Gores Split, Raise Questions About Longterm Love

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Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper announced last week they were separating after four decades of marriage. Abigail Trafford, who has written about love later in life, says the Gores may deserve congratulations, not condolences.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we'll hear about the man some are calling the Bernie Madoff of the Indian-American community. But first, we're going to try to reconcile with the news about the breakup of a long marriage. Of course, we're talking about Nobel Laureate, former vice president and former presidential candidate Al Gore and his wife, Tipper Gore. Their union seemed like it was built on solid rock. They were high school sweethearts. They raised four kids. They seemed to enjoy each other's company. And of course, there was that famous kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention.

Their commitment lasted more than 40 years. And last week, they told us it was over. They told friends there were no third parties. They just grew apart. And while, of course, we recognize this is their private matter, many people wonder why such a union would come apart after so long.

So for answers, we called Abigail Trafford. She's a journalist who's just written a book about love later in life. It's called "As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity." She was on the program a few months back to talk about her book, so we called her back to talk about this story. She's with us now from member station WBUR in Boston.

Abigail, welcome, thanks for joining us again.

Ms. ABIGAIL TRAFFORD (Journalist and Author, " As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity"): It's so good to be with you again.

MARTIN: Are you as surprised, as so many of the rest of us are, by this news about Al and Tipper Gore?

Ms. TRAFFORD: Oh, well, you know, of course. We're all surprised. We're always shocked when people - we have a certain image of them and they split up. But you know, you never know what goes on inside a marriage. And I think we should sort of turn this around. You know, 40 years is a great accomplishment. It's not as though you can take away those 40 years. I say bravo to them.

And this is one of the differences between divorce that occurs late in life and early divorces. In late divorces, you can't erase the past. That's still a glorious past.

MARTIN: You're saying that the 40 years together is still a victory and an accomplishment of which they should be proud, even if the marriage didn't go the distance (unintelligible).

Ms. TRAFFORD: Exactly right. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Is there some data on marriage breakup late in life? Is it as uncommon as many of us believe it to be? I think the general assumption is that marriages are more fragile earlier and that as they go on, especially once they go on this long, then they're more likely to be stable. Does the data bear that out?

Ms. TRAFFORD: Well, you know, one problem is that we don't have good data. These statistics are not being collected - of when divorce occurs after how many years. But that being said, what the statistics so far show is that most divorces occur within the first 10 years of a marriage. So yes, our concept of divorce is really based on these early divorces - which are pretty explosive, usually.

And it's true that it's rare for older people to get divorced, but it's changing. And what I found was that marriages that end in this stage tend to end sort of with a whimper, not a bang.

MARTIN: Their email announcement said: We are announcing today that after a great deal of thought and discussion, we have decided to separate. This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together, following a process of long and careful consideration. We ask for respect for our privacy and that of our family. And we do not intend to comment further.

And so far, they have not. There were reports in various news outlets from friends who say that there are no third parties. There are no outside relationships - that they essentially grew apart.

Ms. TRAFFORD: I think that's a very dignified and very, you know, sounds like a logical explanation. I think people do grow apart. I think a couple of things are happening. One is, you know, longevity. We're just living longer. And we're longer healthier. So to make that promise - 'til death do us part - that's a really long, long time. And I think you're seeing people who say, you know, I don't know that I can do another 20 years. And so I think longevity has something to do with this.

MARTIN: You talk a lot in your book, though, about some of the changes and transitions that occur later in life: retirement, change of occupation, kids leaving the house. Changing your sense of who you are later in life can really have an effect on relationships. It's been a number of years since the Gores were in elected office. But you do wonder whether there's something about that step away from what had been the family business for so long - has had an effect on the relationship.

Ms. TRAFFORD: Well, I think everybody who gets to this stage in life, it's a transition period. And you know, your old life, you say goodbye to that, and you go on to a new life. And there's a real question of who you're going to go with. And I think that people who are married, whether they stay married or they get divorced, there's a renegotiation of the relationship.

You've got to sit down and say, well all right, what's our vision for the future? You have situations where one person retires and the other keeps working. That's very hard to work out, well, what's going to be our daily agenda? It really takes almost falling in love again. And a lot of couples have a renaissance at this period. You know, once the kids are grown, you know, there's a real flowering of a relationship. But there's also the situation where its not flowering.

MARTIN: And finally, youre an editor in the Washington Post's health section for many years. And I know that youre not in the - kind of advice- giving business. You know, not "Dear Abby"...

Ms. TRAFFORD: I'm not in the advice-giving business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...or "Ask Amy" or - thats not your thing. But youve spent a lot of time with people kind of pouring out their hearts to you and giving you their life's stories. And I wonder, does any advice for them emerge from all the work that you did, and people who are experiencing love and all the challenges of love later in life?

Ms. TRAFFORD: Not real advice but, you know, an observation. One is, love is just central to our lives. And for each person, love comes in different packages. But then it's important to devote a lot of time and energy and anguish to love and to our relationships. And I find that people are very loving, that by and large people want to have good relationships and try very hard to have good relationships. The other force is really for personal integrity. I heard a lot of people say if they were in marriages or relationships that were difficult, you know, I can't be myself. I'm walking on eggshells. And I think there's a longing to be true.

And certainly as we get older, that's a main objective. You know, weve done our to-do list. Weve accomplished our adult goals. Weve raised our children. Weve been members of the community. Weve earned our living. And so now, we're sort of we're geared very much to what's the quality of our relationships? What kind of creative pursuits are we involved in? And so these are very, very important areas, and I think people take a lot of time and a lot of care to, in a sense, create a very good legacy.

MARTIN: Abigail Trafford is the author of "As Time Goes By: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity."

Abigail Trafford, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. TRAFFORD: Thank you so much.

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