Marriage is like major league baseball for me: I’ve never played the game, but I have closely observed hundreds of them and listened at length to the players, which gives me some expertise.
What I have learned in decades of watching marriages materialize, run into rough patches (or whole interstates), fall apart or survive is that each union is unique and riddled with mystery. Woe to anyone who tries to judge a marriage or predict its outcome based on percentages, itemized criteria or common wisdom.
Couples do not live on paper or in pockets of cultural norms. They live in a world of their own making, which often seems totally accessible to outsiders, but is not. Each union contains a deep inner chamber that is off-limits to everyone but the married “us” — and that includes the couple’s children, other family members and closest friends.
I’ve been thinking about all of this since news broke of the legal separation of Al and Tipper Gore.
Marriage and family counselors have weighed in, as have friends and associates of the Gores. The couple’s enemies, especially those who hate Bill and Hillary Clinton even more than they hate the Gores, have had a field day. The long, open-mouth kiss Al planted on Tipper during the 2000 Democratic national convention has become a much-shown symbol of sad or gleeful irony.
People have been “shocked” and “not surprised.” They have waited the days since the announcement — issued by e-mail from an estranged but “mutually supportive” husband and wife — for some sort of smoking bimbo or gigolo to emerge. None has. Many, many people have conjectured and theorized, some with a confidence that is in equal proportion to their great distance from the Gores’ actual lives.
Some folks, usually professional counselors, have offered the idea that 40 years of marriage in this day and age is a sizable achievement, and the end of such a run ought not be categorized as “a failure.”
My own theory about why the Gores decided to split up echoes the refrain of a song from the musical, “Oklahoma” — they’ve simply “gone about as fur as they c’n go.” One of them may have precipitated the final decision, but together they agreed they had come to the end of the utility, comfort and sustainability of their “us.”
A veteran couples therapist I know says that kind of decision is becoming more common among baby boomers like the Gores. “The Gores are from a generation that asks questions about everything — jobs, church, marriage, where they live — questions their parents never asked. ‘Am I happy? Is this working?’” she said. “And when both partners have emotional and financial independence, as many baby boomers do, it makes acting on those answers much easier.”
One thing I know for certain from all my years of observing is that a marriage that takes both people from their early 20s into their early 60s is a major feat. Ending it amicably, as the Gores seem to have done, is a triumph, not a shame.
Just like the popular saying, “It’s not the years in your life, it’s the life in your years,” the life in a marriage is far more valuable than the years tallied.
I’ve been around people who should have done everyone a favor and called it quits long before one of them finally died and ended the marriage. I’ve attended golden wedding anniversary “celebrations” that were so desultory, only the deranged could view them as a happy occasion.
I knew a couple who, because of their many years together, were selected to be in a documentary about marital longevity. It was filmed during the husband’s fourth or fifth extramarital affair.
That couple eventually split up … then reconciled. It’s hard to predict, no matter what the betrayed spouse vows in the early stages of discovery. I’ve seen several marriages that did not survive adultery, but I’ve seen many more that did.
I’ve also seen marriages that did not survive the death of a child, one of the most crippling of all challenges to a couple. But I’ve seen more that beat the odds and not only survived, but also grew super-human bonds in the pain-filled aftermath.
Over the decades, I’ve seen couples who, everyone agreed, were perfect for one another, but they went asunder anyway, usually sooner than later. Conversely, I’ve heard, “It’ll never last,” said of couples who go on into grandparent land together.
I know of a half-dozen couples who married and divorced — satisfying all the doomsayers — then ended up marrying each other again. Two of the couples remarried after they’d had children with second spouses.
My therapist friend says the operative term now is “conflict resolution.” How a couple exercises that skill (or doesn’t) is a more important element than in-laws, money, sex, politics and morning versus night-owl inner clocks.
“You’d be surprised how often infidelity is the result of conflict avoidance,” she said. “People may not know it when they come in for counseling, but I’d say the primary problem I treat is conflict resolution. They either say, ‘We have the same fight over and over,’ or ‘We don’t fight about anything. We just bury it.’”
I ran my off-limits, inner chamber theory by my therapist friend. She concurred.
“It might be an ugly, dark chamber of horrors they’re in together, or it could be the garden of paradise,” she said. “But, you’re right, it’s just them in there. Nobody else gets in. Even a therapist only sees a tiny little portion of the whole.”
One other thing I know from watching: A good marriage is like a batter on a hitting streak: Almost nobody can tell you why it’s working, they just know it is. And for everyone in the stands, it’s a pleasure to be around that kind of success.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at 9812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.