Like end-of-the-year greetings they came, cranked out by politicians ever aware that little they do is truly private.

Senatorial marriages of 5, 23 and 35 years were going pfffffft, as the Hollywood columnists used to write.

Sen. Donald Riegle (D-Mich.), Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) made it a triple-header with their divorce announcements - getting it done before the new congressional session began and, of course, a few months after election time.

They were added to a growing list of recent senatorial divorces or separations: John Tower (R.-Tex.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dick Clark (D-Iowa), Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.), Ed Nev.). Divorces of less recent vintage Brooke (R-Mass.), Paul Laxalt (R-include Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), Russell Long (D-La.), Harrison Williams (D-N.J.).

Former senators whose marriages fices include Charles Goodell, Eugene ended along with their political of McCarthy, John Tunney and Joseph Tydings.

"It's sort of like an epidemic: there's probably been nothing quite like it before," Senate Chaplain Edward L.R. Elson remarked of the recent divorces. Elson cited the pressure of being "public property" and the appendage wife to that public property among reasons for marital stress.

"These people are controlled, to an undesirable extent, by forces beyond themselves. The pressures on a marriage of someone in public life are certainly greater than they are on, say, the high school principal back home," said Elson.

For years, however, politicians - fearing political suicide - carefully concealed marital discord from the voter behind the facade of the Happy Smiling Political Couple.

Today even scandal-style divorce is no longer the political death blow it was as recently as five years ago. As the rate of divorce continues to rise dramatically, ex-husbands and ex-wives now comprise a sizable voting bloc themselves. Census Bureau statistics project that, at the rate we're going, one out of three marriages of people now 25 to 35 years of age will probably end in divorce.

As in the Senate, the number of divorced House members seems to be growing but it is difficult to keep count when the membership changes every two years. At present, there are fewer than 50 known divorced or separated members. Among the most recent are Bon Eckhardt (D-Texas), Barry Goldwater Jr. (R-Calif.) and James Corman (D-Calif.).

Four of the 67 freshmen are divorced - Bon Stump (D-Ariz.) Newton Steers Jr. (R-Md.) Theodore S. Weiss (D-N.Y.) and Harold C. Hollenback, a twice-divorced Republican from New Jersey who said to a reporter on opening day "I understand I'll get asked to a lot of parties down here as a 'single' congressman."

Nevertheless, the facts suggest that politicans are still getting divorced in fewer numbers that people in many careers. Census Bureau statistics list 2 per cent of "public officials" as divorced - on a par with doctors and compared to 4 per cent among entertainers, authors, reporters. "There is no breakdown by age," says Census Bureau chief demographer Paul Glick. "If you were counting just young folks, however, the rate in all careers would at least be half against that high."

Donald Riegle's second marriage, of five years, ended after his successful bid for the Senate in a campaign that survived two explosive scandals.

A Detroit News story said Riegle signed his first wife's name on a $4,525 federal income tax rebate tax check in 1971, while they were estranged then pocketed the whole rebate without her knowledge. Faced with the potential threat of a forgery charge, according to the News, Riegle met with his ex-wife a year later and agreed to settle the matter with an immediate payment of $2,000 to her. Riegle said he may have signed her name but "with no intent to be misleading to anyone."

The second scandal involved an affair with an unpaid staff member in 1969 while Riegle was still married to his first wife and was a congressman. The woman, known as "Dorothy," taped two of their intimate sessions with Riegle's knowledge. According to a transcript printed in the Detroit News, Riegle spoke to "Dorothy" about his plans for becoming President, and also joked with her about how he told Meredith - another staffer who was to become his second wife - about his "sessions" with Dorothy.

Meredith standing by his side, Riegle held a press conference bitterly attacking the Detroit News for carrying the story but admitted the affair and said he knew "Dorothy" had taped some of their conversations.

Riegle, throughout the first week of this Senate session, repeatedly told reporters that he would have no further comment about their "amicable" decision to divorce, or how much the disclosure of his affair contributed to their problems. Meredith, an editor with Smithsonian magazine, also refused to comment.

