I don't know what felt worse on Monday morning this week: the oil spill hitting Florida or the divorce announcement by Al and Tipper Gore. Married myself for 38 years and a marriage therapist for nearly that long, I thought I was above illusions about anyone else's marriage. But this divorce—and even more so the way it was announced—got to me.
Here's a couple who survived the near death of a child, Tipper's depression, and Al's cliff hanger loss of the Presidency, and forged a believable public image of unity and passion (the famous convention kiss). They even wrote a book on family life titled Joined at the Heart. They were the baby boomer couple who could.
At first sad, I became mad when I read their non-explanation of the divorce: they had come to a "mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration." Family friends and former spokespersons were left to fill in a story line that went like this in the New York Times: The Gores "had grown apart after decades," and especially "after Al moved onto a global stage while Tipper seemed to move in a more personal direction." One close friend added that "there's not a lot of drama behind this...they remain very close friends."
This, I submit, is either evasive bullshit or something worse: a lack of respect for marriage. Is this little whimper all that a 40 year marriage with children and grandchildren is worth? Sports teams and their home cities show more grief and anger when teams leave for better stadiums and tax benefits. The breakups of authors and long term literary agents come with more public emotion. Even candidates and campaign managers divorce with more feeling, for crying out loud. Without revealing details, would it be too much for the Gores to say something like "This is really hard and involves a lot of pain and regret." I'd almost settle for the classically evasive "mistakes were made" over "we grew apart but remain best of friends."
My own hunch, after years of working with long term marriages threatened with divorce, is that there is more to the Gore story than growing apart. In my experience, when a 60 year old otherwise stable husband wants a divorce, it's usually because he's had an emotional or sexual affair. He's comparing how he feels being with a more admiring and gratifying woman to the more complicated way he feels with his wife of many years, and he believes he has fallen out of love with his wife. He says he that admires and respects her, that she's a great mother, and that he wants to remain friends, but he can't imagine staying in an empty marriage for the rest of his life. What's usually missing in his divorce narrative is his shared responsibility for the problems in the marriage and the notion that he could take leadership for calling on his wife to get help together and renew their relationship.
When women over age 60 initiate a divorce, it's more often from a sense that they do not want to continue for 20 more years with a man who they see as controlling and mean to them. Unlike husbands, older wives generally do not anticipate that a new honey will take care of them after the divorce. Although these women usually have a better handle on what's going on the marriage than a fleeing husband does, what is usually missing is a sense of their own part in putting up with the guy's behavior and how they got back at him in countless ways. They also may not realize that their husband actually loves them and might change if confronted before she turns stone cold on the marriage.
More than anything else, what concerns me about the Gore divorce is the cultural message it reinforces: that marriages, like leaking oil, drift over time in ways that we can't do much about, that people once mated for life get caught in different currents and wake up one day to find themselves in different seas, too far apart to be life partners any more. I do not accept this sophisticated story line for modern marriage. I do not accept the baby boom divorce mantra that "these things happen to the best of marriages; let's be civilized and not show how we feel about the end of a dream." When it comes to divorce, I'm with the poet Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.