At age 39, Donnie Simpson had it all: the voice, the looks, the money, the family. The million-dollar-a-year disc jockey for WPGC-FM -- and co-host of Black Entertainment Television's "Video Soul" -- always bragged on-air about life at home. His listeners knew the names of Simpson's wife and two children as well as they did their own.

Then one day, he stopped talking about them.

No wonder. Simpson, married to his childhood sweetheart for almost 19 years, had walked out on his wife and kids and into the arms of a younger woman. The breakup surprised his wife, his friends and even Simpson himself. Looking back, he says, it was a classic midlife crisis.

Or maybe he just took too much for granted, says his wife, Pam. "My therapist said, A midlife crisis is just an excuse for a man to act like a fool.' "

The Simpsons separated -- a split that lasted more than three years. But unlike millions of troubled couples, their separation did not lead down the long, sad road to divorce. "I wanted my family together," says Pam. "But the only way I'd have him back is if he really wanted to be back and give 100 percent to the marriage."

With love, patience and no small degree of soul-searching about their relationship, the Simpsons, both 42, reconciled last fall. Donnie moved back home on a Friday; he nervously shared the news with his radio audience the following Monday.

"The calls were unbelievable," he says. "I knew the ladies would be with me, but I had grown men call up crying." Other separated couples asked about the possibility of healing their own broken marriages. Everywhere he goes, Simpson is peppered with questions about the reconciliation. "It's the first thing people ask me about," he says.

Reconciliation. In a culture where every other marriage ends in divorce, reconciliation sounds old-fashioned, almost quaint. But even those who believe divorce is better than an abusive, loveless marriage are alarmed at the ease with which couples come together and fall apart.

"Love is a feeling," says Lynne Gold-Bikin, a divorce lawyer dedicated to keeping marriages together whenever possible. "If you can fall in love and fall out of love, why can't you fall in love again?"

Michael Bowers, executive director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, wholeheartedly agrees. "Until divorce papers are signed, it's not too late," he says. "Research shows that if couples get treatment, even at a late stage, there is the possibility of reconciliation."

Indeed, an informal "marriage preservation" movement has emerged in the last few years. The movement, rooted in the belief that staying together is better for the children, is admirable in its goals but flawed in its approach, says Bowers. What damages children most is prolonged, serious conflict between parents, whether divorced or married.

Sometimes problems are so severe that the marriage cannot be salvaged, says Gold-Bikin. If there is physical and emotional abuse, drug or other addictions (and the partner refuses to get help), chronic infidelity, or the discovery that the spouse is homosexual, she says, reconciliation usually is not advised.

But most of the time, couples just hit a rough patch, decide the marriage is over, and call a divorce lawyer. Then they have second thoughts but don't know how to get back on track.

Saving the marriage, after all, requires more than packing your bags and moving back home. "If you're going to reconcile," Bowers says, "you have to be willing to face hard things -- about yourself, about the limits of life."

Bowers himself had to face those hard truths. Divorced and remarried, the 43-year-old therapist found his second marriage in trouble last year. He left for five months and -- after counseling -- has been reconciled with his wife for six months. "It was very clear to me that I was not done with this relationship," he says. "We had enough good that I knew it was possible to have good again. A lot of couples forget the good they've had."

What made the reconciliation possible?

"First," says Bowers, "I believed I had married a person with whom I basically was compatible -- we shared the same basic values, the same outlook on life and aspirations. Second, I had no reason to doubt the character and integrity of my wife, who had been my closest friend. Third, even though I had no map for what our future might look like, I was able to muster enough confidence in us to create a map. It was really a second phase of this marriage."

And they both had to let go of anger and pain.

"Sometimes people feel the need to even the score card' before they can reconcile," says Bowers. "Both partners have to be willing to let go of hurt. And it doesn't happen all at once. So what you do is take acts of faith."

Pam Simpson had plenty to be hurt and angry about.

Like most separated couples, the Simpsons had one partner who wanted to leave and one left behind, holding the pieces of what seemed like a happy marriage. There was a problem, but Donnie couldn't explain what was wrong or how to fix it or if he even wanted to fix it.

They tried marriage counseling when they first separated but "my heart wasn't in it," says Donnie. His wife did everything she could to save their marriage, he says. He didn't. They drew up a formal separation agreement, but did not begin divorce proceedings.

"I was wallowing around in confusion for a long time," he says. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do." He'd get off the air at 10 a.m., and head for the golf course and play until it got dark. "I didn't belong to anything. My day consisted of ways to waste time."

Pam, on the other hand, had her hands full trying to be a single parent to their two teenagers: son D.J., now 21, and daughter Dawn, now 17. Donnie tried to be a father, but, bottom line, he wasn't really there for them. "They handled it pretty well, but there's no question they were hurting," he says.

Early on, she sought help from a therapist to cope with the sudden separation. Instead of lashing out at her husband, she focused on her children, her modeling career, and the positives within herself.

"Just because one person -- Donnie -- was doing the wrong thing, it didn't mean it was okay for me to do wrong," she says. "I didn't want to hurt him. Donnie was going through a really rough time in his life."

She was firm about one thing: Reconciliation was possible, but only if he ended his affair and recommitted to their marriage. "I let Donnie know there was no revolving door," she says. She refused to reunite under any other circumstances, she says, because she had to set an example for her children. "I don't want my daughter to settle for less than she deserves. Donnie wasn't going to have his cake and eat it too, at my expense."

