Unmarried unhappily ever after


NEW YORK'S most beloved unmarried couple were in court last week proving that unmarriage between consenting adults is not the paradise that the altar-shy may suppose.

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, the quintessential modern New York couple, whose lives seemed so enviable for so long to so many, are now seen to be just like any embittered old married couple for whom it's all gone sour with age.

As time goes by, the song observes, hearts "full of passion, jealousy and hate" remain the fundamentals driving relationships between man and woman. In nightmare marriages passion, jealousy and hate can produce frenzies of destruction that spare nothing: not each other, not self-respect, not property, not friends, not even the children.

This seems to be pretty much where matters have arrived in the unmarriage of Mia and Woody. What was gained by their enlightened modern decision to preserve their singularity?

This is the classic punishment administered when the love that led to marriage produces the mess that leads to divorce. Unmarriage, you might suppose, would spare the parties this humiliation at least.

Yet it does not. Mia's jealous rage, Woody's bizarre account of cross-the-park fatherhood -- all this is doled out in prurient detail to a fascinated audience. Afterward we phone each other to muse upon it.

In the United States, with our lust for thrashing out absolutely everything in courtrooms, gaudy and obscene marital smashups are orchestrated by lawyers and conducted before judges. The melodramatics naturally encouraged by our famous adversarial legal system tend not only to keep the bile at a rolling boil, but as this column illustrates, to keep press and public titillated.

In the normal course of a juicy divorce, the former lovers, now haters, exchange cruel abuse, betray each other's darkest secrets, level hair-raising accusations of bestial conduct and, in general, compete to humiliate each other before their families, friends and public gapers who loaf around courthouses.

This is the ultimate nightmare of marriage as catastrophe. Fear of it is probably one reason that discourages so many young couples from marrying. It is common nowadays to hear unmarried couples explain that marriage would impose legal shackles on them that might poison a sweet understanding which flows from unmarriage.

As the collapse of the Mia-Woody unmarriage illustrates, however, the sweet understanding which flows from unmarried bliss may not survive the strains produced by the onset of middle age with its intimation of mortality. When it fails, unmarriage apparently does not prevent the unhappily unmarried couple from behaving like the couple clamped in the nuptial shackles.

In its American manifestation, the dream of finding unmarried happiness between consenting adults probably dates from the 1960s, a romantic era when many Americans dreamed Rousseau's dream of man at harmony with nature and at war with all things artificial, from barber shears to marriage licenses.

It was a young people's notion in a young people's time, and it is easy to understand why it has seemed so beguiling for so long. The Mia-Woody business suggests, however, that it is too young an idea to withstand the ordeals that beset couples growing long in the tooth.

A common hardship of the aging male is the obligation to give up boyhood. This may be doubly hard in America with its grotesque awe of youth. It must have been especially hard for Woody, who has been forced to tell the world he is in love with one of Mia's adopted daughters.

It must certainly have been hard for Mia. In America women are not readily granted the second childhood so widely claimed by men. In an unmarriage, however, as in so many things, women have it harder.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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