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For some, divorce is a long, long, long goodbye

To them, the Gores’ split is a sadly familiar tale

Eileen Buckley, married 28 years, is the president of First Financial Trust in Newton and has a new man in her life. Her former husband was jobless for most of their marriage. Eileen Buckley, married 28 years, is the president of First Financial Trust in Newton and has a new man in her life. Her former husband was jobless for most of their marriage. (Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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Unlike many people, Gerald Garnick of Hyannis wasn’t surprised when he heard about Al and Tipper Gore’s seemingly seamless marriage unraveling. The Gores’ legendary closeness and public liplocks aside, Garnick could relate to their split, both personally and professionally.

As a lawyer who spends half his time on divorce cases — and as a husband who got divorced after 38 years of marriage — Garnick gets it. “To come home to a person you’ve been married to for 38 years and you don’t want to be there, that’s really the bottom line,’’ says Garnick, 66. “Notwithstanding the history and the love you had for each other, you just don’t want to be there.’’

With decades of personal history and commitment, children and grandchildren, and the “golden years’’ within sight, why do some long-term marriages dissolve? The question has been reverberating at dinner tables and in the blogosphere since the Gores announced this week that they’re separating after 40 years of marriage.

Half of all divorces take place in the first eight years of marriage, according to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Betsey Stevenson, a business and public policy pro fessor who researches marriage and divorce at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with those statistics. While members of the Gores’ generation have experienced the highest divorce rates, the majority of those breakups occurred within the first 20 years of the marriage, she says.

Using US Census Bureau marital data from 1955 to 1994, Stevenson found that among recent divorces, 25 percent of the couples had been married at least 20 years; 4 percent of the divorced had been married at least 40 years.

“The previous generation said, ‘There’s not much living left until we die, so what’s the point of divorce even if we’re unhappy?’ ’’ Stevenson says. “But people today entering their 60s don’t think of themselves as old, and they’re optimistic about their future. That encourages them to change situations that make them unhappy.’’ Stevenson predicts there will be more late-life divorces in the coming decade. Indeed, a 2004 AARP survey of 1,147 respondents found that “gray divorce’’ among those at midlife and beyond are on the rise.

Ned and Sue Hallowell, who recently coauthored a book, “Married to Distraction: Restoring Intimacy and Strengthening Your Marriage in an Age of Interruption,’’ have seen it happen among their clients: a long-term marriage just runs its course. The antidote: “It’s about paying attention to each other,’’ says Ned, a Boston-area psychiatrist. “I think they [the Gores] drifted apart because there wasn’t enough attention, time, empathy, connection, and play.’’

Sue Hallowell, a family therapist in Cambridge, hears the term “growing apart’’ — the words the Gores’ friends used — in her practice. “The kids are going off to college and they spent so much attention on them that some people look at each other and wonder who the other one is,’’ she says. “In some cases, either one or both are no longer interested in finding out.’’

Such was the case with Joel Skolnick, who “hung around for the kids.’’ After their two daughters were launched, he says, “My wife and I looked at each other and we had absolutely nothing in common. We did not share the same values, we had different interests and goals.’’ After 34 years together, the couple divorced 10 years ago.

Skolnick, 66, the retired owner of a printing company, says he’s not at all surprised at the Gores’ news. “Half the people get divorced, and of the other half, 25 percent are unhappy but don’t have the guts to go through a divorce,’’ says Skolnick, who lives in Brookline. “They stay together because of the convenience, and the financial burden if they split up.’’

Some specialists agree that for various reasons — inertia, finances, waiting for children to leave, or for retirement — long-term couples often tough it out for years in unhappy unions before deciding to split. “They tend to say that things have been bad for a long time,’’ says Wendy Hickey, a Boston divorce lawyer.

Waiting can make a bad situation worse. “Sometimes, when it’s been bad for a very long time, and they’ve let things fester, the divorce is much more hotly contested,’’ says Hickey. “People have had a longer period of time to build up their assets and they want to fight about it more.’’

Gerald Garnick’s divorce two years ago was amicable enough. He and his wife met in college and married young. He says he was unhappy for at least five years before they separated, a pattern he sees among his long-married clients. “All relationships are hard to break off, even bad relationships,’’ says Garnick. “Someone has to stand up and say, ‘I think we should get a divorce.’ ’’

In his practice, women in long marriages are usually the ones who initiate a divorce, and nationally, two-thirds of divorces are sought by women. “Men are hesitant because they become comfortable with the home life the wife provides,’’ Garnick says. Among his clients, he says, men seeking a split have usually met someone else.

But for him, there was no other woman. “My wife had been a terrific homemaker and a terrific mother. The fact of the matter is we just came to the end of our relationship. There was nothing to keep us together.’’ Garnick has had clients married 35 or more years.

Eileen Buckley also stayed in what she calls a bad marriage for 28 years.

“Being Irish Catholic and living in Dedham, I was so embarrassed because everyone talked about it. I was the only child and I was determined that would not happen to me.’’ Buckley, president of First Financial Trust in Newton, finally left, and at 56, hopes to have many more years in a healthy relationship with the new man in her life.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead liked to say that marriage worked better in the 19th century because people only lived to be 50. But today, with increased longevity, “till death do us part’’ makes for marriages that can be 60, even 70 years long.

“The issues are staying connected, keeping it fresh, staying curious about who the other person is,’’ says Ned Hallowell. And after decades of marriage, as the Gores have learned, that’s often easier said than done.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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