Throughout the 3 1/2-year separation, the Simpsons maintained a cordial if sometimes distant relationship. But it was clear, says Pam, that Donnie still cared for her.

In April of last year, after getting counseling of his own, Donnie decided he wanted to come back home. "Looking back on it, I think the purpose of this lesson was to make me appreciate the things I already had," he says. "I was willing to risk losing them. I was no angel, obviously, but I was a homebody."

In a sweeping gesture, he bought Pam a new car and filled it with roses to surprise her with the news. "I was so excited because I had finally made a decision," he says.

On the way to the house, he stopped to tell his therapist, who saw Donnie's excitement, then sat him down and warned him that Pam might not welcome him with open arms. Donnie hadn't even spoken to her for three months.

His therapist was right. Pam didn't think Donnie knew, deep down, what he really wanted. She told him: "You're still confused, but I know what I want. I want my family."

He got some more advice, this time from golfing buddy Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan. "I want to say one thing to you," Jordan told him. "Don't be scared. Don't be afraid to fail."

In fact, Donnie was scared to death. Was he doing the right thing? Was there too much damage to repair? What had these three years done to his marriage?

"One thing I understood was that it could never be the same," he says. "It could be better or worse, but it couldn't be the same."

The Simpsons were lucky in a number of respects. They had enough money for both of them to live comfortably, they were kind to one another, and they didn't rush off to lawyers who were more interested in divorce than reconciliation.

"First, I always explore if the marriage is retrievable, particularly if there are children," says Glenn C. Lewis, who has represented a number of prominent clients in divorce proceedings. "A divorce lawyer who cares about families is always looking for that option to start with and is always open to that throughout the case."

Of all his victories, Lewis says he is most proud of the one where the husband told him, "You got my wife back." The case always makes him smile: The wife initiated three divorce proceedings over a 13-year-period, with separations of more than a year each time. "Each time we persuaded her to attempt reconciliation, which has now become permanent," says Lewis.

What brought them back together?

The husband "never wavered from an inviolate belief that marriage was proper, that his family needed to be together, and the couple could work through any problem," says Lewis. "The other thing he did is allow me to use an aggressive stance in divorce litigation to make marriage more attractive: It made her realize how bad divorce and life after divorce could be."

Hardball tactics? "A little hardball was played," admits Lewis. "Hardball is the only thing that got her attention. And the end justified the means."

Lynne Gold-Bikin has a gentler approach when she is representing the spouse reluctant to divorce. For unhappy couples who have "grown apart," she offers a deal to the party seeking the split: Attend a four-month marriage course offered by the PAIRS Foundation. At the end of the 16 weeks -- if the person still wants out of the marriage -- she won't dispute grounds for divorce, just negotiate the financial settlement.

Last year, she sent 13 separated couples to the course. Twelve reconciled.

Most couples in crisis, says PAIRS founder Lori H. Gordon, start out in love and one day wake up unhappy. Why?

"Bottom line: enormous misunderstanding and hidden expectations," says Gordon. Couples don't know what happened, why it happened, and they don't know how to talk to each other anymore, she says. Too often, they walk out of the marriage. "It is so easy to lose each other based on misunderstanding."

The PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) Foundation, based in Falls Church, considers its program as education, not therapy. Offered nationally through professional counselors, the 16-week program teaches couples to understand themselves, understand their partner, understand in depth what went wrong in the relationship, fight fairly, and to develop a style of communication in which each partner feels "heard, respected and considered," says Gordon.

The 120-hour program (three hours one night a week, plus one weekend a month for four months, costing about $1,200 a person) clearly is not a quick fix for a troubled marriage. It is a considerable investment of time and money -- but cheaper than most divorces. "We find that either the marriage gets better or the divorce is less destructive," says Gordon.

Thousands of couples have gone through the course. Gordon ticks off the traits of couples who successfully reconcile: "Forgiveness. Rebuilding trust. Openness to change and new possibilities."

For six months, Pam and Donnie Simpson talked about reconciling. "We had to get to know each other all over again," she says.

And they had to renegotiate their relationship. The girlfriend already was out of the picture, but to come back in this marriage, she told him, he would have to be less selfish, more considerate in a hundred little ways. This family was going to revolve less around Donnie.

It sounded good to him. "The thing I missed most was accountability," he says. "I want someone to ask me, Where have you been?' I like having a partner like that. I have to be a part of something."

On a cool October day, everything fell into place inside his head. It was crisp, just like the day after he got married, "one of the best days of my life." He called Pam, and moved back home a week before their 22nd wedding anniversary.

"The first night I came home I was very scared about what I would feel the next morning," he says. He woke up, hugged his wife for two hours, and never looked back.

"I wouldn't be back here if Donnie wasn't giving 100 percent," says Pam. "Donnie's giving 110 percent. He's showing me everything I wanted to see."

And when other couples ask them about their reconciliation, they say two things:

"Whatever you do, hold on to your self-respect," says Pam. "That being said, you've got to know when to swallow your pride."

And Donnie tells them: "If you are not absolutely sure that divorce is what you want, if there is any desire to still be with this person, then you should do everything you can to try and keep it together." CAPTION: WPGC-FM disc jockey and television personality Donnie Simpson and his wife, Pam, at their home in Potomac.