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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Emotional Reactions to Al and Tipper Gore's Split

For many people, the news of Al and Tipper Gore's split came as a shock and a disappointment. After 40 years of marriage, they announced that, they have mutually decided to go their separate ways.

I remember when I heard the news last week that my initial gut reaction was, "Oh no, this can't be." Then, as a psychotherapist and marriage counselor, I reminded myself that, from the outside, none of us ever knows what's really going on in "the ideal marriage." And although breakups after 40 years are less common than in shorter marriages, longevity doesn't guarantee that people will stay together. And if they stay together, it doesn't mean they're happy.

Whatever is going on in the Gore marriage is, of course, between the Gores, and we should respect their privacy. Whether they drifted apart or whatever the reason for the breakup, it's their business.

But beyond the news of their breakup, what I'm most interested in is the reaction that many people, including me, had to the news and the feelings that it engendered.

Why Are So Many People Upset about the Gores' Split?
Aside from the obvious--that they appeared to be "the ideal couple," they were together for so long, and that they had weathered many personal and political disappointments together--there is phenomenon that often occurs when people hear about the breakup of that kind of long-term relationship. Even if people don't know the couple, they often find it unsettling to hear about the breakup of a long-term relationship, especially one that has been so idealized.

For many of us, there's a strong need to see successful long-term relationships that endure and thrive. It's as if we need to see those relationships to counteract the usual doom and gloom that we hear about half of all marriages ending in divorce. And there's something about that need that comes from a young part of ourselves, giving us hope and faith that long-term relationships can beat the odds despite many challenges.

I believe that's why many people reacted to the news of the Gores' breakup as if "mom and dad" called them into the living room to have "a difficult talk" about their split. When children go through this with their parents, when it comes as a complete surprise (and even when it doesn't), they often feel shocked and let down, and they wonder, "What will happen to me now that mom and dad are splitting."

For many people, the news of the Gores' breakup was like an emotional punch to the gut. We didn't see it coming. Many people reacted by saying to themselves, "They seemed so happy and in love. If they can't make it after 40 years of marriage, what are the chances for my relationship. What will happen to me?" And those feelings can stir up a lot of insecurity.

As a country, I think we're very ambivalent about our heroes. We want individuals and couples that we can believe in, put on a pedestal, and project our hopes and fears onto. But we also often find ways to tear them down because, in part, while we idealize them, we also know, deep down, that they can't really live up to our idealized expectations.

For those old enough to remember, President Kennedy is a good example of this. For many, he represented a new and exciting beginning for our country, the magic of Camelot. We saw him as young and full of energy with exciting new ideas to take our country beyond our wildest imagination. He and Jackie Kennedy appeared to have the ideal, loving marriage and family. As a country, thousands mourned the tragedy of his passing as if they had lost a family member. It was only years later that it came to light that the idealized image was somewhat tarnished by the reality that his marriage was troubled and that the health and vitality that he projected belied exhaustion and serious health problems. Even though we didn't know John and Jackie Kennedy, this was a letdown for many people, as if we had been hoodwinked into believing the idealized image only to have the rug pulled out from under us.

So, aside from whatever shock and disappointment people might be experiencing about the news of Al and Tipper's split, many people are also feeling like they were hoodwinked: "What about that big, passionate kiss on network TV at the Democratic Convention!?!," they want to know, "Was it all a sham!?!"

In reality, we know that relationships are more complicated than the idealized images that we might want or need. People change. Needs change. And while I believe that it's important not to walk away too quickly without trying to salvage an otherwise good relationship that might have hit a few bumps in the road, I also know that, when it's time to go, it takes a lot of courage to leave a relationship to be on one's own.

If you and your spouse are going through difficult times, you might benefit from seeing a marriage counselor.

I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and marriage counselor in NYC.

To find out more about me, visit my website:

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.