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The Gores’ Divorce: A Celebration of Life?

June 5, 2010

Funny what passes as a “celebration of life” these days.

End of the Love Story

When I heard news earlier this week of Al and Tipper Gores’ separation, I was sad. Regardless of political persuasion, I admire couples who seem to love and like one another. That is what Al and Tipper Gore appeared to have. 

Fortunately, the reason for their separation was not an affair, abuse, or any other such grevious offense. Instead, it is reported by the Associate Press that the couple split “amicably”, after 40 years of marriage. According to one friend, “their lives had gotten more and more separated”.

I hope the Gores’ receive respect and privacy. I write this not as a commentary on their particular divorce, but as a reaction to the reaction to the news:

“Successful Divorce” and “Longer, Healthier Lives”

Jennifer Ludden of NPR reported on the state of marriage as it relates to the Gore’s microcosm in the story, “More Couples Divorce after Decades of Marriage”.  Ludden interviews Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, on the trend of adults divorcing later in life. “They’re just kind of disatisfied with the relationship”, explaines Coontz. Discussing the Gore’s marriage, she explains, “this is a marriage that got through 40 years, without having any child fathered out of wedlock, no tawdry affairs, the kids are raised, so I think in some ways we can think of this as a success.”

Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania was also interviewed for the story, describing how current sociological trends make allowances for happily unmarried older adults: “marriage has really moved from something that was once very, very ‘child-centered'”, explains Stevenson, “that’s not what life’s about today, and that’s because we’re living longer, healthier lives, that our adult lives extend way beyond our child-bearing years.”

That’s not what life’s about today–children, that is. Being “fruitful”? Giving yourself wholly to another person? ‘Til death do us part? No, thank you, we are far too sophisticated for tradition nowadays– now that we are living longer, healthier lives!

Co-habitating Grandma

Coontz, who has interviewed many older couples, reports hearing  from some that they would rather have been free of unsatisfying marriages, “but that they couldn’t imagine living alone in their sixties. What would they do? Where would their money come from? Who would take care of them when they were sick?”

But now that we have progressed beyond our commitment to ho-hum marriages, Stevenson gleefully reports that new beginnings are possible at any age: “This is a great era for marriage among [older adults], and those who aren’t remarrying are cohabitating in great numbers.

I feel warm and fuzzy inside.

“Does [success in marriage] mean staying married ’til we die, even if that means 75 years of marriage?”, asks Stevenson, “That’s a pretty lofty goal.”

Ludden closes the story with this summary: “[Stevenson] prefers to see the Gore’s separation not as a failure of marriage, but as she calls it, a celebration of life.”

“Amicable” Death

In light of this story, I have to question whether presumably “amicable” grounds for separation–the drifting apart of two lives–are any less tragic than violent affronts of infidelity. In some regards, affairs are obviously much worse for they involve an unspeakable breach of trust. But in the long run, is there any less trauma done to the heart of a husband and wife who quietly drift apart?

I can understand the “amicable” line given to outsiders–a way to keep up appearances and get the press off your case. But what if it were true–what if a couple could divorce after 40 years of marriage and remain on friendly “no-hard-feelings” terms? Is that something to be applauded?

The Virtue of Pain

Those of us who hold to the Bible’s authority believe that in marriage, the man and wife become one flesh–a union that is far more than sexual. With this in mind, when divorce does occur, it ought to hurt–it ought to feel as though your very heart is being torn assunder–because it is.

The only society that can call such rupturing a “celebration of life”, is one that is dead. If two people who have become “one flesh” can truly split apart “amicably”, without feelings of hurt and violation, what does that say about the state of marriage? 

Wendy Shalit, discussing male-female relationships in general, writes, “All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays–such as resentment, jealousy, betrayal–also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard…”

In his Confessions, St. Augustine, discussing the end of a pre-conversion relationship with a woman, writes how he masked and distracted himself from the pain caused by the separation. The wound did not heal, but rather “it ceased to burn and throb, and began to fester, and was more dangerous because it was less painful.”

In spite of all the niceties of language, the trauma of divorce continues to saturate our culture. The wound is still gaping, though at times it might cease to “burn and throb”. 

The “Omnipresence of Divorce”

Whether or not we ever personally go through the process, there is a price to be paid for living in a culture where divorce is socially normalized and spiritually neutralized. 

“This omnipresence of divorce creeps into every interaction and is one of the clearest reminders that there is no longer any private and ‘safe’ realm”, writes Shalit, “Everything and everyone is up for grabs, and we always face the harsh world directly, unmediated by any enduring sentiment other than each out for him–or herself.”

If we are to believe that marriage is only as worthwhile as it is satisfying, then we must also believe that commitment is only as binding as it is pleasurable.  In this frame of mind it is impossible to know the safety of unconditional love, for we will be continually haunted by fears that we are no longer satisfactory–that our spouse can be out doing other things–living his or her “longer, healthier life”, rather than fulfulling that life-long commitment.

Sanctuary of Nakedness

What is the security offered in a permanent covenant of marriage? “The safe refuge for human nakedness that God has ordained is marriage,” explains Dr. R.C. Sproul,  “nakedness involves more than the lack of physical clothing. It means being exposes to the scrutiny and the glance of another human being–in our weakest moments, in our worst moments, and in our darkest moments.”

