three stays in a psychiatric hospital. He was saved, he explains, by a vision of himself riding through a summer field, smelling flowers and his own sweat and throttling toward the sunset.

"There are about 220,000 divorces in Germany a year, and that's up from about 150,000 from a decade ago," Neumann said. "It's a problem. Everything is more separated. People are more egoistic. They don't know what to do with their partners and their kids. And if you're the child of a divorce, you carry the 'divorce disease' with you."

The magazine mirrors a divorce rate that is among the highest in Europe. Like much of the continent, this nation of 82 million is increasingly secular and economically uncertain. The religious and social precepts that once held marriages together are loosening.

The continent is also facing a dramatic demographic shift: the lowest fertility rates in the world and a rapidly aging population. These factors are compounded by the prevalence of divorce, which psychologists and social workers say is another burden on Germany's welfare system.

War of the Roses would fit nicely on the coffee tables of the country's top politicians. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has had four wives. Joschka Fischer, who was his foreign minister, is on spouse No. 5. There's a joke in Germany that Schroeder and Fischer never traveled together on state trips because if they both died, the government would have been hit with exorbitant widow pension payments.

The magazine investigated why 56% of German marriages fail. That compares with 43.7% in the European Union overall and nearly 50% in the U.S. The answers were hardly surprising: affairs, unemployment, financial problems, higher numbers of working women. And in Germany, Neumann said, "no-fault divorces became legal in 1977, so it's become much easier. Before, somebody had to lie. Someone had to be guilty whether they were actually guilty or not."

These days, single mothers, depressed fathers, disillusioned children and others battered by divorce are "on TV every day," said Neumann, a divorced father of three who believes that most couples don't thoroughly contemplate the sanctity and weight of a lifelong commitment.

Such sentiment echoes those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet who wrote "Faust," the tale of a man's deal with the devil. He also penned a lesser-known bit of wisdom about marriage: "Love is an idealistic thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the idealistic never goes unpunished."

A fast-moving man with a black ponytail, Joerg Schulz has not been profiled in War of the Roses, but his story has a familiar resonance. A philosopher, biologist, teacher and music writer ("My wife and I moved into our house on Ringo Starr's birthday"), Schulz walked into an office at Berlin's Humboldt University carrying a satchel of books, including one he'd written on heavy metal musician Ozzy Osbourne. He sat by a tin of Christmas cookies and told his story.

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