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A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to writing last weekend's profile of State Supreme Court Justice Donna Siwek.

I came across a statistic that literally made me catch my breath:

In Erie County in 1996, about 3,400 couples filed for divorce. Two years later, it was up to 4,086 couples. And by 2000, it was a record 5,006 couples.

Now that we know a bit about the justice presiding over local divorces, let's go back and talk about these numbers, folks.

What are we to make of this? The growing pains of a booming metropolis? Please. We're losing people so fast that last October, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that Buffalo's population was the lowest since the 1890s.

No, what we make of this is a record. And not just within our own boundaries. According to data-trackers within New York's Unified Court System, who oversee all court statistics in the state, in 1999 the population of Kings County was 2,268,297, and it had a measly 828 contested divorces. That same year, however, Erie County's population was only 925,957 -- yet we had 1,822 contested matrimonials, more than any other county that year.

What is going on here with divorce? The same week I pondered that, a new book plopped on my desk claiming to have the answer. In her new manual, "The Surrendered Wife," Laura Doyle, a California housewife says that women need to stop being control-freaks.

Her advice to wives?

Obey your husband at all times. Submit to sex whenever he wants. "Let him know you bless what he thinks" even if you disagree. And, most outrageously, forgive husbandly "indiscretions" outside the marriage and hand over control of the household's finances even if your husband has all the mathematical acumen of Bart Simpson.

Now, this isn't the first time this dominance-submissive thing has come up.

In 1998, Southern Baptists put it in their official credo: Wives were to "submit graciously unto their husbands." Then, a few months later, the secular hedonists of the intellectual world shot back with a decidedly ungodly study: The way to marital bliss, said psychologist John Gottman, who followed more than 100 couples for almost a decade, was for the husband to routinely give in to a wife's wishes.

She gives in. No, he gives in. No, you. No, you.

It makes me think of two of my favorite quotes. One is from author A.A. Milne: "Well, round about and round about and round about we go."

And the other is from a therapist I know: "You're fiddling while your marriage is burning."

He didn't say it to me, but that's beside the point, which is: knock off this he-said-she-said nonsense and decide if you want to save your relationship.

In short: while the hype machines are busy addressing serious social crises with "solutions" that seem pre-Mesozoic in their timeliness, we have a roaring fire going in this country and in this county, fueled by thousands and thousands of marriage certificates.

Submissiveness, dominance, books, weekend retreats, chocolate hearts, itchy red lace lingerie, lewd videos, deep prayer, light flirting with a co-worker, heavy counseling with a shrink -- it's all been out there a long time.

Yet, when the books have fallen off the best-seller list, the videos have gathered dust, the chocolate has been eaten and the counseling has been abandoned, we are still divorcing at a rate that is downright astonishing.

We may have been named this week as USA Today's "American City with the Most Heart," but a lot of those hearts, apparently, are broken, which leaves me with a lingering image:

Western New York's Cupid, deeply depressed because his fellow cherubs have relocated to Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham, has drunk himself blind on chocolate martinis and shot his frilly little arrow straight into his own foot.

Even he's having job problems here.

This would all be wryly amusing if it weren't so sad.

Erie County is losing its people -- and those who are left seem to be losing faith in each other.

Well. For what it's worth, I'd like to say this:

I know we've got a blue-ribbon panel going right now for everything from a new bridge to, probably, how to keep Mike Peca here. But couldn't we find a few bucks and a few souls willing to study why so many of the precious few people left in Erie County are ending what once was the most precious thing in their lives?

Yes, it would take time. Yes, we'd have to find a way to afford it. But . . .

. . . Can we afford not to?

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