Looking back, there were signs that Al and Tipper Gores’ marriage wasn’t as picture perfect as it seemed. Exhibit A, of course, that cringe-making slurpy public kiss at the 2000 Democratic Convention, an act of passionate spontaneity so staged, so lacking in chemistry, it appeared an ill-advised gambit to try to remind the audience: “We’re not the Clintons, folks.” Then there was Tipper’s admission that her earnest husband gave her a Weedeater for her birthday. And the capper: the couple’s sly intimation that they were the inspiration for the two lead characters in Erich Segal’s Love Story, a rumour the author, who knew Al Gore at Harvard, shot down.
Still, the news that the former U.S. vice-president and his wife are separating after 40 years of marriage was met with surprise, even among the cynics in the media. An email from the couple circulated to the Gores’ friends announced the separation was “a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration.”
Not since last year’s revelation that Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins relationship of 23 years ended quietly has there been such shock over the marital problems of famous strangers. On the surface anyway, the Gores seemed as solid and fixed as figurines on a wedding cake. Spike Jonze’s “Unseen Al Gore campaign video” filmed during Gore’s 2000 failed presidential campaign captured a tight, affectionate, happy family unit. Al and Tipper are seen frolicking in the waves and recalling meeting at a prom after-party in 1965; she was 16, he 17. “It was love at first sight,” he said fondly. “He was handsome, considerate,” she recalled. The only acknowledgment of tension was Gore joking: “one of my strains with my relationship is that she insists on going barefoot.”
Yet, really, any surprise over the split is misplaced. The Gores are merely another example of a social trend Maclean’s explored in “The 27-Year Itch,” a 2007 report of the upsurge in divorce among people 50-plus who’d been married decades. Among those over 65 the divorce rate has doubled since 1980, led by many high-profile examples, among them Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone who divorced at age 79 after 55 years of marriage and Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch who ended his 32-year marriage at age 68, only to remarry weeks later. One New York City lawyer joked to me that his waiting room often looks like a “geriatrics unit.”
The rise in later-in-life divorce, a trend that’s been deemed an “epidemic” in the UK, runs counter to a long-standing tautological marital verity: that the longer a couple is married, the longer they’ll stay married. But there’s modern logic to it. For the first time in history, the 50s and 60s are not seen as a time to wind down but another life stage, one the British novelist Margaret Drabble has dubbed the “Third Age.” With children grown and work responsibilities shifting, it’s a time of reappraisal. And with average life expectancy hovering around 80, a couple (or more often one member of a couple) is often not willing to spend what could be decades in a conflict-ridden marriage or co-existing in mutual domestic torpor. There’s still time for yet another act, even for a more satisfying relationship.
The Gores, he 61, she 60, are ripe grey divorce candidates. Their four children are adults raising their own families. Over the past decade they’ve carved out separate carbon footprints—that “we grew apart” referred to in their announcement. Al Gore’s work as a climate change educator has transformed him into a solo act with celebrity accoutrements—a Nobel Prize, an Academy Award, a billion-dollar eco-business dynasty and a grueling private-jet travel schedule. Meanwhile Tipper has focused on her own life-long work as a photographer, a career she put on hold to support her husband’s political ambitions. No longer does the couple have to worry about political optics, though an unnamed friend coming forward to announce there was no affair involved in the break-up suggests some exists.
The fact the Gores announced their split weeks after celebrating their ruby anniversary might seem strange. But not within the new grey divorce landscape, one in which martial success is not measured by longevity but quality. And the new inconvenient truth is that sometimes the only way to preserve that is to leave.