Why are many of us stunned and even disoriented by the news that former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper are separating? Several posts on the PT blog have focussed on the Gores' marriage and its apparent failure, but to me the interesting story is the rest of us and our reaction. We don't have the slightest idea why the Gores decided to separate and it's really none of our business. More than half of marriages end in divorce today, though the split up rate is certainly lower among marriages as long standing as the Gores. Why does this split up pack such an emotional wallop?
The psychoanalytic concept of transference comes in handy here. It is universally true that we human beings carry forward conflicts, longings and wishes associated with the important figures of our childhoods and attach these to important figures in our present lives. We use something like psychic velcro to hang our psychological needs onto teachers, doctors, clergy, political leaders and celebrities.
In our unconscious minds, there is a persistent timelessness. We can be simultaneously childlike and very sophisticated.
I think the public picture of Al and Tipper Gore inspired a reassuring image of the solid parental pair of early childhood that would always stick around, be there whether we paid attention to them or not. Without evident needs of their own, we saw in them the fantasied idealized Mom and Dad unit, reassuring and steady. This may be far from the truth of the families many of us really had, which only led strength to the transference feelings.
The human need to idealize is another phenomenon at work here. The childhood need to idealize parental figures or substitutes persists into adulthood. It stabilizes and reassures us to have figures we can look up to, who seem in some way better or wiser or stronger or steadier than ourselves. We don't care to have our idealizations broken, no matter how tangential they might be to our lives.
So the news of their break up has an impact that has nothing to do with them, but rather us: when our idealized transference objects disappoint us, we are unsettled at best, disillusioned, angry at worst.
Thus a psychoanalytic description of this situation is that the Gores uniquely evoked what's called a positive idealized parental transference among a good swath of the public. Disappointment in an idealized person or entity leads to negative emotions including anger but also provides the opportunity to learn something more about ourselves, and perhaps to grow.