Thriving Long-Term Marriages

The break-up of Al and Tipper Gore’s 40-year marriage is sparking a soul-searching among many long-time married couples. The Wall Street Journal today had an interesting article about the shifting marriage patterns among couples who have been married 30, 40 years or more. It turns out the Gores are typical of the baby boom generation:

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Whatever the Gores’ issues—he’s 62, she’s 61—they are part of a new normal that began with their generation, according to Census statistics. Of the 8.1 million women who were married between 1970 and 1974, just over half made it to their 30th wedding anniversary, compared with about 60% for women married between 1960 and 1964.

That is likely the biggest generational jump in divorce rates ever seen, says Pamela Smock, a research professor at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. From more women in the work force to the gradual acceptance of unmarried couples living together, the Gores’ generation “saw a sea change in how people thought about what they were supposed to do with their lives, including their family lives,” she says.

My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary last year. I don’t think we were too smug about it, though. More like combat veterans sitting around after a battle, happy to be alive but a bit dazed and exhausted. With five wild kids and our own business, we’re just glad to be in one piece. Plus, we’ve seen our share of divorces in our circle of friends. The Gores’ breakup, like the divorces of of friends, both unnerve us and make us more determined.

The Wall Street Journal article argues that greater longevity dooms marriage. “People are living longer, and they’re less willing to spend their last decades with someone who leaves them unfulfilled,” the author writes. “The anthropologist Margaret Mead believed marriage was designed for a time when people died in their 40s and 50s, after raising children together. The concept of decades-long, empty-nest marriages was never considered.”

Perhaps. But the article also had hope for those of us committed to seeing marriage through til death do us part. The second half of marriage, now that the kids are semi-launched, can be a time of re-focusing on the relationship that set the family yacht sailing the seven seas in the first place. It’s a time when the husband and wife tell the kids, “See ya! We’re off to Tahiti!” Well, if not Tahiti, at least down the street.

My wife and I now run every morning on the beach near our home. It’s partly for our health, of course — we’re committed Younger Next Year folks — but it’s also a time when we can reconnect. We often sit on the beach before we start running, quietly listening to the waves, sipping coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and just talking. It’s like daily marriage therapy. The kids have to fend for themselves for breakfast. At this point in our lives, we come first. Ha!

Like most combat veterans, my wife and I have seen too much to be flip about the next battle. We’re not overconfident… but not pessimistic, either. A stray bullet could take you out. But we’re determined and hopeful. Another day, another run together.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).