Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The American Dream

Today I was listening to one of my clients talk about the beginning and end of his first marriage. He and his first wife, like many people from that generation, married young. Why? Because that was just what you were supposed to do when you were young and in love. There weren't really any other options society approved of.

Just two months into their marriage he got drafted into Vietnam. He did the best he could, sending his meager pay home to his recently discovered to be pregnant wife while watching his buddies die around him. He somewhat miraculously did not end up as a statistic after two years out there and was able to return home.

He was greeted by two strangers, one who he knew long ago and one who he'd never met. He tried to go back to school, using the money from the GI bill to fund a couple of semesters at college. But one income wasn't enough to support a young couple with a baby. And unfortunately his wife had frivolously spent a lot of what he'd sent home. So he quit school and went to work driving a bus.

At that time, and technically even now, that wasn't too bad of a gig. You got great benefits, decent pay, and they were unionized. He was perfectly happy just to be alive with a family and steady pay. She wasn't.

She didn't want to be married to a blue collar worker. All her friends at the bank where she worked wore business skirt-sets and had fancy houses paid for by their white-collar husbands. They had nice clothes and took exciting vacations. They got their hair done and went out to elegant restaurants. She came home to an apartment, a screaming child and an exhausted husband. They didn't talk about this, of course. Because they didn't know each other well enough to talk on an intimate level.

When they married they were defined by family values. After the war he had his family values and a raging case of disillusion with mankind. She had her family values and a voracious appetite for all the pretty things she couldn't afford.

They stuck it out for more than ten years despite being miserable with each other for most of it. They did the customary things couples do when trying to save a marriage- they had more kids, they put money aside for family vacations, they focused on work. And then finally, they gave up. What struck me so much about my client’s story wasn't the tragedy, but the familiarity.

A lot of people don't know that there was a big spike in divorce rates after WWII. Those young soldiers, like my client, came home to wives and places they didn't recognize. And because they were heroes, they got a free pass to do things usually considered taboo. But the financial boom that followed evened things out. There was no financial boom in the 70's. There was a societal revolution. Feminism, racial renaissances, political upheaval and the invention of a little thing called "No-Fault Divorce".

Politicians love to throw around the divorce rate as if it's some sort of proof of the moral decline within our society. I think that's horseshit. Haven't people always, from the very beginning, just been doing what they were told?

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