Divorce rare for those, like Gores, married decades

Tipper and Al Gore attend the presidential inaugural in 2009. After 40 years of marriage, they’re separating.

Associated Press (2009)

Tipper and Al Gore attend the presidential inaugural in 2009. After 40 years of marriage, they’re separating.

About half of marriages end in divorce. Most of them blow up in the first nine years. That's the way things are. But splitsville after 40 years?

Even among people who see divorce every day, who hear every imaginable reason, the announcement that Al and Tipper Gore had separated after celebrating their 40th anniversary caused amazement.

"I was shocked," said Tampa psychologist James Messina, a longtime marriage counselor who now works in senior centers with couples who have stayed together more than 50 years.

"Separation after 40 years? With four kids? It didn't make sense. After that many years together, you settle. That's what most couples do."

About 80,000 people in Florida divorce every year. Just over 600 of them — fewer than 1 percent — have been married more than 40 years. Far bigger danger periods are the first nine years and the "empty nest" years when the kids go to college.

Couples in long marriages don't necessarily love each other. They're used to each other. They've seen everything. They have tremendous coping skills.

Certainly that was true of the Gores. They survived a life in the fishbowl of national politics, his bitter presidential election defeat and her long struggles with depression. He's 62. She's 61. They had just bought an $8.9 million mansion.

"For a couple to call it quits after that long, to be that honest, to refuse to settle, is a gutsy call," Messina said.

He has been married for 38 years.

"I looked at my wife this morning. I said, 'Well, are we making an announcement when we reach our 40th?' "

She told him they couldn't afford it.

Marital and family law attorney Michael Lundy of Tampa said he can recall only a couple of divorces he handled for spouses married that long.

One divorce was for a couple married 57 years. Lundy represented the husband.

"He came to me after he caught his wife corresponding with her high school sweetheart. She had reconnected with him through the Internet. The husband caught her sending e-mails.

"It so offended the husband's honor that there was no way he was going to stay married. In his mind, it was infidelity."

The repercussions of divorce after a long marriage are formidable. Many couples are beginning retirement. They're relying on savings and Social Security. They've saved just enough to cover one household.

Their children are gone but still ask: Who's going to take care of mom and dad now?

"For the average couple these are tough problems," said Hillsborough County family court Judge Catherine Catlin. She can't recall presiding over any divorces between spouses married more than 40 years. "Even as a practitioner for 21 years, I may have had only four."

Infidelity was not cited by the Gores. It's rarely the cause in such breakups.

"The biggest problem is the husband and wife have stopped being a married couple," attorney Lundy said. "One may have been focused only on the children, and the other only on work. They ignored each other for so many years that they completely grew apart. Infidelity may have happened, but it's usually a symptom of a marriage gone bad, not the cause."

Said Judge Catlin: "That can be said of a lot of marriages after 40 years."

Dean and Shirley Bolvin of St. Petersburg just celebrated their 55th year together. They raised four children. But Dean Bolvin said he and Shirley never stopped being each other's husband and wife.

"We've gone together to the same church — Christ Lutheran — for 55 years. We exercise together Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We watch our grandchildren play baseball. Now my wife wants us to watch the sunsets together.

"We don't have a formula. We're just together."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

Divorce rare for those, like Gores, married decades 06/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 3, 2010 9:06am]

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