APPARENTLY THE 20-year mark is the Heartbreak Hill of marriage. Here at the end of my 40s, I'm seeing breakups all over my cohort. Many longtime couples (straight, lesbian, gay) are calling it quits, admitting with grief that they cannot fulfill their earnest pledges to love and care for each other lifelong. Given the intimate damage in their daily lives, they're acknowledging that -- if they're to salvage any kindness for themselves and each other (and their children) -- all that's left is the exit.
Who knows why? When I was young, I thought my parents' divorce at the 20-year mark happened because they married so ridiculously young, at ages 21 and 24, during that the weird demographic blip called the 1950s. Historically, the standard Western European age for first marriage was around 27 and 29 -- except in times of plague, when land, shops, and inherited capital became available earlier. As neighbors and parents dropped dead, younger couples could start a business and support not just children but also the other necessary members of what was then called a ``family": housemaids, dairymaids, apprentices, and the like. (Of course, in the millennia before antibiotics, marriages also lasted only 20 years or so, ended by death.)
The 1950s were post-plague years for young Americans. World War II left the United States as the globe's only healthy economic power. Ours was a country so rich, with wealth so evenly distributed, that even a 25-year-old man could support an entire household -- although the wife had to double as nursemaid and housemaid, unlike her ancestors, who hired theirs. Government policies -- including the GI bill's subsidized college educations and mortgages, and the federal highway system -- sent all those obscenely young couples into age-segregated suburbs, isolated among their own generation, far from the real grownups. On all that 1950s nonsense and of course, on my parents' incompatibility, I blamed my parents' 1970s divorce.
Now I'm having to forgive that generation. Clearly something else is at work, if my own cohort's decade-later marriages are stumbling at the same road marker. Here's the most painful of the splits I see, because it's the most public: my friend Hillary Goodridge's separation from Julie. I met each of them, separately, in our early 20s. I was (and remain) in grateful awe of their willingness to let the media invade their daily lives for five years, iconizing them into symbols. At their wedding, TV cameras seemed to outnumber the invited guests. I didn't cry when they took their personal vows, since in real life they'd been married far longer than that. What tipped me over into sobbing, rather, was when the Unitarian Universalist President Rev. William Sinkford said, ``By the authority vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts . . ." At long last, the government was recognizing officially, openly, proudly what was already true between those two, and so many others. I heard nothing after that; I was crying far too hard.
Now all of us know that two women can stumble and come apart on marriage's Heartbreak Hill, that lesbian and gay couples are no better or worse than heterosexuals. We could say it was the glare of the cameras on their intimate life for five years, but surely that would be as superficial as blaming my parents' divorce on the 1950s. Perhaps only God knows why, so often, two people come together with so much love and hope -- and yet cannot make it last. Here's my prayer for Hillary, Julie, and their daughter: May all of us keep our eyes averted, respecting them with as much kindness as we can muster, allowing them their privacy in such a hard time.
And here's my prayer for the rest of us: May the Commonwealth of Massachusetts nevertheless keep its pledge to its citizens to treat all couples equally -- straight, lesbian, gay -- in good times and in bad, for richer and for poorer, whenever and for whatever reasons they need to lean on the marriage laws. Because couples scarcely need those laws during the joyous honeymoon years; rather, they need marriage's legal protections during the harder times of disease and disaster, or when building a house of financial security for their children, or after they're parted whether by death, or after stumbling on Heartbreak Hill.
E.J. Graff, a senior researcher at the Brandeis Institute for Investigative Journalism, is author of ``What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution."