This week included a radio interview by WHYY’s Marty Moss-Cohane on the subject of the “graying” of divorce.  The two academicians featured were a historian from the University of Hawaii Stephanie Coontz and a business professor from Penn, Betsey Stevenson.  The program is archived at WHYY for June 9, 2010.

Early in the program one of the professors noted that, as the title suggests, we are conflicted over whether marriage remains an institution or whether it is now simply a relationship.  By definition institutions are things to revere.  Relationships smack of practicality; like the fellow who mows our lawn or services our cars.

From childhood, we were taught that marriage was an institution to celebrate for all of one’s life.  The vows of marriage tell us so.  But a look back through history informs us that lifelong marriage was more the exception than the rule. We remember the lengthy and apparently happy marriages of Washington, Franklin, Adams and Madison.  We choose to forget that for two of these founders there were months and in some cases years of enforced separation.  We should recall that for many couples marriage often produced childbirth accompanied by huge mortality rates for both child and mother.  So it was not uncommon for people to marry two or three times during a lifetime that rarely exceeded fifty years.

The other thing that changed over time was the “meaning” of marriage. It is not until the Enlightenment that the idea of marriage for love gained currency.  Before that time, marriage had to do with financial security.  Fornication and its close friend bastardy were crimes because the result was children who might become public charges.  Changes in society’s wealth and sexuality have changed much of this over the past fifty years.

Professor Coontz has been reading marriage manuals of the 1950s and concluded that marriage counseling had spoken more in terms of obligation than happiness.  Unhappy women were advised that it was their duty to make a marriage work even if this meant resigning themselves to an otherwise miserable condition.  At a time when women were far less educated and worldly, few had much choice but to accept their plight. There weren’t many other options.

Much has changed.  But old habits die hard.  Consider the fact that marriage for “love” has been around for more than two centuries yet the notion that women were entitled to be happy in their marriages seems to have gained currency in the past forty years alone.

We don’t know whether Al is dumping Tipper or vice versa.  There is even the prospect that they actually agreed that notwithstanding the importance of the “institution” the relationship was no longer working.  Certainly, there is something to be said for discouraging people to end marriages for transient causes.  But as we live longer, what sustained a relationship for forty years may not be enough to make it for fifty.  We are seeing more seniors choosing to move on.  In the saddest cases, they have barely enough to sustain themselves together through retirement.  This often means that once separated and with their meager assets divided, each will live very close to poverty.  But couples like the Gores have the resources to go on without significant economic sacrifice. Their separation will be emotional.  Unless both parties come to the same conclusion at the same time, it always will be emotional.  But life is a journey and not a destination and all of us are well advised to consider that when thinking about marriage in the first place.