Q.I am 24, a graduate student. I live with my mother and work part-time to help with expenses. My question is about divorce.

All my life I have been surrounded by it. My parents split up a total of three times -- once from each other and once from each of their respective second spouses. One of these divorces resulted from an extramarital affair, another from alcoholism and the third apparently because one spouse found married life less than satisfactory.

My father's parents divorced before my birth, for unknown reasons, and so did my aunt and uncle. And now my older sister and brother-in-law (parents of a daughter not quite 8) may soon join the statistics. My sister wants more time for writing; her husband feels unappreciated and unloved.

This leaves me feeling fearful and isolated. I am fearful because so many times I have seen so many people enter marriage, intending to stick together until death, and then they divorce, causing pain and anguish for themselves, their children and anyone else close to them. And I feel isolated to realize that I may be the only adult in my whole family who has never been divorced.

I feel troubled at the ease with which so many people accept divorce. It's as if they see it as the moral equivalent of trimming hangnails.

Divorce may be the only merciful recourse in cases involving infidelity, incest, spouse abuse or alcoholism, but usually couples seem to split up over some vague, ill-defined discontent.

What can I do or say if either my sister or my niece brings it up? My sister and her husband are seeing a marriage counselor before they make their final decision.

It's as if I had just seen 38 consecutive reruns of a horrible movie and am being forced to watch rerun 39.

A. Divorce breaks up marriages today the way death once did, and the pain is just as great. And no wonder. Each marriage has an identity of its own, which gets stronger every year. When divorce destroys it, everyone involved feels a sense of loss, no matter how necessary the divorce (or how necessary it seems to be).

You're a good example of that. The possibility of your sister's divorce is opening up many old and badly healed wounds.

Since you come from a family where divorce is so commonplace, it must seem as if it's contagious. And in a way, it is.

Families pass along both their strengths and their weaknesses, including their ability to get along with others. It's up to each of us to correct the mistakes we inherit, so we don't succumb to them.

Poor communication leads the list. This causes more divorces than anything else -- and it's so unnecessary. Almost anything can be negotiated and often prevented, if it's discussed in a rational, nonaccusatory way.

You may not be planning to marry soon, but you'd be smart to talk more openly with others -- especially those you love. For a relationship to work, people must be honest and direct and kind; they must accept responsibility for anything they do or feel, rather than blame it on someone else. Above all, they must listen to others as carefully as they want to be heard.

It wouldn't be appropriate to talk about the possible divorce with your niece, of course, but it would be kind of you to talk with your sister and offer your help, even if you have to bring up the subject yourself.

Since she feels she needs more time to write, you might offer to pick up your niece after school one or two afternoons a week, if you can, and keep her at your place for supper. And so your brother-in-law will get more of the attention he needs, you could take your niece home one weekend a month, so her parents can spend more time together.

This can help more than you might think.

As much as children are treasured, they can be tremendous stress on a marriage, particularly when they shift from one major stage to the next.

A child of 7 or 8 takes much more physical -- and psychological -- space than a younger child, stays up almost as late as her parents and demands much closer attention. By then, parents can barely remember when they could listen with half an ear to their child's chatter while they read (or wrote) a book; the road ahead looks long and bleak. This can make them so cross they lash out at each other, when it's really their loss of freedom that makes them mad.

It takes time and patience to make a marriage work. Making the effort teaches the child that families may have problems, but that they can be solved.

Apparently many more couples are now making an extra effort.

Although we may have hit a plateau, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the divorce rate has dropped 8 percent in the last two years.

With counseling and a supportive family, your sister may be one of the winners.