Divorce Without Vows

JENNIFER GRAHAM

Regardless of their politics, Americans owe Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins gratitude for this: that their 23-year relationship unraveled, and ended, far from the public eye.

The couple separated over the summer, and apparently no fire hydrants were harmed in the process, no emergency medical technicians were summoned. It was late December before word of the break-up trickled out to the tabloids, and two weeks later the actors are still not talking, except to confirm through a publicist that they split.

It's horrible—or, cynics might say, fortuitous—timing for Ms. Sarandon, who has been busy promoting The Lovely Bones, in which she plays the glamorous grandmother of the dead teenager who narrates the film. In Alice Sebold's book, on which the movie is based, Grandma Lynn wears lots of makeup and a secondhand mink and swoops in to rescue a family collapsing into grief and despair. Along the way, she endeavors to stop her daughter from blowing up her marriage via an affair with a brooding detective. "I know something is going on that isn't kosher," she tells her daughter. "Capisce?"

Capisce, we do. Ms. Sarandon, whose seemingly golden "domestic partnership" with Mr. Robbins was the stuff of Hollywood legend, is desirous of preserving marriages on screen, but not so much in real life. She famously declined to wed Mr. Robbins, the father of her two sons, because she worried such a stuffy and archaic ritual might harm their relationship.

"I won't marry because I am too afraid of taking him for granted, or him taking me for granted," she once said. "Maybe it will be a good excuse for a party when I am 80."

Of course, many married people have a good excuse for a party when they're about 80—they're called golden anniversaries, and they're great. A pinnacle of married life, the 50th-anniversary party is a joyous celebration of love, perseverance and forbearance, virtues no less noble because they are lightly enforced by the state. The marriage certificate, surrendered at a divorce hearing, does not guarantee a happy union, but neither does the absence of one, as Ms. Sarandon learned.

Pat Conroy called divorce "the death of a small civilization."

Presumably multimillionaires both, neither Ms. Sarandon nor Mr. Robbins need worry about the fair distribution of accumulated household goods, nor the continued economic well-being of their offspring. This is an advantage of class not enjoyed by visitors to the New York soup kitchens where Ms. Sarandon volunteers; less fortunate women and men best take their partners for granted and obtain a marriage license. Its legal protections are small comfort when a marriage implodes, but small comfort is better than none.

Pat Conroy called divorce "the death of a small civilization." The dissolution of a domestic partnership doesn't have quite the same ring. It is, we can only assume, less painful for the partners, if not for their children. Having not arrayed themselves in finery and stood before a man or woman of the collar or a justice of the peace, revealing themselves to be foolish romantics by uttering words like "cherish" and "honor," they have no crow to consume. Without spoken vows and the subsequent legal entwining, taking leave of one another after nearly a quarter of a century becomes a passage not unlike buying a new mattress or getting a new job. Initially, there's discomfort and readjustment, but, hey, nothing lasts forever.

If their split was amicable—an achievement as rare as a golden anniversary—Ms. Sarandon and Mr. Robbins may sit together at college graduations and in hospital waiting rooms without rancor. But the dismantling of their "domestic partnership," whatever that was about, remains the dissolution of a domestic partnership with children, what some of us call a family.

All of us call that a shame.



 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jennifer Graham. "Divorce Without Vows." The Wall Street Journal (January 8, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Nicholson Graham is a writer and editor based in Boston, MA. Formerly a religion columnist for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, she is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe Magazine. Ms. Graham's essays have been published in magazines such as Runner's World, Parents, Newsweek and Family Circle, and she is a contributing author at National Review Online. Her website is Jennifergraham.com.

Copyright © 2010 Wall Street Journal




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