Swamp Water Jurisprudence: The prom syndrome meets reality


by Judge Dennis Challeen

It was decades ago when I first read it and I cannot remember the source but I’ll relate it as best I can:

“When I was a child I dreamed of going to Shangri-La. As I grew older I planned with great excitement on someday going to Shangri-La, and finally as a grown-up I journeyed to Shangri-La. It really wasn’t much at all.”

Through the years I’ve often pondered the wisdom of this thought.

Sometimes it’s called the “prom syndrome” because we all can relate to our teenage years when boys would get up the courage to ask a certain girl to the prom and worried about being rejected. The girls would likewise hope a certain boy would ask them (or dreaded a certain other boy would ask them and the excuse they would give).

Once the date was established the preparations began. He had to rent a tuxedo or buy a new suit; she a dress or gown that was just perfect for the occasion. They imagined how happy they would be and how wonderful their date would appear to others. The parents got into the planning, including pictures of their young soon-to-become adults. The flowers were ordered. They dreamed of their magic night. At the prom she nervously giggled too much; he said stupid adolescent things; nothing turned out as planned. When they got home their parents who stayed up late asked how the night was. They said “just fine.” They both experienced the “prom syndrome” where reality did not live up to expectations … the first of many to follow. It sounds negative and depressing — perhaps, but human nature.

The prom syndrome doesn’t go away — it returns in different forms. I’ve presided over hundreds of divorce cases. Once upon a time the parties before me were happy, in love, and looking forward to a family and a wonderful life. Then reality set in, screaming children, bills to pay, economic pressures; their life choices diverged and neither measured up to the other’s expectations. Each blamed the other as they came to divorce court to have a judge, a complete stranger to both of them, make the critical decisions they would have to live with for the rest of their lives.

I also performed hundreds of marriages, both in and away from the courthouse. I remember the time one couple and their witnesses came into the courtroom, and as I began the simple civil ceremony the bride bolted out the door — never to return. It probably was the best thing for both parties; a prom syndrome that never got a chance.

I recall another morning marriage when, about four hours later, my phone rang and I could hear the background tavern jukebox playing, and shouting and screaming going on, and the groom told me to cancel the wedding. I advised him that was called getting a divorce; a prom syndrome that ended the same day.

Why is it that a new car is never as shiny or wonderful as the day it was brought home? It seems to have faded away after about six car payments.

I once had a conversation with a clergyman about seeing so many divorces, and he wisely said, “We get to see the bad marriages, rarely the good ones.”

Then one day I was shopping for groceries and an older smiling couple came up to me holding hands and introduced themselves and reminded me that 35 years ago I married them in my courtroom; their marriage had been a happy one with no regrets; a real long lasting on-going prom syndrome. I wondered to myself whether these modern day $25,000 weddings are any happier than that cheap courthouse one.

The prom syndrome has been around for at least a thousand years — for example, the legend of King Arthur and his round table of noble knights who ruled the mythical kingdom of Camelot, where “goodness reigned supreme” (unlike our Washington, D.C.). “Camelot” became a musical, and a symbol for the short life of President Jack Kennedy.


Remember the words: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

But, as Bobby Burns counseled in his poem “To A Mouse,” “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley, and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy.”

It seems that planned happiness rarely lives up to expectations, that the happiest moments of our lives are usually spontaneous, unplanned, unforeseen happenings.

We’ve all come down to forks in the road of life and made decisions — some good, some emotional, some we regret, some that changed our lives for the better.

“I’m stronger because I had to be; I’m smarter because of my mistakes; happier because of the sadness I’ve known, and now wiser because I’ve learned.” (curiano.com)


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