Al and Tipper Gore’s recent announcement to get divorced has created a huge wave of confusion – “What happened? They seemed so happy” – bewilderment -“If they too divorce, who will survive?” - and fear – “If it happened to them, it could happen to me too.”
This last statement is actually the one that gets us at the deepest level, as we tend to look up to public figures to model proper behaviors for us. The Gores, in their public life, always reflected an image of solidity, mutual care, reciprocal respect and resiliency. In a world where things can change faster than we can process them, the Gores reflected our needs for consistency and predictability, and our belief that love can indeed be eternal and immutable. With their announcement to get divorced, all this seems to crumble. But is it really crumbling? Or is it merely changing? Is it them or us?
We tend to project onto people, particularly public figures, emotions we feel about ourselves. Our assessments about their behaviors, actions and decisions, therefore, tell more about who WE are than who THEY are. So, our reactions to the Gores’ announcement tell us more about how WE feel about marriage and divorce, than what THEY think.
And what do we think? We want to believe that, if we make it through the tough years of our relationships, we will reach a place where we won’t have to worry about problems any more, where we don’t have to work on the relationship any longer, but just coast. We want to believe that if people like the Gores can stay together for 40 years and still be happy, so can we. Their decision to divorce, therefore, is a huge threat to these fantasies, raising our anxieties about the future of our intimate relationship and challenging our needs for security and predictability.
And what do the Gores think? They tell us that they want to remain friends. That this was a consensual decision they reached after careful thinking and discussing with one another. If that is the case, perhaps their decision is not a negative one but one that may offer them new opportunities, new options at this point in their lives. Or perhaps they just gave up, believing there was nothing more they could or wanted to do to save their love.
It is true that couples who have been married for ten years or less are more likely to get divorced than couples who are older and have been together for many years. However, new trends indicate that the fastest growing segment of the population seeking divorce are people in middle age and older and that women are as likely to initiate divorce as men are. (Deirdre Bair, The 40-Year Itch, New York Times, 6/2/10.)
Perhaps the Gores’ announcement to divorce is a sign of the times, where older people see life as full of opportunities they don’t want to miss? Could it be a reflection of seeing middle and old age not as an end, but as a new stage they want to live as fully as the previous ones?
Middle aged and older people today are more vigorous, open to new experiences, healthy and curious about life than ever. For some of them this new view of middle and old age means better quality in intimate relationships, whether this means staying with a partner of many years and continue to improve these relationships, or moving their separate ways.
The baby boomers are the “me” generation, focused in taking care of their needs and feeling they deserve everything life has to offer. Perhaps this new divorce increase among them is yet another indication of this self-absorption?
Whatever the reasons behind the Gores’ decision, it challenges us to rethink what we want in life and what we want and need to do to achieve and preserve it.
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