The separation of Al and Tipper Gore after forty years as husband and wife produced a flood of commentary concerning what’s purportedly impossible, and possible, in modern marriage.
According to rapidly calcifying conventional wisdom, the Gore breakup shows that it’s impossible to uphold the old ideal of “till death do us part,” and indicates that even the best-matched couples can’t reasonably expect that their love can last a lifetime.
Meanwhile, admiring pundits note that the Gores have handled their situation with dignity and discretion, demonstrating the real possibility of a “good divorce.”
Actually, both conclusions contradict reality for most Americans. The statistics show that loving lifetime marriage isn’t just possible, it’s prevalent. And common sense and sad experience expose the notion of the good divorce as a destructive myth, since the end of every marriage brings pain, problems and damage to society.
Concerning the widespread assumption that all marriages go stale or sour over time, The New York Times recently reported on a major study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who monitored brain function in long-term couples to check on the survivability of romantic love. To their surprise, a full forty-percent of these veteran partners showed intensely romantic neural reactions to one another, indistinguishable from the excitement and enthusiasm characteristic of newly formed relationships. Most of the other sixty percent with less spark and heat still expressed satisfaction and affection concerning their spouses, reflecting numerous surveys showing 75% of all American couples registering high contentment levels with their unions.
Why, then, do fifty-percent of all marriages end in divorce?
The simple answer is, they don’t: the fifty-percent divorce rate is a pernicious myth that’s never been true and grossly misstates the current situation. All figures show the divorce rate (measured as the number of divorces per population) peaked in 1981 and has gone down dramatically since that time.
The actual rate of marital failure is notoriously hard to gage since no one knows which of today’s marriages will last and which of them will fail. But the Census Bureau still provides the most authoritative view of the recent past, listing in the latest available data (2004) the number of American adults who have ever married (72%) and the number of American adults who have ever divorced (22%). This means that 70% of those who ever married remain married to their first spouse, or stayed in that first marriage until the spouse died. Meanwhile, couples who divorce after forty years of marriage (like the Gores) remain strikingly rare. Figures collected by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania indicate that only 4% of annual divorces involve such long-term partnerships.
Al and Tipper, for example, may display no public signs of strife but their broken relationship is already connected to real world damage: less than two weeks after the announcement of their separation their daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, announced her own separation from her husband of thirteen years. Folk wisdom says that a failed marriage produces children who are themselves more likely to divorce, and though causation may be arguable, correlation is not: both common sense and statistics indicate that children of divorce are a worse bet in matrimony than children of life-long marriages.
My own family exemplifies that reality: my late parents divorced after 28 years of marriage, and three of their four sons (including me) have also experienced marital breakup.
In my case, I worked closely with my ex-wife to make our split as painless as possible. We had no children, and our assets were modest enough so that we managed to avoid fights about money. Still, our separation after eleven years brought awkwardness and sadness to everyone we knew and we failed utterly in our determination to maintain a long-term “friendship.” I’ve been married to my wife Diane (the mother of our three children) for 25 years now and I’ve had no contact at all with my ex (who’s also remarried) for at least fifteen years --- other than the wistful exchange of condolence notes at the death of our respective fathers.
No one has written better about the “ruinous ripples” sent outward by every divorce than my wife, Dr. Diane Medved, in her 1990 bestseller, The Case Against Divorce. The impact is felt most by those closest to the couple – particularly children and parents, who often see the abrupt end of relationships they probably enjoyed and valued. The negativity spreads further, affecting friends (perplexed by conflicted loyalties), communities (a prominent divorce can devastate a church, for instance) and society at large, costs in lost savings, productivity, stability and even health.
The problem with platitudes about the good divorce is that they inevitably encourage marital breakup, just as the myth that half of marriages are bound to fail discourages wedlock.
If we kept the situation in honest perspective, high-profile separating couples like the Gores shouldn’t reassure potentially divorcing couples, or in any way alarm the American majority who work to sustain their long-term marriages.