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Gores' split offers a lesson in maturity

The couple sound more thoughtful and grown up than the talking heads picking their marriage apart.

June 05, 2010|Sandy Banks

It would have been nice to have a little heads-up before being hit with the announcement this week that Al and Tipper Gore are separating.

The news was stunning only because we're still stuck on the 10-year-old memory of their public kiss; courting our own romantic notion that one wet smooch on a political stage signaled a lifetime of wedded bliss.

That explains the confusion and caterwauling: The pontificating by politicos, blaming Tipper's depression and Al's lost election. The chin-stroking by therapists over his Nobel Prize and her empty nest. The searching among cynics for bimbo eruptions and lamp-throwing stories. The online professions of a grieving, bewildered public.

Their collective question is simple: After 40 years together, why now?

The better question is more complicated: After 40 years together, why not?

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Maybe I'm just pessimistic because I spent the last week immersed in readers' decidedly unromantic tales of their own matrimonial travails.

My last two columns on the difficulties black women report finding "good" black men to wed unleashed a torrent of personal stories rooted in resentment and resignation. It surprised me that more readers were weary of the romantic grind than expressed a wish to get or stay married.

Many wrote about the "torment" of being stuck with a partner who no longer interested them, matched their needs or treated them well.

Men complained of being badgered and taken for granted. "As soon as my youngest child is 18, I'm leaving," several said. Women fantasized about part-time partners; "a man who lives nearby and visits often," but doesn't crowd or criticize them.

It's an unscientific rendering. But their stories reflect the private desperation percolating beneath the surface of relationships that might look as comfortable to their friends as the Gores' marriage did to much of America.

And they made me wonder if the idea of "working" on a marriage is wearing thin among middle-aged veterans of the institution. Delivered finally from years of exhausting commitments — to careers, children and aging parents — maybe Boomers nearing retirement aren't so willing to spend the rest of their lives slogging through marital differences.

Whatever prompted their separation, the Gores have plenty of company. According to U.S. census figures, although the country's overall divorce rate has been falling or flat, the rate among those over 65 has doubled in the last 30 years.

And among divorcing couples between 40 and 79, one out of four said there were no major problems or single crisis that led to their split, according to a survey by the American Assn. of Retired Persons (AARP). They had simply fallen out of love or believed they would be happier apart.

Divorce felt like a better alternative than sticking it out.

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Surely the Gores' marriage, like any that endures for decades, has had its share of strains. There was the near-death of their youngest child in an auto accident, Tipper's battles with depression and Al's disappointing electoral loss to George W. Bush.

They seem to have weathered them with patience and grace, though we have no way of knowing what toll that took. It's a sign of their maturity and the respect they have for one another that their measured announcement of their plan to split drew restrained silence from people who know them.

"After a great deal of thought and discussion, we have decided to separate," the Gores said in an e-mail to friends. "This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration."

They sound a lot more thoughtful and grown up than the talking heads now picking their marriage apart: "There have been serious issues in their marriage, probably for a while," opined a network commentator who never met them. "Everybody's waiting for the other shoe to drop."

I get it. We feel tricked. Bill and Hillary outlasting Al and Tipper seems like some sort of cosmic joke. How do we make sense of this? Where's the intern, the soul mate, the gay lover, the baby mama — the dramatic props we've grown accustomed to when a political marriage publicly unravels.

Maybe I'm naïve, but can't we just take them at their word?

Is it so hard to get our minds around the idea that good people can grow apart?

That a man can still love the girl he met 45 years ago at his high school prom, but not want to spend the next 30 years with her. That a woman can respect the dashing fellow she followed to college but not want to spend her life in his shadow. That grownup children can appreciate the legacy left by loving parents who are also vibrant people who deserve happiness.

Instead of mourning the loss of their marriage, I think we ought to salute their courage. Unyoked might be better than unhappy.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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