[From Bella: When I posted about Tipper and Al Gore splitting, an intriguing discussion broke out in the comments section around the issue of whether a marriage that lasted 40 years (or even much less) should automatically be considered a failure simply because it ended in separation or divorce. I invited Rachel Buddeberg to write a guest post on the topic. (Readers are always welcome to suggest guest contributors.) Rachel is such a wonderful participant in enlightened singles discussions all across the web, and has been for so long, that I have also asked to interview her as part of my "single-minded change agent" series. (You can read about the first two change agents here and here. Readers are also welcome to nominate additional change agents.) When that interview with Rachel is complete, I'll tell you much more about her. For now, I'll just mention that you can read her blog at www.rabe.org.]
From Rachel Buddeberg, with my thanks:
Al and Tipper Gore are separating. There has to be a reason other than the one they are giving - that they have grown apart. He must've had an affair. Maybe it was the trauma of losing the 2000 election. Yes, that must've been it. In addition to desperately digging for the real reasons, instead of simply taking the Gores' word, another theme emerges: What a failure! They've been married for 40 years and now that. Horrible! Pundits and friends alike are shocked and mourn the end of the marriage. Only a lone voice asks why do we need to see this as a failure? I felt like sending the Gores a card congratulating them on their mature and courageous decision. I must be in the minority. Why this furious search for the "real" reason? Why this claim that the Gores are failing? Here is what I came up with to answer these questions, which are probably both very much related (somehow a divorce is not seen so much as a failure when one party is "at fault," which usually means an affair).
Witnessing a divorce, especially an amicable one and one after long years of marriage, calls all of our assumptions into question. We would rather not have to face that. There are (at least) four interrelated aspects that play into the divorce-as-failure theme:
3. Inflexibility toward changing goals.
4. Resistance to change.
The last two aspects are not solely related to divorce. They also play into our feeling sorry for someone who runs the first 25 miles of a marathon. Quitter. Somehow running 25 miles doesn't get our admiration if the goal was to run a marathon. We cannot allow an adjustment to a goal. We need to reach the goal even if it kills us. And the goal of a marriage is to last a life-time, which brings up the strange question: Are we then suggesting that either Al or Tipper should commit suicide? That would be absurd, of course, but it seems the logical consequence of our life-time marriage idea. The other life-time commitment happens in another institution: Prison. What does that say about our idea of marriage? It's a life sentence? It's a race to the deadly finish-line? What a terrible notion! That's why I think the Gores' decision is so very mature: They realized that they have changed, that their lives have changed and thus they did not fear change but rather embraced it. To the rest of us, this is a reminder to look at those areas in our lives that we are not happy with and make changes there - or rather scream and shout at the Gores for daring to show us that we can actually take charge of our lives, cultural myths be damned. And this attitude that anything less than death-do-us-part is a failure pervades any other breakup, too. Rather than celebrate a wonderful relationship that lasted a few months (or years or weeks or days or decades), we deplore the lack of marriage at the end. If it didn't lead to marriage (or a marriage that lasted til death), then it cannot be any good - seems to be the thinking.
Matrimania feeds us the idea that marriage is the best thing ever to happen to a person. Of course, this idea does not allow for the possibility that this is not the case. A divorce shows the cracks in the matrimanical mythology: Marriage might not be so wonderful after all. Marriage might not last forever. If divorce does occur, we must therefore find a hidden reason - that two people just don't want to be married anymore undermines the myth too much.
And just in case the matrimania wears off, singlism takes care of the fear mongering. A divorce scares us. Because the life of a single person is just absolutely horrible! All singles are lonely and depressed. We know that. Never mind that Al and Tipper have calendars filled with things they feel passionate about. Like many of us singles. Never mind that a lot of us singles are perfectly happy with our single life because we know the truth: We are not alone.