According to Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson, the Gores aren't an anomaly. Just as the boomers were responsible for the highest divorce rate in history—22.8 per 1,000 married couples in 1979 (by comparison, the 2008 rate was 3.5 per 1,000)—they now appear to be creating a wave of "gray divorce," with nearly a third of divorces, according to the most recent census, among people who'd been married 20 to 40 years. Stevenson called them "the greatest divorcing generation in U.S. history" in The New York Times. She has pointed out that many reasons for these breakups are positive: Gender roles changed dramatically during this group's adulthood, stoking more conflict in their marriages but also more equality; people are living longer, healthier lives, making starting over seem more doable and attractive; and since the boomers married younger than my generation, they achieved key milestones earlier. (When I graduated from college, my mother was 44; when my eldest does the same, I'll be 56.) In an interview with NPR, Stevenson said that she thinks we need to reassess what success means, and look at the divorce rate not as a failure of marriage, but as "a celebration of life."
You know what I think of that? Bullshit. The Gores' marriage failed. Stevenson is using the same reasoning Brad Pitt used in GQ to reframe his divorce from Jennifer Aniston as a "beautiful" example of the "messiness of life." "The idea that marriage has to be for all time," he said, "that I don't understand." In fact, that is the essence of marriage—a lifetime commitment. Without that, it's just legally sanctioned dating.
"You are articulating a very strong ideal," says William J. Doherty, PhD, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota who often criticizes our culture as too quick to divorce. "For me, it goes back to a promise made. It's about integrity. What's the meaning of the promise if you don't bend heaven and earth to keep it?" Doherty, who is also a couples therapist, says marriage isn't about what you're feeling for each other on any given day, because on many days love isn't even on the top 10 list. "You can't have a feelings-based marriage," he says. "I call it a consumer marriage, where you're saying, `As long as my spouse is meeting my needs, then I stay. But if the costs go up and the rewards down, I bolt. And if a better alternative comes along, I'm gone.' So there's always a threat to the marriage and couples are always asking, `How happy is this making me?' " In surveys where divorced people are asked why they split, Doherty says "soft reasons" are rising. He defines soft reasons as "that loving feeling isn't there; the sex isn't good; we see life so differently; we argue but never get anywhere." Hard reasons include physical abuse, chronic infidelity, drug or gambling addiction, and the sort of major lying that amounts to conning your spouse. Doherty says no one should divorce over soft reasons. With hard ones, if the spouse can't or won't change, "then the way I see it, people can behave so badly that they lose their claim on your commitment to them." Doherty's bright lines appeal to me, but when I talked them over with a friend who's written a book on marriage, she accused me of being puritanical. But I actually think my belief system is more accepting of human nature. I'm not saying that all divorces are wrong, or that a marriage can't be so unrelentingly ugly that divorce isn't the right and righteous choice. I'm saying that much of what we accept as grounds for divorce is, in truth, forgivable—including many of Doherty's "hard reasons." I know couples who've overcome compulsive gambling, addiction, and infidelity and are all the richer for it. Isn't it more puritanical for there to be so many acts over which you could punish or abandon your spouse (forget gambling away the college fund—many of us think being boring in bed for an extended period is a divorceable offense) and so few for which you might forgive him? And isn't it more rigid to have a long list of things that can demolish your trust in or love for your partner?
Michael Vincent Miller, PhD, a couples therapist and the author of Intimate Terrorism, says it is just this act—of facing a crisis and finding a way to move on—that defines the beginning of true marriage, so different in quality from what came before it that he calls it a second marriage. "I think of the first marriage as a dress rehearsal for the real thing," he says. "And then the ideal would be two people maintaining enough empathy for each other's differences so that the second marriage could be between the same two people but on new grounds of being wiser, more able to tolerate disappointment, and without the expectation that marriage is salvation from all of the defects of the past." The payoff of marriage, Miller says, is not romantic ecstasy but maturity. "Our education for intimacy is pretty lousy," he says. "We have this romantic myth of two people coming together, and there's great abundance, and both people's needs are easily met. You notice that the great lovers of fiction get killed off by the age of 14. The authors don't know what to do with them after that. The romantic myth doesn't support long-term intimacy." But if you choose to make your marriage work, "there's no other arena I can think of that can create the same kind of growth." Miller continues, "Everything that's unfinished business from your family and early development, marriage throws it in your face dramatically. It's the big opportunity, if two people can team up, to finally grow up."
When I was in grade school, my parents had a pitched marital crisis, with operatic fighting and long separations that were devastating to me and made a deep impression. In the end, though, my mother and father reconciled and still have an obviously alive, engaged—though not always deliriously happy—marriage. This has also made a deep impression. I've often been grateful that I learned at eight what many don't know at 48: that even those you love most dearly and depend on most completely are profoundly flawed; that even someone who loves you to the fullest extent of their capacity can hurt and disappoint you more than you imagined possible; that the feelings that lead to divorce aren't necessarily permanent; and that marriage is hard but the rewards of sticking it out can be greater than the trials.
That marriage is tough isn't a new idea. Everyone's heard the 50 percent divorce statistic. And yet on our wedding days, say Doherty and Miller, most of us think we'll be the exception, the ones to live happily ever after. But I wonder if happy is even the point. I sat in on a seminar not long ago for parents of troubled teens. The therapist leading it talked about how current parenting styles don't create resilient children. "Parents worry so much about whether their child is happy," she said. "If you take home one message, I want it to be this: Fuck happy."
Yes! I thought, Fuck happy. The point of living isn't to be in a perpetual state of fairy-tale ecstasy; it's to find the meaning of life, the meaning of your life. And the point of marriage, I think, is to create meaning, with every happy and sad memory, every hardship overcome, every kind act, every moment of acceptance, every triumph (Gore will likely never get to have another wife watch him win a Nobel Prize), every child, grandchild, pet, and friend you accumulate together. The point of staying married until you die is to have a witness to your whole life, to the meaning you built. In the end, you can look at your spouse and say: Somebody knew me—and I knew them. Which isn't to suggest you need to marry to have this kind of intimacy, but if you do marry and stay alive to that marriage (it's possible to live your whole life with someone and never summon up the humanity to get to know them), you will get that reward.
My grandmother died last winter, parting from her devoted husband—actually, her second husband. My grandfather tells of walking into a nightclub where she was performing and feeling love at first sight. He took a rose to her onstage (she was annoyed that he interrupted her act). Neither of them was perfect, they never had much money, and they shared much heartbreak, but they also shared what I'd call true love. The night my grandmother died, several of her eight children were at the nursing home that she and my grandfather had moved into when her care proved too much for him. The hospice nurses had withdrawn food and water days earlier, but she clung on into the night as her kids and husband kept vigil. My grandfather, in the bed next to her, finally fell asleep. My mother and her brothers went into the hall to call their families to tell them not to wait up. But while they were making the calls, she died, her husband of 61 years the only one there with her. And though my grandmother's mind at the end of her life was not what it once had been, I do think that it must've been a comfort to know my grandfather was near, to have the visible, physical bulk of his body still there after all those years, to remind her of the ways her life added up to this final moment, and if there was nothing else, at least she'd mattered to him. While my grandfather may have experienced love at first sight, Miller says, paraphrasing critic Walter Benjamin, that she knew love at last sight. I hope my husband and I will be lucky, patient, empathetic, resilient, and forgiving enough that one day, we will experience the same.