Nancy, the first Mrs. Riegle, remarked at the time of their divorce, "All politicians start off with a bad case of ego. Who else would put themselves in a popularity contest every two years? Politics is the natural arena for his type, I'm afraid. Don began to be more and more anxious for power."

At that time, she said, a marriage counselor told her, "He is an extremely selfish individual who always puts himself first. He has to be constantly adored. And until he faces up to the fact that he's just another man, he'll go from one secretary to another, from one wife to another."

Many a political wife practically names "politics" as co-respondent - charging that constant weekends away from home wooing constituents, plus the ego-feeding fawning attention they receive from staffs, takes its toll on the marriage. They often see their ex-husbands as overwhelmed by ambition and work, rejecting more modest professional lives and accepting the ultimate sacrifice of intimate marriages for votes.

Some politicians say ex-wives tend to exaggerate the political problems and underestimate the fact that they merely grew apart. Other politicians take some blame for the marital splits.

"Whether you're driven by excitement or because you think you have the ability, suddenly we let our lives be taken over by politics," Sen. Dole said after his divorce five years ago from his wife of 23 years. He also said he would have divorced earlier but feared the political ramifications.

"I don't care how strong a marriage is," Dole said, 'when you come in on Sunday night and the children are gone to bed, and you don't see them again until Thursday and then only a brief time before going out again, they literally grow up without you knowing who they are."

The ex-wife of Sen. Dick Clark said their life changed when Clark stopped being an aide to Sen. John Culver and became a politician himself in 1972.

"I think the location makes a big difference. As an aide, he lived in Iowa; the power and glamour is here," she said the other day as she talked of their 22-year-marriage which ended last fall.

Asked if she thought values were changing regarding political divorces. Jean Clark said, "I'm not sure it isn't that the women are just getting tired of it. Everything is left to the wife to take care of, all the regular dull things that go into everyday living, while they're off somewhere else. I think they're getting tired of taking a back seat, of not having careers of what they think."

A teacher in a child abuse center, their own, of not being able to say Mrs. Clark says of her life today. "It is a very difficult transition. The social life (as a senator's wife) is very interesting - and all of that is cut out of your life."

Careers seem to be the salvation for many political wives. The Talmadges had long gone separate professional ways before the senator petitioned for divorce from his wife of 35 years, on Dec. 29.

For years Betty Talmadge played the dutiful Southern political wife. Two years ago, after she had parlayed the Talmadge ham business into a $3 million venture, she said, "I've done one thing all my life - and that's stop and think what the political impact will be. But my mind's made up. I see no reason to subjugate my entire life to his political ambitions."

A close friend said, "I think Herman wanted a doormat. When she was rubbing hams and everything was in his name and he was roaming the hill, everything was just grand. But having her own business and independence shook everything."

Betty Talmadge sold the ham business and now is in the meat brokerage business. The senator proposed a divorce settlement with no alimony or division of property, stating that his wife had greater assets and a larger annual income than he.

Mrs. Talmadge is deeply involved in inaugural activities. When all this hell broke loose (about the marriage) I called the Carter people and said I'd bow out, that I didn't want to be an embarrassment to Carter," she said. "They said absolutely not. I can't tell you nice they've been to me." She will continue working on a benefit to thank the 51.3 per cent Committee of Democratic women who worked for Carter.

Mrs. Talmadge said that, while their marriage had been rocky for some time, she was "shocked" and "surprised" about the divorce, which she first learned about on the radio.

A politican's staff often does its best to "totally push out the wife," says Nadine Eckhardt, estranged wife of Texas congressman Bob Eckhardt. "I helped get one woman a top slot on his staff, but when I was back recently, she let me know in no incertain terms she didn't want me around."