The fact that marriage involves such a deep level of intimacyis one of the reasons why divorce is so dreadfully painful to people”, says Sproul, because “the person who knows me the best, of anybody in this world, has rejected me.”

What is far more dangerous than divorce itself, is when divorce ceases to be a painful–when it simply becomes another stage of life exercised by adults living “longer, healthier lives.”  We may be happy, healthy, and cohabitating, but the thing we give up for such free-wheelin’ self-actualization is the experience of being fully known, fully loved, and resting in one-flesh security.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 1:21 am

    Very well written and said. I hope that you can find a husband who is worthy of you! 🙂

    • June 7, 2010 5:33 am

      Ahhhh….thanks Sheila 🙂 I hope he finds me…and that I’m worthy of him too!

  2. Hailey Allen permalink
    June 7, 2010 2:23 am

    Here, here- on this subject we totally and whole-heartedly agree!

    Divorce is always sad, and marriage is not a ‘lease agreement’ that should be formed and dissolved when convenient. More and more I look to my grandparents and other couples who have really worked at their happiness, who have taken active roles in making the partnership successful.

    Do you think the divorce-prone nature of things today is partly due to people seeing themselves as entitled to happiness provided on-demand by other people? The idea that there is some perfect person out there who will “make me happy”?

    • June 7, 2010 5:35 am

      Yay! I’m happy we can agree on this Hailey.

      Absolutely, I think you nailed it, it’s placing the “right” to happiness above commitment and hard work.

  3. Ian Mork permalink
    June 7, 2010 4:15 pm

    Nice job. Where did you learn all those big words? I will continue sending you NPR stories, as I only get fm stations in my Civic. I actually hear many fascinating stories on that station and most don’t have a liberal bias. Having no commercials is nice too.

    • June 8, 2010 3:53 pm

      Thanks Eee. I just started listening to NPR on my ipod at work. It’s great! Yesterday I learned about predator drones, the owners of Manchester United, and Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan! Thanks for the tip, maybe I will learn more big words that way.

  4. Arielle Swanson permalink
    June 9, 2010 7:58 pm

    Terra, this is such a great blog. Here are some thoughts I had from your post.

    Our culture has completely lost any sense of commitment. “If we are to believe that marriage is only as worthwhile as it is satisfying, then we must also believe that commitment is only as binding as it is pleasurable.” This statement really sums up our culture’s view of commitment. In our culture there is no commitment(except to maybe our dogs). We have a consumerist view of everything. As soon as something ceases to be easy, entertaining and pleasurable, we get something new. Or as soon as something new arrives, we get rid of whatever was old… just because its not new.

    I married a man, and now he is a part of me. He is now as permanent a part of my life as my spine. He doesn’t remain because he “does this” or “acts like this” or “continues this behavior.” He is a part of my life, because he’s a part of my life. There are no other options. The moment we said our vows, we ceased to be “evaluate-able” to each other. My spine is my spine and will be my spine until I die whether or not it lives up to what a spine should be. Same with my husband. We became permanent fixures. That is what marriage is (and why marriage is a big deal and should be entered into reverently). And when Jesus says that if you divorce a man and marry another you commit adultry… I think that’s because marriage cannot be broken except by the One who created it. And the One who created it said it can only be broken by death. Divorce, whether amicable or messy, is an illusion.

    • June 9, 2010 8:41 pm

      Oh Arielle! This is so beautiful, and beautifully written…literally brought a tear to my eye. You are so right, we do live in a consumer culture, in which we look for others to “fit” our needs perfectly, or we feel as though we must constantly measure up to some standard in order to “fit” another person in order to retain their love. But that is not love…it is exhausting! Ultimately God is the only one who can offer us unconditional, unchanging love, but I believe He sanctioned earthly marriage as covenant in which we can grow, find rest, acceptance, and learn about His perfect love.

      It was such a pleasure to witness your wedding last year! Thank you for sharing you story, and please keep writing, you are gifted!

    • Cindy Jiang permalink
      July 2, 2010 6:59 am

      Wow, I’m so glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I feel like I’ve just been given a gift from heaven above by reading your article and all its ensuing comments. I’ve never been able to fully understand why people are told to just “get over” or “move on” from a divorce, deep relationship, or other intimate bond. Go on and continue to live your life happily? Sure, we can all do that, but that does not negate the consequences of these broken bonds. Science and theology alike both suggest that once you have reached a certain level of intimacy with someone, it will most likely stay forever in one form of another. If broken, it leaves scars at the very best. I, too, find the “drifting apart” occurrence to be equally tragic as a breach of faith. Now, I am not God, so I don’t know the solution(s) to any of the sorrows of this world. But I am sure glad that they are at least being addressed instead of being sweeped under the rug.

      • July 3, 2010 12:36 am

        I am encouraged that I am not alone when I hear your words. Thank you Cindy!

  5. June 12, 2010 12:19 pm

    Good article, Terra. On a lighter note, maybe Gore just said, “global warming”, one too many times. 🙂

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