After forty years, it's kind of hard to believe you wouldn't have made peace with your spouse's most annoying habits and with the deepest rifts between you. Reading about Al and Tipper Gore today, I felt surprised and disappointed, as though it was their responsibility to uphold my faith, tenuous at best, in the institution of marriage.
I heard a story from my parents' senior circuit about a couple who split up after almost sixty years of marriage. "He put the house on the market in the local Penny Saver," said my mother, as if this was the point. This was a decade ago, when I was still married and thought I'd stay that way, despite ample evidence to the contrary. What on earth, I thought, would precipitate such a split? Did she suddenly decide, after sixty years, that the way he chewed got on her last nerve? Did he suddenly realize at the age of 83 that the world was his oyster and she was holding him back? Were they both just incredibly stubborn, only to realize on their respective deathbeds that the split had been the worst mistake of their lives? The whole thing, if I'd ever managed to come up with a plausible theory, would have made a riveting short story. But I didn't know them and so never had the chance to ask.
When new marrieds meet me (especially when they are out at a party without their spouse) and learn I am divorced, they usually lean in and quietly ask, "so, what happened?" Often long-married people ask this too, if they don't know me well. Those long-married who know me well enough don't want to ask because (this is only my theory) they worry divorce might be contagious. The youngsters feel like they can learn the One Thing to Avoid and therefore keep their newly-minted union together. With other divorced people, we can both exhale at our mutual catastrophes, and if their stories are told with a sense of self-awareness, sometimes we become good friends. If they are past the initial stages and bitter, I tell them I'm sorry they've had to go through that and leave them with their misery. Nothing I say will fix such a mindset.
When I'd been married a decade or so, I decided that successful long-term marriages involved all the platitudes people use--tolerance, forgiveness, perseverence--and also another thing: bullshit luck. Sometimes the fault lines don't show up until a real curve ball gets thrown a couple's way, and for some it really never does. Sometimes money greases the wheels and they make it work because position or comfort make it tolerable. Other times they stay together because whatever lies outside the union, even if it's far better than the life of quiet (or loudly miserable) desperation, means too frightening a journey to the other side. And sometimes people understand all they've signed up for, but they just love each other.
These are the unions I envy and, as I am sure many did, I thought the Gores fell into the last category. I remember an interview they did with Diane Sawyer right after the Lewinsky scandal broke. When Sawyer asked Tipper what she would have done in Hilary's shoes, Tipper said, "how can anyone know what they would do in that situation until they're actually in it?" I have no idea what transpired to end the Gore's marriage, and it's absolutely none of my business, but I remember feeling respect for such an honest answer. All I feel is sad for them and for their children, no matter whether what they've put out there--kind of an, "ew, 'mom and dad are making out' thing," as Rebeeca Traister said on All Things Considered today--and what we've collectively projected upon their union. Forty years is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Washington. I really hope they are all okay.