Washingon Post “On Success” Column Question: To the shock of even their closest friends, Al and Tipper Gore have announced their separation, after 40 years of marriage. And this is the couple that openly showed affection and wrote the book “Joined at the Heart.” Can a marriage that comes apart still be considered successful? And if Al and Tipper can’t make it, is there hope for the rest of us?
What can you put up with?
Can a marriage that comes apart still be considered successful? I guess it can if you got the results you were seeking – as in, spending a huge part of your life with someone who will no longer live with you, producing 2.5 kids (that half a child is the slow one who didn’t go to college), and losing half your stuff at retirement age. If that is an acceptable situation, then yes, congratulations, you have been successfully married.
I guess if you learned a lesson that is valuable enough, any experience is successful regardless of how it ends. But if the only lesson you learn is that it was the other person’s fault entirely, most likely you cannot call the experience a success. In college and through my mid 20s, I learned that any woman who was really attracted to me was clearly not marriage material!
Those early, self-deprecating insights of mine have given way to data that exists on the topic of marriage, which apparently varies a bit based on whether you are male or female. Most research on how people feel about marriage (which, by the way, no one wants to know) reflects that married men are happier than unmarried men and, paradoxically, that unmarried women are happier than married women. The data has skewed this way since researchers started asking people these questions anonymously fifty years ago. A lot of people – women in particular – feel trapped in unhappy marriages; in such situations, divorce might be an option you explore based on family finances, or on your response to pressure from society/your family/your religion to work it out, or both.
In the Gores’ case, they can’t divorce if they are trying to bring people together for an election or a cause. Can you name one politician who initiated a breakup in the middle of a campaign they thought they were going to win? Most successful men get divorces when they can afford it or if it can’t hurt them politically. However, some of the lawyers I have talked to advise their wealthy clients to get separated rather than divorced because the financial fallout of divorce can dramatically reduce the lifestyle of both spouses. So it really is “cheaper to keep her,” and staying married to a rich person you no longer love seems to be preferred by most women to a divorce that leaves you with no country club membership and considerably fewer pairs of shoes. I’m not saying anyone should think that way; I’m just stating what researchers tell us. (Frankly, it sounds to me like being a marriage researcher is bad for your marriage!)
Let’s get real and personal: Al Gore became very successful and the political campaigns were pretty hard on Tipper, as you may recall. Also, life with someone in the spotlight does not have a great track record for producing happiness. Oddly, when people who have been married for over 20 years co-author a book about how in love they are with each other, a divorce seems to follow shortly afterward.
The reality of marriage is that you marry someone because of who you think they are; and when, after being together for a few years (or 40), you find out who they really are, you have to decide if you can live with that! People do change and grow, but rarely at the same pace or in the same direction. So the key is this: How much do you really like each other and what can you put up with long term? Can you accept the faults that may never improve? Love is wonderful, but the fact remains that you can love someone and still dream of killing them on a regular basis. I think you have to love them, really like them, and be able to enjoy their company with great consistency. If you can do that, then you can overcome the differences in thoughts and feelings that have always made understanding each other a challenge. Many years ago, I gave my wife a half-pound box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day and she said, “Do you know how much weight I will gain if I eat all this chocolate?” I said, “Yes, honey… about a half a pound!” She laughed and said, “That is exactly the kind of answer I would expect from you.” I said, “Well … then our marriage is a success.”