June 3, 2010

Late life divorce: Why then? Many respond, why not?


NEW YORK -- There was no salacious sex scandal, no prostitution ring, no mysterious trip to Argentina.

Al and Tipper Gore are a famous political couple, but their split after 40 years of marriage apparently stemmed from a much simpler, more mundane cause, according to friends: They simply grew apart.

And in that, experts say, they're no different from many Americans. Such late-marriage splits are much more common than we think.

"We tend to mistakenly believe that once people reach a certain point in marriage, they just stop splitting up," says Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who studies family trends. "But that's simply not true."

In fact, Stevenson says, though marriages are more likely to fail in the first 10 years, once you get past that, "the percentage of those divorcing each year is very similar throughout the years of marriage."

Of course, there's no getting around the shock factor surrounding the separation announcement by the Gores, which came in an e-mail Tuesday to friends. Unlike many political couples, they'd spoken openly of their feelings for each other and seemed to share an easy affection, not to mention four children and three grandchildren.

That affection was apparent even without The Kiss -- the go-for-broke liplock between the vice president and his wife at the 2000 Democratic convention that made so many blush, and is probably doing so again, on YouTube. Was it impulsive or calculated? Either way, it was still quite a kiss.

But now the Gores are parting, and many are asking not only, "Why THEM?" but "Why NOW?"

Talk to relationship experts, though, and they point to a host of reasons why a couple at such a late stage might find themselves in the same position.

Perhaps the most obvious: After 40 years, children have been launched and are well into adulthood, often with children of their own. Before then, even when children are teens or young adults, parenting can be so all-consuming that it's virtually a permanent distraction from one's own marriage.

"Even with older children, the demands are quite intense," says Elana Katz, a family therapist and divorce mediator at New York's Ackerman Institute for the Family. "That can be distracting, or it can create a strong bond. But when that chapter is done, people face each other across the kitchen table and say, 'Can this be the relationship that's my primary source of enjoyment as we go forward?'"

Also, says Katz, older people have expectations for their relationships now that previous generations may not have. "Even a couple of decades ago, people didn't have the same expectations of love and intimacy at a later age," she says.

It's significant that Al and Tipper Gore married in 1970, notes Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History," and professor of family studies at Evergreen State College.

Marriages in the late '60s and '70s are marked by higher divorce rates than those of later years, she says. Why? Partly because people still married very young. (Tipper Gore was 21 and Al Gore 22 when they wed.)

The two are now 61 and 62, with decades of health, seemingly, ahead of them. "The idea used to be that by our sixties, life was pretty much over anyway," says Coontz. "But today, people who reach 65 are likely to have another 20 years ahead. So it makes the calculus of living in an unhappy marriage even harder to take."

Plus, with longer life expectancies, there are more potential new partners out there -- "what we call a thicker remarriage market," Coontz says. A 2004 study on divorce conducted by AARP seemed to bear that out.

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