By Frank Wessling
Shortly before we entered the month of June, the month once associated with brides and weddings, the news came out that former Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper were separating after 40 years of marriage. The Gores aren’t the first long-married couple to split, but their prominence insured that attention would be paid.
Why does a marriage that seemed healthy and solid for such a long time fall apart? There has been much speculation about that, most of it plowing old ground. But old ground or not, any serious, sustained thinking about marriage is welcome. We need more of it, since good marriage is useful in growing strong women and men, making good families and producing children healthy in spirit.
But marriage doesn’t come easily. The wedding is a short party; making the relationship we call marriage is a continuing challenge.
We live a long time in the 21st century and we all change over time, often in unpredictable ways. That seems to be the story with Al and Tipper Gore. It’s said that they developed separate lives after he took up the cause of global warming and became a celebrity in demand everywhere. The children were grown and on their own. There is enough money for each to continue living comfortably. Each of them is still young enough to expect many vigorous, interesting years. Why not look for new companions who will be more compatible at this stage of life.
Or a couple can simply “grow apart,” as it’s said. We all have different passions, different interests, and those differences can intensify over the years.
Sometimes it’s something as simple and deadly as a wandering eye that isn’t brought under control and the thrill of new conquests.
A great many people believe marriage is about having a soul mate. We expect to find someone with whom we have 48 points of compatibility, as a match-making business promises. When that myth is punctured by reality and disillusionment sets in, it’s a short step to going off on another search for Mr. or Mrs. Right.
Choice is touted as such a high value in our culture that it functions as a subliminal wonder drug. If something doesn’t “work” for us the way we want, choose something different, whether breakfast food, hair color, or husbands. We deserve what pleases us at the moment.
Romance stories might speak of marriage as a pledge of eternal union and a leap of faith, but the romance is generally limited to the story of two people thrilled by the good feelings that come up between them. There is nothing solid under them, no net to catch them and save their union as those feelings meet the banalities of daily living and the challenge of hidden differences.
There is some evidence that young people today do realize what a deep challenge marriage is: they don’t marry early. The average age for marriage is now in the upper 20s as both women and men hesitate to make what is for most of them still the most important decision of their lives. They want it to be the right decision.
It will be most surely the right decision at any age when the story is larger than ourselves, when the romance includes a real leap of faith, a commitment open to the unknown, to the infinite. Our religious story, the story we might call the Christian romance, makes it clear that a love worthy of the name will mean experiencing death; death as part of the road to fullness of life and union — what we name and celebrate as Communion.
It isn’t necessary to know with any certitude what that means in order to have a secure marriage. But it is valuable in making us less surprised at unexpected pain which comes with the hard realities of spousal life, the little dyings and diminishments of our old self that feel like so much loss. If we have already tried to grasp and practice the kind of love shown in the Gospel, we will grope for ways to see a gift of new life, not simply loss, in whatever comes.
Even if we haven’t tried to practice the love of Christ, even if we don’t know the Gospel at all, the natural desire to be united with one other person in a life-giving love is energy we can attribute to God. And that energy will try to stay alive. But when the culture makes divorce easy, when time or distance or differences make it easy to “grow apart” and hard to sustain a vital love day after day, it makes a difference when we see ourselves as part of a greater story, a transcendent love.
It can be the difference between joy and the pursuit of mere happiness.