- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

A second marriage, in Dr. Johnson's famous for-mulation, is the triumph of hope over experience. Skeptical if not cynical, to be sure, but not without the doctor's usual genius of insight.

Many men and women in my circle of friends who were divorced when that was the thing to do are still mired in single bliss. When, trying to be helpful, I search for prospective mates for them I invariably come up with a prospect with the qualities eerily similar to those of the discarded first spouse. If these friends should bump into their divorced exes for the first time they would probably marry each other.

So what happened? Nobody on the outside can ever know for sure how any couple winds up in Splitsville, but for their friends, speculating on the route they took is always irresistible.

The pressures of the modern culture are often irresistible, too. Feminism, freedom and independence become more important than interdependency, building for a future, or growing old together. The rituals of the time just past reflected the change. Hip couples of the 1960s and just after often wrote their own vows, sentimental musings that had none of the resonance of the stately language their parents and grandparents heard in the echoes of the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or the ancient Hebraic cadences of religious tradition. Mantras replaced prayer. Many couples chose gardens of wildflowers, forests, mountain tops, and beaches (for bare feet) rather than the magisterial setting of church or synagogue for the tying of the connubial knot.

Wedding music no longer reflected the traditional sentiments of "I love you truly," or "Because." Instead, wedding guests heard the pop emoting of Carol King, Joan Baez or Simon and Garfunkel.

Summer weddings are back, as the hundreds of pages of brides' magazines attest, and with the return of tradition and custom is the return of ancient cultural attitudes toward matrimony: Couples are determined once more to make marriage last.

Over a hundred scholars, religious and otherwise, are meeting this month in Denver where, they say, "a broad-based bipartisan marriage movement is about to be born." This sentiment catches the crest of changing attitudes. These defenders of matrimony pledge to work "to turn the tide on marriage and reduce divorce and unmarried childbearing, so that each year more children will grow up protected by their own two happily married parents."

The meeting is sponsored by three groups, the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, the Institute for American Values, and the Religion, Culture, and Family Project at the University of Chicago Divinity School. (There's a web site, www.marriage-movement.org.) Together they propose ways to strengthen marriage, drawing on research from a variety of fields, including law, political science, psychology and theology, which testify to what works (and what doesn't), both before and after a couple says "I do." They're tapping into what we've learned the hard way, that the decline of marriage weakens civil society and hurts the most vulnerable among us, the children.

We've come a long way from the sentiment of the 1967 movie, "The Graduate," that caught the cynicism of a generation disdainful of tradition, that looked at marriage as something that had to be wild, spontaneous and rebellious and probably transitory. The climactic scene takes place in a fashionable Presbyterian church where the bride is about to marry an upright (read uptight) doctor she doesn't love or even know well. Just before bride and groom speak their vows, Dustin Hoffman, who looks like he's been sleeping in his clothes, swoops into the church, shouts his objections to the marriage and carries the lady off for himself. She doesn't love him or know him well, either. The audience is clearly on the side of the impetuous couple and laughs at the satire, even though it's clear to one and all that their future will be no permanent laughing matter.

That generation lost sight of the fact that marriage is first a personal contract, a public announcement and a serious commitment to raising children with a family life of sustaining love and security. When it's encumbered with political ideology or glib cynicism it usually fails. A failed marriage is a loss not only to those in it, but to society, too, with a steep price tag.

If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, then first marriages need all the help they can get.

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