The announcement this week that former vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, are separating after 40 years of marriage deeply saddened me. There were certainly more momentous events -- the struggle to contain the Gulf oil spill, an Israeli commando raid on a ship that resulted in more than 10 deaths, North Korea's increasingly erratic and bellicose actions -- but the Gore story nonetheless hit a nerve. And in its own way, the Gore split says something profound about a cultural shift that has taken place in our society. No marriage is safe.
Most divorces take place in the first few years of marriage, with about 60 percent of all divorces occurring among couples that have been married for less than 10 years. Nonetheless, divorce can occur at every stage of marriage. The federal government's National Survey of Family Growth found, for example, that although men and women over 60 were less likely than others to divorce, about a third would divorce before the end of their lives. Overall, the Census Bureau estimates that about 40 percent of all first marriages will end in divorce.
So why should we worry about the Gore separation? It's none of our business, after all, what goes on in the private lives of even famous people. We shouldn't judge. We should just wish them happiness in their new, separate lives. But that attitude -- the ever-diminishing stigma attached to divorce -- certainly contributes to the phenomenon.
Not too long ago, it would have been unthinkable for as prominent a couple as the Gores to break up. Divorce not only ended a marriage, it diminished the involved individuals' social standing, career, and certainly their political aspirations. No longer. We've elected two divorced presidents (both Republicans). No one blinks an eye at a divorced corporate CEO. And even the clergy's ranks include divorced men and women.
The effect of making divorce normative is to make it easier for couples that are going through rough times to simply call it quits. But divorce has consequences beyond the two people immediately involved. If they have children, those effects can be profound. Children of divorce face emotional hurdles that can last a lifetime and increase their chances of divorce. One study by the University of Pennsylvania College of Medicine found that very young children often regressed in their development following divorce, while adolescents were prone to depression, thoughts of suicide, and even violent outbursts.
But divorce affects even the adult children of parents whose marriages dissolve after they are grown. Although there has been less research on the effects of divorce on adult children, surveys suggests that divorce has a damaging impact on the parent-child relationship even in adulthood. Divorced parents frequently treat their adult children as confidantes, revealing inappropriate information about their former spouses and their new love interests. And parental divorce can also stress their adult children's marriages, removing a touchstone of stability that adult children can count on during their own troubles.
I know it's wishful thinking to hope that the Gores will reconsider their decision. But they have already survived many ordeals that would challenge even the strongest of marriages -- their son's near-fatal accident, myriad political campaigns, including the 2000 presidential election whose outcome dragged on forever, Tipper's battle against depression and who knows what private disappointments, slights, and pains.
Whatever the Gores are going through now, things are bound to get better. Every marriage, no matter how strong, has its downs, which seem insurmountable when you're at the nadir of one. Working through the rough patches and maintaining a commitment to do whatever is necessary to make the bond stronger is a far better alternative than walking away. But that is not the message we get from the culture at large. Instead we hear platitudes about the importance of personal happiness and fulfillment -- no matter who gets hurt.
The Gores, like most couples, made a vow when they married to remain together "until death do us part." Couples make those vows in front of family and friends and with the blessings of religious institutions and the state. They are not private promises; they are public affirmations. So if the Gores decide to break those vows, they've hurt all of us, not just each other, and they've chipped away at the very institution of marriage. Let's hope they don't move from separation to divorce, for all our sakes.