Al and Tipper Gore recently decided that 40 years is enough. Are there broader social implications of this story for other long term couples? The Monterey County Herald called upon the expertise of sociologists to answer this question.
It makes us frightened for our parents, our friends, ourselves. “[The Gores] were seen as this perfect couple, that’s why we’re traumatized,” says Terri Orbuch, a marriage therapist and sociology professor at the University of Michigan.
“This is supposed to be one of the easiest and happiest periods of marriage … the reward for a job well done,” says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies families.
But the other fact is that we’ve never before faced empty-nest periods that could easily extend for 20 or 30 years. “The institution of marriage wasn’t designed for that. It was designed to help us raise kids and put food on the table,” says Cherlin. “It may just be that it’s a difficult task for married couples to keep a happy life going for decades.”
“It’s more threatening to us if we see a couple who we thought were happy just drift apart,” Cherlin says. “If even well-behaved people get divorced after 40 years, then some of us will worry about what our own marriages will be like later in life.”
How do you keep the flame going after 40 years?
To really work, long-term relationships need “regular attention, regular affirmation on a daily basis,” says Orbuch, who recently completed a 20-year study of marriage for the National Institutes of Health. She wonders whether Al Gore was gone too much — out saving the world — to save his marriage. (Then again, maybe it was Tipper who was inattentive?)