11/18/2010 02:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Happily Ever After: Hollywood Divorce vs. Real Life Divorce

It's a delightful romp. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated. But an affair with an ex-spouse? Not on my planet.

How about Divorce American Style? It's a sixties satire filled with connubial conflict, adventures in alimony, and eventually, reconciliation.

If you go for the classics, there's 1939's The Women. Or maybe you prefer the Parisian setting and humorous hijinks in Le Divorce.

What do these movies have in common? Among other things, happily ever after following divorce. I'm guessing your story is a little less Hollywood, as is mine. I was thirty-something when I wed, and forty-something when I divorced. It was a quiet marriage, with two beautiful boys, and ultimately a painful ending. No, it didn't escalate to War of the Roses proportions, but the battle was brutal, and the fallout far-reaching.

We've come to expect nasty breakups. But we don't anticipate the weight of the aftermath, or its duration.

My ex? He remarried quickly, moved up the corporate ladder, and lives in another part of the country, comfortably. He found his happy ending.

As for me, I've raised our sons, had my share of ups and downs, and it's been a pretty precarious ride. There is no second spouse, no record of stunning accomplishments, no relaxation on the weekends. It's the typical single parent struggle, set in motion by an inadequate court-ordered settlement, the inability to enforce it, and a disastrous dose of denial -- mine -- during divorce, and afterward.

Oh, I know. There are no guarantees. We fall in love, we take our best shot, life happens, and we deal with the consequences.

True enough.

But some of those consequences are avoidable. And unconscionable. The "win" goes to the one who is wilier, wealthier, or better prepared.

And then what?

We pick ourselves up and get on with it. That includes the challenging process of recreating a safe environment for our kids. Yes, there are inequities. Yes, there is anger. As time passes, we heal. And if we're lucky, we make a fresh start. After all, Meryl builds a thriving business and winds up with Steve Martin!

Yet when it comes to divorce, something is amiss in our national conversation. We debate rates of divorce, and ways to reduce them. We focus on the event, rather than its consequences.

And I ask myself: Who's studying the long-term impacts of unpaid support, of court battles that rage for years, of absentee fathers and mothers, or worse -- destructive ones who pop in and out of the picture? Who's calculating the drag on productivity, the cost to our mental and physical well-being, our educational system, our health care system, our economy? Who's tracking the change in single parent income five years after the fact? Ten? Fifteen?

Certainly not our weary politicos. Certainly not our Hollywood producers.

For the divorced parents I know, life looks nothing like a scene on film. It involves repeated run-ins with an ineffective judicial system, legal actions that siphon off energy, and debt that becomes a depressing quagmire. Sure, there are astute judges, fine attorneys, and responsible co-parents. But offset that with the reality of clogged court calendars, the legal profession's drive to maximize billable hours, and the nature of an adversarial relationship.

So we turn to the movies for a little escape. Popcorn, with a pinch of positivity. Not a bad thing, as long as it doesn't perpetuate myth and encourage denial that works against us.

Happily ever after is hard to come by. Dismantling a family is serious business, and the aftermath, anything but comedic. Divorce may end a dysfunctional marriage, but where is our remedy for dysfunctional divorce?