What were they thinking?
When Al and Tipper Gore recently announced they were divorcing after 40 years of marriage, it was a shock to many who saw them as the ideal couple.
How can people who are together for so long and seem so happy let their supposed "golden years" go by the wayside?
"It's not that unusual and happens more times than you think," says Sheila Weiner, director of counseling and care management at Philadelphia's Jewish Family and Children's Services.
"In the case of the Gores or others like them in the spotlight, we might idealize them, perceiving that they have a marriage that is not subject to the typical events that may impact other marriages.
"We might create a fantasy version of them, so when something ordinary does happen, we may be more surprised than usual."
But separation and divorce can happen to any couple, no matter who they are or how long they've been married, she continues, and depending on a number of issues. "People may grow apart over the years but may decide to stay together until the children are grown and out of the house.
"They may have participated in all the joint events expected of them, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, seeing their children through to college graduation," she adds.
"Then, after completing these many familial obligations, they may then decide they've worked very hard together and now is the time to fulfill some of their own personal goals. And that's when they may decide that they can't do that within the context of their marriage."
According to Judith Sills, a private practitioner in Center City and author of six books on psychology dealing with subjects including adult relationships, one of the answers to the dissolution of long-term marriages is simply longevity.
She says, "We used to think that if you were 60 years of age or older, you were done. There were basically three things in your life: grandparenting, gardening and God.
"But our whole view of life in the boomer generation is unparalleled with the sense of possibilities. That doesn't mean we have to divorce, but it does means we're saying to ourselves that given another 20 healthy years, there is potential to make changes and maybe a way to make ourselves happier."
Smooth Sailing … or Not?
Does this open the door to an affair? It could, Sills says, but not necessarily. "What it does is open the door to seeking fulfillment, with one or both of the spouses taking a good, hard look at their long life together and asking, 'Is this the person I'm going to sail into the harbor with?'
"That's a question," she adds, "not necessarily asked a generation ago, but today, with people living longer, they don't want to spend their remaining years loveless, or filled with disappointment and unhappiness."
So agrees Dr. Paul Fink, professor of psychiatry at Temple University Health System, past president of the American Psychiatric Association, and in private practice in Bala Cynwyd.
"People talk about the seven-year itch but that's just a metaphor. The romance that happens in a courtship doesn't continue forever," he notes.
"Marriages change and evolve. And sometimes they go in the wrong direction, so I'm not shocked at the fact that the Gores are separating. I think they just don't want to continue doing whatever they were doing to irritate, offend and perhaps hurt each other."
But after so many years, don't most of us lull ourselves into a sense of security?
"Yes," says Sills, "and that's a false sense of security to begin with. It takes understanding and paying attention to the state of your marriage to keep it going. It takes working hard to keep connected. It's noticing it drifting apart and making every effort to rediscover each other.
"It doesn't work if you just sit back, with him spending every night in the den and you in the kitchen, and thinking just because you've been together so long it will stay that way forever."
However, one thing that might keep it together, even longer than intended — although not necessarily as happily as one might like — is fear, says Fink. "Fear of being alone is one of the biggest problems many people have to deal with. No one likes to be alone. Thoughts of getting sick and having nobody there to take care of you, or thinking about dying and being by yourself, may cause people to struggle with their marriage," he says.
"They may decide they'd rather have somebody around that they hate rather than surviving the moments of loneliness with nobody to talk to, nobody to interact with."
Additionally, there are financial issues; dealing with children who may take one spouse's side and ignore the other; the division of assets; and, most of all, dealing with isolation and the subsequent pain.
But those are not good reasons to stay together, adds Fink. Rather, preparing yourself to be an independent human being is a far better solution.
"Making the decision to divorce is the biggest thing and hardest decision to make, but realistically speaking, almost every married couple thinks about it at some point or another," Fink says.