It was iconic. That photo at the 2000 National Democratic Convention where Al and Tipper Gore locked lips in a very passionate (and very public) six-second kiss on national television. And from that fragment of information, the assumption about the Gores was that they had a “good marriage.” High school sweethearts who fell in love, raised four children, survived a tumultuous eight-year vice presidency, a failed presidential bid and a Nobel Peace Prize.
That is, of course, until June 1, when the power couple announced that, after 40 years of marriage, they “decided to separate.”
Inside a marriage
To follow the media coverage in the days after the Gores’ announcement was to see a lot of speculation (mostly in blogs and news magazines) as to what led to the surprising demise of this so-called storybook romance. Their union was so ballyhooed that now there is a sense that their parting represents a kind of trend among baby boomers (even though statistics point to the contrary). The reason the headline got relegated to those more aligned with opinion than news was that there wasn’t all that much news beyond the headline and the simple statement. The Gores, ever self-possessed of their relationship, seem content to let the news cycle spin itself up and back down without another word from them on the subject.
The greater point, though, is that the reason the media surrounding this event — it is not a “story,” it is not a “trend”; it is one family’s great and very personal tragedy — is limited mostly to the blogosphere and the columnists is as family therapist Terry Real said in an interview on “Good Morning America,” “I think the moral of this story … is that nobody knows the inside of a marriage.”
Nobody, that is, except the married couple. Therein lies the difference (and the hope) for marriage.
The surprise of the Gores’ separation has been the source of much hand-wringing. There has been a search for an answer to an unanswerable question. “Why?” the talking heads and gossip columnists want to know. “Why is this marriage over?” The better question is, of course, “What could be/could have been done to save it?”
Last year, my wife and I wrote a book for Our Sunday Visitor called “Stress Proof Your Marriage.” In it, we outline 10 things married couples of all stripes can do to strengthen their marriages. During the last 12 months, we’ve been asked repeatedly to talk about the “secrets to happy and lasting marriages” and to name “common flaws that derail marriages, even good Christian ones.”
Every time, our answer is the same: The thing that catches out most marriages (especially newly married couples) is the perception that their marriage is immune to the common conflicts inherent to any intimate relationship. All marriages, “even good Christian ones,” will experience conflict. Couples who don’t experience conflict — that is to say, couples who don’t fight — and who wear that lack of conflict like a merit badge are the ones who will be most rocked by inevitable conflict. (Obviously, marriages that tip over into constant bickering aren’t any better off, but those are actually less common.) Burying hurts or disappointments until they boil over into long-standing resentments is avoidable.
The old axiom “a stitch in time saves nine” is apt. Small disagreements from which we learn about our spouses can act as a pressure valve. By venting some frustration, couples can avoid an emotional explosion down the line.
Another common problem in marriages is ambivalence. Ambivalence is one of those words that gets a bad rap. Ambivalence doesn’t mean “apathy.” It means simply that a person has two, opposite and conflicting emotions about a subject. It’s natural, it’s common, and, at its heart, ambivalence isn’t scary. It’s just as inevitable in an intimate relationship as conflict.
What makes ambivalence a problem in a marriage is a couple’s refusal to see or admit to or talk about it. For example, young couples often run into some disagreement about when or whether to have children. In Catholic marriages, children are an expected and hoped for expression of God’s love in the marriage. Practical concerns enter in, and often one or both spouses are conflicted. There are equal pulls in opposite directions that can be difficult to explain or discuss. Ambivalence is not a valued quality in marriages. Consensus and decisiveness — even when one spouse is not certain of the decision being taken — are valued over the valid feelings of ambivalence couples can face about subjects like money, politics, faith, work, sex, children, retirement or vacations.
Just as important as communication and an acknowledgement of ambivalence is the preservation of positive feelings for one another. According to The Associated Press, the Gores told friends that they had simply “grown apart.” Whether couples are newlyweds, facing the seven-year itch or are into double-digit anniversaries, a great deal can be said about not taking one another for granted.
Ted Huston, a professor of human ecology and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, told Psychology Today magazine that his PAIR Project on marriage showed that “loss of initial levels of love and affection, rather than conflict, was the most salient predictor of distress and divorce. ... The dominant approach has been to work with couples to resolve conflict, but it should focus on preserving the positive feelings. That’s a very important take-home lesson.”
Which is to say that there is value to couples counting their blessings and taking the more-than-occasional stroll down memory lane. Maintaining a sense of common purpose and remembering what prompted those public displays of affection (that may be fewer and farther between now) in the first place go a long way toward keeping marriage from becoming stale.
Choose to commit
Finally, it is worth noting that perseverance plays a big role in the success of a marriage. Ironically, the U.S. divorce rate of about 50 percent does not seem consistent with a culture that is so enamored of self-made people and stories of underdogs who never gave up.
My parents were married for 40 years before my mother died. I remember, as their 25th wedding anniversary was approaching, marveling at how long that seemed to me. I asked my mother how she and my dad had stayed together so long. Her answer was simple. “You just decide, Cory.” It seemed like the simplest, bravest, boldest, hardest thing I had ever heard.
I was 14 when she gave me that advice. It was not until I was in my late 30s, and my mother was long gone, that it occurred to me that she may not have felt marriage was that simple or brave or bold when she said it. Her life had — as all of ours do — some sadness and disappointment.
It occurs to me now that, despite the fact that I grew up with her and my dad, that “nobody knows the inside of a marriage.” Only they did. Only they could. They made it “til death do us part.” They knew those secrets to a long and lasting Catholic marriage.
The real question for the rest of us is what are those things that will make us decide — just decide.
Cory Busse is co-author with his wife, Heidi, of “30 Minute Read: Stress-Proof Your Marriage” (Our Sunday Visitor, $4.95). He writes from Minnesota.Marriage