Nadine Eckhardt has found that "most of the people stick with the power. Just for example, a lot of the Christmas cards this year were addressed only to Bob." She laughed as she said, "An ex-wife gets cut out of all the Christmas goodies. A ham came to the house the other day by mistake - and I kept it."

Staff animosity takes a new twist when the office worker becomes the next wife. Jim Wright, the new House Majority Leader, married his former secretary. "The last time I saw his first wife, she was a guide in the Capitol. Isn't that sad?" remarked another member's ex-wife, Don Riegle, Harrison Williams, Al Ullman, Paul Laxalt, Mo Udall and Russell Long are among those whose remarriages were with women who worked on the Hill.

Nadine Eckhardt charges that "all political wives suffer from the power syndrome. Every little judge and lawyer will stick with that senator or congressman. They're scared to death to take your side. I had to fire two male lawyers - who just wouldn't move on my divorce - until I wised up and got a female."

In purely political terms it sometimes seems to help to have the "Political Wife Slot" filled; sometimes it doesn't. Many California political observers feel that defeated Sen. John Tunney was hurt, to some degree, less by his divorce than by the charges of Jane Fonda, the actress-wife of his primary opponent, Tom Hayden, that Tunney lived the playboy life and dated teenagers.

On the other hand, Iowa politcal observers feel that defeated Congressman Ed Mezvinsky was hurt in last fall's election not so much by his divorce as by his marriage to Marjorie Margolies, an NBC Washington newcaster. "She's terrific, but I think marrying a non-Iowan who is a rather prominent Washington-New Yrok career person fueled charges leveled by his opponent that he was 'too Eastern, too liberal'," said an Iowa political reporter.

Reps Andrew Jacobs of Indiana and Martha Keys of Kansas, both divorced, became the first married couple in Congress last January. The divorce and remarriage became a politcal football only in Kansas, and Jacobs charged that his wife was a victim raised the question of divided loyalties - implying that as a wife she would not exercise independent judgement from her husband on the Hill. Keys won anyway.

One of the strangest political marital battles last year was that of California Congressman James Corman and his estranged wife Patti. She wanted to run in an adjoining district, opposing Barry Goldwater Jr. Her husband warned that if she did he'd divorce her. But he wanted the divorce kept quiet until after the election - even though he handed her a four-page "blueprint" for divorce. She rejected his suggestion of an image of "public tranquility" until after the first Tuesday in November.

Today, Patti Corman - the daughter of Lear jet developer and millionaire industrailist William P. Leart, she was unprepared for the "double standard" in the campaign. "Everyone, said 'poor Jim.' The little houswife voter is ready to kill you, not vote for you. She's not going to get a divorce, and, therefore, 'youre bad.' Even worse than that, the world went out in the party that if anyone helped me they would never again be accepted by the Democratic Party. People told me to my face they didn't want to hurt their contacts with Jim. That's where the power was."

Her husband said her account of her lack of support is "totally inaccurate. She simply had never been politcal and didn't have a wellspring of support."

Ironically, her House opponent and his wife, Susan, also separated last year - "but Susan did what I was supposed to do - waited until after the election. They did the smiling couple routine."

Susan Goldwater, who is in real estate, is an enthusiastic proponent of political life - "political marriage is fantastic and simply great for me." She would shed no light on their "trial separation." At one point, while her husband was considering running for the Senate, she said she wanted to run for the House.

A friend surmises that Susan Goldwater liked the emoluments of being "Mrs. Barry Goldwater Jr." but not the hassles of political life. She says only that 'we're kind of in limbo still and I just don't want to talk about it."

TNow that younger people with grade-school children are increasingly elected to the House more and more will have to tackle what House Chaplain Ed Latch considers one of the most difficult decisions in political life - "whether to keep the family back home and see them on weekends, or uproot and bring them to Washington and see them during the week." Either way, the politician can't help but be an absentee parent part of the time. "It is a real strain on these young families." said Latch.

Unless families can work out these separations and other stresses, the prognosis is for more, not fewer, Capitol Hill divorces.