The Blog

Marriage: The Gory Details

We don't know what fuels and nurtures anyone's marriage unless we're that proverbial fly on the bedroom wall. Sometimes we don't even know what sustains our own.
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Headline news! Breaking news! After 40 years of marriage, Al and Tipper Gore Are Calling It Quits! Third Party Involvement? Is Al Having an Affair? Does Al Have a Younger Tipper Doppelganger? What Does It Mean Financially? Forty years of the Gore marriage -- crises, careers, children, grandchildren -- now tabloid fare with the usual hint of scandal.

Well, for one thing, as we baby boomers get older, 62 can be the new 42 -- particularly if you have the cash to support a lifestyle that doesn't take its toll medically or cosmetically. In the case of the well-heeled Al and Tipper, perhaps they feel they still have a chance to re-invent themselves -- albeit separately.

The photos capturing their previous "romantic moments" sadden me -- for them. Yes, they're a public couple so they had to expect all of those pictures would surface. But they're a private couple, too. Do either of them (or their children) read the comments beneath the snapshots?
"Why not just stick it out?"
"I'm blessed that I've had marital bliss for 33 years!"
"Al is a nincompoop and Tipper has just outgrown him."
"He'll probably find a younger Tipper!"

All those photos with what appeared to be heartfelt embraces. Were they merely posing? Who knows? Either way, it's got to hurt.

I could never understand the notion of married people needing to "stick it out." For whom? For the sake of the children? I am a firm believer that children of any age know when their parents' marriage is not a "good" one ... that growing up in an unhappy "intact" home is worse than growing up in one that's "broken." Do we stick it out for our extended families to spare them the shame, the explanations, the angst? At its essence, what makes a marriage differ from a romance? Isn't marriage a romantic relationship that became licensed? Sure, we make wedding vows. But can we keep the promises and own the same dreams that we had at 22 some 40 years later? When the connection frays, the chemistry flattens, the sizzle (albeit intermittent after decades) loses steam, the conversations tire ... do we really want to settle for "sticking it out?" True, the best of marriages take work. But sometimes, perhaps, does the effort simply become too strenuous?

And, by the way, what is the reason the headlines question if Al is the one with "third party involvement?" Why does society typically assume it's the man who is the "infidel" and not the woman -- particularly not one who is a wife and mother? Of the 100 women whom I anonymously interviewed on the subject of their marital infidelity (To Love, Honor, and Betray: The Secret Life of Suburban Wives), there was only one who got "caught" -- and that was because she wanted to get caught, and went off with her lover.

The others -- and, trust me, none of them were "types," neither Hollywood nor tabloid material -- had affairs because they wanted more "oomph" in their lives, but mostly because they were lonely. All of the women used exhausting methods -- real cloak and dagger stuff -- to carry on their affairs under the marital radar for the simple reason that they didn't want to lose their husbands and break up their homes. This is old news: Women are simply more discreet than men, less boastful, family-oriented, more mindful of consequences. Women are also not given a societal pass with a "wink-wink" or slap on the back: "Girls will be girls" does not exist as "boys will be boys." Hester Prynne is alive and well. The question is, why did the unfaithful wives put such effort into an affair and not the marriage? Their answer: The relationship with the lover was more like a drug-induced high, and they still hoped for the fairytale with their husbands.

But speculation about third parties and captured kisses from the Gore's past aside, changing the context of any relationship after 40 years is painful -- particularly a marriage that started as a romance at the tender age of 19.

I wonder how many times they tried to give it a go? Did they take vacations to resurrect their romance? Did they walk down the aisle at their childrens weddings and figure, each time, that although their marriage was clearly not satisfying, this was not "the right time" to split? With the birth of each grandchild, did they ask, "How can we do this now?" How did they know when it was finally the right moment to unequivocally state that "sticking it out" wasn't what either wanted ... that maybe they have a chance at what they feel is true (and new) happiness -- with someone else or on their own. Perhaps they both asked themselves, "is it better to be lonely in a marriage or alone?"

We know that marriages have a turning point when the nest empties. The marriage can choose three directions: complacency, new-found relationship, or dissolution. Those of us hovering around the 30-year mark (like myself) are stunned that this vibrant couple (and low-profile couple when it comes to scandal) called it off after 40 years. Now, if we heard that Bill and Hillary were divorcing, we might not be as surprised. Perhaps we're equally as surprised that The Clinton's are still together -- many assuming they probably have a politically-fueled arrangement. Bottom line: we don't know what fuels and nurtures anyone's marriage unless we're that proverbial fly on the bedroom wall. Sometimes we don't even know what sustains our own.

Subjectively speaking, and knowing too many people in "bad" yet long marriages, I would think that the Gore's decision took substantial courage and thought. In the end, regardless of who gets the farm, who gets the "big house," and the real reasons behind their decision -- after 40 years, it's still a formidable life change -- regardless of how amicable the split.

Mea culpa for any subjectivity: I hope they remain kind to one another so the past is not regrettable. I hope their 40 years together doesn't end up in a tell-all. I hope they're just moving on. For sure, this was not a decision the Gores made overnight.

Stephanie Gertler is the author of To Love, Honor and Betray: The Secret Life of Suburban Wives (Hyperion).