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 How messed up is my view of relationships? When I heard a couple weeks ago that Howard Stern and his wife Alison had split up, I was crushed. Seriously. I was stunned and horrified. This is a guy who has lesbians, strippers, porn stars and grandfather-grandson gang bangs on his radio show, all of which he drools over and openly fantasizes about, and when his wife left him, it was like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had separated. Believe it or not, now that Howard Stern and his wife have parted ways, I wonder if thereís any hope for the rest of us.

Iím one of the converts. My first two exposures to Howard Stern were his ill-conceived, buttocks-baring Fartman appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards and his guest spot on the David Letterman show days after the Nicole Brown Simpson murder, when Stern wore an O.J. T-shirt and so appalled the host that Letterman felt compelled to point out, ďYou know, I guess I just donít find double murders as funny as I used to.Ē (As usual, Stern was ahead of the curve; Letterman was doing endless O.J. jokes about a month later). I found Stern appalling, crude, ridiculously self-promoting and, most important, not very funny. Iíd never heard his radio show - Champaign, Illinois, is more likely to run up-to-the-minute farm reports than Howard Sternís show - and I had little desire to.

But the tide slowly turned. I caught up with his E! show a couple of times late at night, and I started to see the method. Guy goes into the office and is the raging id surrogate to us all, then he heads home to a boring suburban home with his loyal wife and three lovely daughters.

That was the joke; for all his testosterone, Stern was charmingly muzzled by choosing a life as the devoted family man. I was hooked when his vastly underrated movie Private Parts - which, by the way, featured an almost criminally overlooked supporting performance by Paul Giamatti, soon to bust out in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon - came out. The movie was basically a valentine to Alison. You had to love the guy; everything he said or did took on a fascinating level of innocence because you knew he would always be faithful to his wife.

Of course, the case study of Alison was even more compelling. She married this 6-foot-4 ďgorkĒ in college because he was funny and had a good heart, and then, out of nowhere, he became this radio hellion ranting about his favorite pornographic films, his miniscule penis and, most memorably and most disgustingly, joking about her miscarriage on the air. What she had to deal with is probably punishable by castration in most third-world countries, but there seemed to be an understanding between them, something similar to the understanding between Stern and his audience. Itís all an act. She had made her peace with his act because she knew he would always be faithful and always love her.

Call me an idiot, but I believed all this. I found the Stern marriage to be a paean to realistic romance, two people realizing that if they loved someone else, they loved everything, even the bad stuff. No matter what happened, the Sterns loved and were devoted to each other, and that was all that counted. If you asked me to point out an ideal couple, I would have chosen my friends Benson and Nikola, and the Sterns.

Now Iím worried about Benson and Nikola - though, as far as I know anyway, Benson has cut down on his contact with porn stars.

I know what youíre thinking. Why in the world would a guy put all his relationship faith in a celebrity couple - people he does not know - especially a celebrity couple in which the man is known for leering other women? Youíre right of course: Iím an idiot. But that doesnít make me feel any better.

Various op-ed and gossip columnists have speculated as to why the Sterns broke up - the Sterns are being mum on the topic - and usually the blame falls on Sternís radio show and the incessant company of loose women, adoring fans and Richard Simmons. It makes sense. Alisonís dealing with Sternís stripper fetish makes my girlfriendsí dealing with my neurotic self-loathing look positively silly. But I still donít buy the explanation. I mean, theyíve been together for 23 years, and sheís just now getting fed up with it?

An argument could be made that Stern has mellowed in recent years; the show isnít nearly as ribald as it used to be, though a recent queefing contest between two female listeners might contradict that claim (If you donít know what queefing is, rest assured, Iím not going to be the one to tell you; ask your mom, kids). I canít imagine her just now reaching her breaking point. Most of the women I know would have left him about 20 years ago, but because Alison Stern made it this long, youíd think sheíd have learned to deal with it, for better or worse.

No, the Sternís problems appear to be more of the mundane, normal couple difficulties variety, which is far scarier. Heís a workaholic, a recluse who spends most of his time at home in the basement on the computer, and she feels like they donít spend enough time together. Theyíve ... grown apart. Just like any other couple.

Meanwhile, I canít listen to the show now. Itís not the same when Stern is grilling some stripper on whether or not sheís ever had anal sex. Before, he sounded like a henpecked husband curious about a life he would never have because he loved his wife too much. Now, well, now he just sounds ... gross.

And what about me? Whom do I look up to as a model of marital stability now? I suppose I could look to my parents, but seeing them as a couple would require that I accept that they occasionally have sex, and Iím not quite ready to do that just yet. Maybe two people really canít settle all their difference, and maybe Woody Allenís Husbands and Wives was right: Marriages canít work because, ultimately, weíre all just out for ourselves and expect our spouses to be who we want them to be, not who they are.

Iím sure it wasnít easy to deal with Howard Stern as a husband, but if someone could deal with him, I always figured someone would be able to deal with me. Now Iím not so sure.

So this is what it has come to. If Howard and Alison Stern canít make it, can anybody? That I would even ask myself such a question probably says more about me than it does the institution of marriage. But there it is, regardless.

Guess Iíll have to pick another celebrity couple to root for. How about the Clintons? Now thereís a happy couple.



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