Did Al Gore's Success Kill His Marriage?

Psychologists say couple's break-up defied the odds.

June 3, 2010 — -- News of the breakup of the 40-year marriage of former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, has left many speculating about what caused the split, and still more wondering whether any marriage is safe.

"Suddenly our image of marriages that can work has crashed," said Marion Solomon, a psychologist in Los Angeles. "We have an idea that there are some people that are happy. That it is possible to be happily married in the public eye. ... If they're getting a divorce, can any marriage work?"

The odds are actually pretty good for a couple who tied the knot around 1970, when the Gores were married. Only about 15 percent of marriages dating to that time had broken up after 15 years, said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. And with every anniversary, the risk of divorce declines.

The Gores' marriage spanned four decades, in which they raised four children and weathered crises that included a 1989 car accident that nearly killed their son, Albert Gore III, an event that reportedly brought on Tipper Gore's bout with major depression.

And they not only survived decades lived on the political stage, but they seemed to thrive there. Their passionate kiss at the 2000 Democratic Convention left a lasting and much-discussed impression.

While campaigning for president, Al Gore said in an interview that his wife was "someone I've loved with my whole heart since the night of my high school senior prom."

Together they wrote "Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family," published in 2003. "For us, as for most Americans," they wrote, "family is our bedrock, and we believe the strength of the American family is the nation's bedrock."

So what went wrong for the Gores?

As of yet, there's been nary a rumor of any perfidy. And several people close to the family have said they don't expect any tales to emerge.

Some have speculated that Al Gore's new fame as the world's most well-known environmentalist, with his Oscar-winning film, "An Inconvenient Truth," and his Nobel Prize, may have something to do with it.

Al and Tipper Gore's Breakup: What Went Wrong?

Tipper Gore may feel disconnected, excluded, or disappointed by her husband's new interests and successes, Solomon suggested.

"They had a common goal and when he lost the presidency, somehow that goal got shifted. And he moved to other things," Solomon said. "Suddenly he discovered another part of himself and he loved it. He's out in the world, he's winning awards, and he's a filmmaker. That is a very different life than they had before."

But Stephanie Coontz, who has written widely on the American family, cautioned against assuming that Al Gore, with his new-found star status and high-profile projects is moving on from his relationship. A recent AARP survey showed that in two-thirds of divorces among older couples, women initiated the splits.

Marriages have a natural life cycle, said Renana Brooks, a psychologist and the director of the Sommet Institute in Washington, D.C. "There are little moments that are high on divorce."

After seven years, couples are finished with romance. After 20 years, they're done with the family cycle. And by 40, they're through with the grandchild cycle, Brooks said.

"When these cycles hit these moments, you have to have a new glue. You have to re-create a new baby," she said, adding that without a common mission or purpose, couples stumble as they enter into the next stage of their lives.

Others have remarked on the irony of the Clinton marriage outlasting the Gores', but Brooks said she is not surprised.

"[The Clintons] have really quite a common vision, a partnership," she said. "They have a political baby."

Coontz said the Gores' decision to separate can be seen through a positive lens.

"They've been together for 40 years," she said. "They worked together through tremendous challenges, raised their kids, and they grew apart. It's too bad they grew apart."

But, she added, "It's a success that they have the option to move on and not be stuck."

When the Gores married, in 1970, most women did not work outside the home. And in the majority of states, men maintained the legal right to make decisions regarding community property, where the couple would live and other major decisions that modern couples expect to be share as equals, Coontz said. Women were still expected to defer to men, whether in or out of marriage.

Al and Tipper Gore's Breakup: What Went Wrong?

Now, said Coontz, "We have higher expectations." And more complications, as both partners look to pursue their own ambitions.

"Relationships need more tending than they did in the past," she said.

Solomon said she agrees. If given the chance, she said, she'd have offered the Gores this advice, "If you are in a place where you're doing something that you're excited about, make sure your partner gets a lot of affirmation. Make sure your partner knows that they're a very important part of your life, of what you're doing, that they're valuable."