Sure, the retired Navy man said, some wives (including his own) are wonderful: fine mothers and homemakers, enhancers of their husbands' careers and credits to their gender. Clearly such a woman is entitled to a big hunk of her husband's pensions and death benefits, even if the unappreciative lout runs off with some bright-eyed thing from the typing pool.

It was the rest of what he said that had my mail box straining at the seams and my phone ringing off the hook shortly after I published his remarks:

"How about the bimboes, sleep- arounds and leeches . . . the arrogant legion who take everything they can get and then abandon husband and children after years of marriage . . . the hoydens on a free ride?"

Bimboes, leeches and hoydens indeed! Where did I find this awful man, scores of women demanded, and why on earth would I publish his insulting remarks? 4 Good question. And the answer is that they (some of them, at least) created him. He is the flip side of one of the most frequently used arguments for increasing the payoff--divorce settlements, insurance, pensions and death benefits--for women who are divorced after many years of marriage. The fact that a woman had no outside job during her marriage is no justification for leaving her in poverty when the marriage breaks up, the argument goes. After all, she may have stayed home because her husband wanted her to. She may have spent years making a home for him, rearing his children, entertaining his bosses and otherwise promoting his career. She deserves better.

The retired Navy man merely asked the next logical question: What if she doesn't deserve better?

It was, in the context, a fair question. It's the context that's unfair. Deserts should have nothing to do with the financial rights of ex-spouses. Is a conscientious, competent company man deserving of a fatter pension, a bigger Social Security check or more generous death benefits than his lackadaisical, talentless, time-serving co-worker who, nevertheless, manages to keep his job until his benefits are fully vested? Character and constancy have no impact on a worker's retirement income, and should have none on his spouse's.

I find it helpful to think of marriage as (in part) an economic partnership, with all that implies. If you and I go into business as partners, we split the profits, without regard to which of us is the harder worker or the more upright citizen. If the business goes well, we both profit; if it founders, we both suffer. And if we choose to dissolve it, we split the assets--at least to the extent of our individual investment in it.

So why is marriage-as-economic- partnership so hard a view to sell? It is, I think, because income-earners (principally husbands) tend to think of the income as their own. A husband is a good man or a rotter, depending on whether he is generous or tight with "his" money. If the money, including retirement benefits, is his, there is no reason (aside from common decency or a humanitarian desire to help her avoid penury) why he should share any of it with her when the marriage is over.

It's all nonsense, of course. The income I produce is no more mine alone than the children my wife produced are hers alone. It's simply a way of dividing labor: I produce the family's income; she nurtures the family and makes the house a home. If (God forbid) the marriage should break up, we can argue over the distribution of my future income. But what I have earned during our marriage, including retirement benefits, belongs to the partnership.

It's a matter of equity, and it ought to be a matter of law.