The news that former US Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper have separated after forty years of apparently happy marriage has unsettled all of us who look to such couples for inspiration.
The pair met at their senior prom, after which Al claimed he never looked at another woman again. So what happened? Perhaps she’d had enough of his pet subject and fancied a climate change of her own. Or maybe they really did grow apart as they said.
Judith, a friend I interviewed for my book, How (Not) to Murder Your Husband, said that when she and her husband Roger divorced, their friends were very shaken. She is sixty–one, the same age as Tipper Gore, and had also been with her husband since they were eighteen.
“That it should have been us, of all couples – a kind of shockwave went round them,” she told me.
If they could fall apart, then any of them could. But her story confirms this particular inconvenient truth: what we see of others’ relationships is just that, only what we see. Inside, the workings are as complex and mysterious as those of a Rolls Royce.
As a friend of mine said when his parents suddenly announced their separation after thirty ‘good’ years:
“When did they stop loving each other? Was it recently, or much further back?”
He began to scrutinize the family photographs, looking for signs.
We tend to assume that others have the same expectations and needs, but people want very different things from marriage. When defending her decision to stay with Bill, Hillary Clinton cited the fact that he always treated her with respect. Wealth and status matter far more to some than fidelity, and she never invited our pity. He was loyal, just not in that way.
To me, being stuck with a man who isn’t funny would be torture, yet I know funny, quirky women married to men with no sense of humour. People marry for a million reasons. And they bring so much baggage with them up the aisle that no relationship can be viewed without its owner’s previous history. And no marriage is an island either. I recently met a man who was leaving his wife because of her parents, who treated him as an on–call, free handyman. Given different in–laws the outcome might have been happier.
So what can we do to ward off disaster?
Catherine Blyth, thirty–five, has been married for eight years – mere blink of an eye to fellow writer Sebastian Shakespeare. She has written The Art of Marriage (John Murray), an eloquent mix of humour and historical perspective. She says,
“It depends on the person. To most I’d say routine does blunt the edges, so don’t get in a rut. Of course, if you’re both doing high–octane jobs and travelling the world all the time, you might need some dull, flat time together.”
It’s a bit of wisdom you don’t often hear.
My former nanny Pat, now a widow of eighty–nine, always says,
“Don’t have any secrets from each other,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse, except that some marriages run for decades on pure denial. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, one of Hollywood’s greatest long–term romances, never married because he, a Catholic, was married to someone else. Who would have thought divorce a worse sin than adultery?
I met my husband Peter twenty–one years ago this month, and am somewhat amazed to have got this far. We argue, often, but are never bored. Also, I’ve somehow managed to follow my late father’s advice:
“Never marry someone who has more problems than you do.”
What I’ve Learned:
· Have realistic expectations. Desiring your other half to accompany you to a boring family occasion is reasonable; demanding they bail out your feckless brother for the fifth time is not.
· Small favours reap big dividends: bring them back their favourite magazine or brand of chocolate from the shops and watch their face light up (well, it works in my house).
· Negotiation sounds cold–blooded but can get you out of an impasse: I know a wife who agreed to move nearer his parents in exchange for having a third child.
· Try not to criticise their dull anecdotes, nose picking etc in public. A humiliated spouse is a resentful one.
· Spouses are not telepathic by virtue of proximity. If you don’t want to go on holiday with his/her friends and their horrible children again, say so.
· Don’t let them become part of the furniture: Pay attention. Pay a compliment now and then. And listen.
Famous long lasting marriages:
Anne Bancroft & Mel Brooks, 41 years (she died in 2005)
Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, 50 years (he died in 2008)
Michael & Shakira Caine, 37 years
Paul & Linda McCartney, 29 years (she died in 1998)
Bob Hope & Dolores Reade, 69 years (he died in 2003)
Denis & Edna Healey, 64 years.