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By Grandma Ellen

i met my husband when he was a freshman in medical school, and I was a freshman in college.  We quickly formed fast friendships with four other couples, two of whom were already married.  And as the years passed, and we married, two other couples were added to the mix.  Eight years after the guys’ medical school graduation (at that time, there was only one woman in the class), five out of those six couples were divorced.  Divorce was not part of the medical school curriculum, but it certainly was a prevalent syndrome!

The cliché goes that medical school and the subsequent training are hard on marriages.  That is true, but not one of these marriages broke up because of the impossibly long hours the young docs worked (the first year we were married, I did not see my husband for two entire weeks while he was on his surgery rotation).  One of the wives decided that she wanted an open marriage, the rules of which were to be that you could have affairs, but you were not supposed to develop any emotional attachments.  Her husband was not in favor of this arrangement, but his wife insisted.   But, oops, much to her surprise, he fell in love with someone else.  Divorce #1. 

Another wife decided that she wanted to have a more exciting life (unclear what that meant) and wanted her spouse to become part of the excitement.  Her wonderful husband had always worshipped his wife and led her to believe that she was God’s gift to man.  But he didn’t understand what she wanted from him and didn’t know how to change to her liking.  Divorce #2.  (That was decades ago; she is still single.  Evidently, other men didn’t share her husband’s opinion!)

The husband in the third couple took a mistress: a riverboat gambling casino.  That became his sole focus, to the exclusion of his family – his wife and four children.  Divorce #3.  The fellow in the fourth couple, after twelve years of being supported in high style by his wife’s father, decided that he had had enough of his spoiled, whiny, demanding spouse and, without a fare-thee-well, announced one day that he wanted out.  No counseling, no second chances, no ifs, ands, or buts.  Divorce #4.  (Even the guy admits this was not a nice thing to do, but he wanted his freedom in a big way).  The male half of couple number five was an arrogant, crude jerk from the get-go, but it took his wife twelve years to realize that she had made a huge mistake.  Divorce #5.

All of these splits put my husband and me in a thorny position.  Whom to side with?  In all but one of these cases, we maintained friendships with the ‘wronged’ spouse.  Not because they were wronged, but because they were the friends we truly cared for.  By the time Couple #1 divorced, the wife had become one of the pioneers in the women’s assertiveness training movement.  And she asserted her wants with everyone in an immoral way, I felt, with no thought as to the other person’s ability to ‘assert back’.  Wife number two, also, had proven herself to be intensely ego-centric and unable to empathize with another’s needs.  The gambling doc in the #3 Divorce had made his wife’s life miserable and so we had little sympathy for him.  As to the couple in Divorce #5, we lost contact with both the former spouses.

The one exception to the above scenario was the fellow in Divorce #4.  We realized that he was hedonistic, but along with that trait, he had many other fine qualities that made him a worthy human being and, as has been proven over 50 years, a true friend.  Among his wonderful traits is that he is a Totally Fabulous Father.  Our friend has three sets of children, in fact.  (He married and divorced a second time before finding the love of his life, his third and current wife).  AND HE COULD GIVE LESSONS IN BLENDING FAMILIES.   He has always told the four children from his first two marriages that he divorced their mothers, not them.  And it is clear that these were not empty words, and the children believed them.  It is also evident to an outsider that all of the children feel themselves to be equally loved by their father.  All of them come to all of the significant events in the lives of their siblings.  And none of them thinks of any of the others as half-siblings.  From the time the last two children were tots, they thought of their father’s older children as their brothers and sisters.  And, of course, their mother had a lot to do with their feelings.  Even as a new wife and mother (21 years younger than her husband), she welcomed the other four kids into HER family.  I remember once visiting them when her baby was a few months old.  Her husband was going to baby-sit with their new infant daughter, and she was taking his older daughter to the circus.  I would venture to say that most families would have seen a reversal of roles in this instance. 

Forty years ago, divorce was a common occurrence among our friends.  But they all picked themselves up and began new, satisfying lives -- with new mates or significant others and blended families.  And the epidemic subsided.

Grandma Ellen and Granddaughter
Ellen Baron is a wife, mother and grandmother who has had three distinctive careers:
1) as an editor at an educational laboratory;
2) as a businesswoman who ran a private-label group at Black & Decker, and then served as Director of Marketing for a consumer electronics start-up company; and
3) as an academic administrator who was director of a post-baccalaureate business program.

Her 'Just Jobs' (as opposed to "Careers") included piano teacher and French tutor (her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis having been in French).

Now retired from both careers and jobs, Ellen serves on the Maryland State Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as the Boards of several non-profits. She has lived in England, Switzerland and Germany, as well as St. Louis, Boston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and, now, Baltimore, MD.

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