RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The news that Al and Tipper Gore are separating after 40 years of marriage came as a shock to many people. The couple's public image seemed the perfect example of a happy, committed relationship.
But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, divorce later in life is not as rare as you might think. In fact, it may well become more common as Americans live longer.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: The Gores were in the highest risk category for divorce - the generation that married in the late '60s and early '70s. They were also young, another risk factor for splitting up. Yet they survived all that, and in recent decades divorce rates have been on the decline. What's more, divorce is most common in the earlier years of a marriage. But it's by no means limited to that seven-year itch.
Dr. STEPHANIE COONTZ (Author, "Marriage: A History"): There's another wave of divorce later on in the marriage. And those are ones where there hasn't been a lot of conflict, but they're just kind of dissatisfied with the relationship.
LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is with the Council on Contemporary Families and the author of "Marriage: A History." She says a recent study found that a quarter of all people who divorced in the previous year had been married two decades or more. Coontz has a hard time calling the Gores' union a failure.
Dr. COONTZ: This is a marriage that got through 40 years without having any - a child fathered out of wedlock, no tawdry affairs, the kids are raised. So I think in some ways, we can think of this as a success.
LUDDEN: Still, a couple in their 60s today could easily expect another two decades or more of a healthy, productive life - something unprecedented in the history of marriage. So Coontz says the vow to stay together 'til death do us part is more of a challenge than it used to be.
Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania says a century ago, 75 percent of married couples lived with their young children. Today, just 40 percent do.
Professor BETSEY STEVENSON (University of Pennsylvania): Marriage has really moved from something that was once very, very child-centered. That's not what life is about today and that's because we're living longer, healthier lives, that our adult lives extend way beyond our childbearing years.
LUDDEN: The prospect of life alone once the kids are gone is also less frightening than it used to be. Stephanie Coontz has interviewed lots of people who raised families in the 1950s and '60s.
Dr. COONTZ: I often met people who said that their marriages were unhappy, that they would really rather have been alone, but that they couldn't imagine living alone in their 60s. What would they do? Where would their money come from? Who would take care of them when they were sick?
LUDDEN: Today, so many different factors mean that older people do have options for an independent life of one's own - or maybe not on one's own. Betsey Stevenson says marriage rates later in life are soaring; some remarriages, some for the first time.
Prof. STEVENSON: This is a great era for marriage among people in - don't even want to call them old anymore...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. STEVENSON: And those who aren't remarrying are cohabiting in great numbers.
LUDDEN: Stevenson says she'd never want to call divorce a good-news story, but she suggests society might need to reassess what it means to be successful in marriage.
Prof. STEVENSON: Does it mean staying married 'til we die, even if that means 75 years of marriage? That's a pretty lofty goal.
LUDDEN: She prefers to see the Gores' separation not as a failure of marriage but, as she calls it, a celebration of life.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.