A Litmus Test For All: Reactions to the Gore’s separation has provided a bit of a window into the thinking of males and females regarding the downfall of a 40 year marriage. Conversations and emails commenting on the separation reveal more about ourselves than about the Gores. As most of us are outside of the Gore circle, our projections onto this blank screen of an announcement are worth noting. They may provide direction to areas of concern and target possible “work” ahead on our current or future relationships.
The Gender Perspective: In the small sample available to me, I noticed that men seemed less worried about the termination of a long relationship than women. Perhaps their assumption is that this separation meets Al’s needs to walk on the wild side: hard to imagine but stranger things happen every day. Or that younger unions are in the offing…always a fundamental fantasy for the male gender, but not out of the scope of desire for females as well. One male friend suggested that Al was gay. A female friend posited that perhaps Al had tired of Tipper’s passivity and drug abuse. I pondered whether Tipper had tired of the robot wife role so often the bane of the political spouse. Much of the female perspective that traveled my way seemed worried, less able to see this as a good thing for the individuals involved. This led me to question, are women more afraid of ending a long marriage then men? Are women inclined to assume that the female has been retired for a newer model? Are men more likely to read this as liberation, women as rejection and isolation? Since “mutual” was the operative word, either partner could be viewed as the driving force, yet somehow women’s projections had a tonal difference, fear. Or are men simply less comfortable expressing fear, worry, or any hint of emotional dependence.?
The Upside and The Downside to Breaking Up: Women frequently describe the upside of the demise of a marriage or relationship as no longer having to take care of someone… welcoming the break in their sense of obligation to subjugate their needs for another…… Yet, a daunting piece of the downside for women is expressed in these conversations as well: the difficulty fitting into a couple dominated society post divorce or breakup, “the third wheel syndrome”, an affliction that I have never heard a man alone even mention. Therefore, when a couple of 40 years with no public displays of bad behavior, announces the intention to divorce, a subtle tremor may be felt under the surface of the Coupledom (that domicile where the relationship resides), with women perhaps more inclined to imagine a life beset with loneliness rather than liberation. Is there a cultural difference in divorce or are women just more expressive of concern, less inclined to deny that this could happen to their marriage too, and as I believe, as the guardians of their relationships, just doing their culturally assigned job to make sure that the relationship is OK.
Women as the Guardians of The Coupledom: Despite many successes in leveling the playing field of relationship maintenance, women still seem to be in the fore front of advocating for relationship help. At least, that is my experience as a clinician. In my opinion, the change is that now men are more willing to participate in the process of being “helped” than previously. It is also my experience that women are inclined to resent this role, feeling that they “care more” about the relationship and are hurt by that notion. I do not subscribe to the belief that the party motivated to seek out couples’ therapy, or quality time alone or other aids to relationship bonding, cares more. Rather, whether biologically grounded in evolution and/or culturally reinforced, women are still more likely to be the guardians of the nest, the relationship keepers, and men, no matter whether they wash dishes and change diapers (and most do these days) are still wired to be hunters, looking out the windows of their nest for prey/predators, rather than to the dangers lurking within. It is the woman, or whomever takes on the nesting functions in same gender couples, whose vigilant eye scrutinizes feelings, measures closeness, charts the emotional health and well being of the Coupledom. Though many men are astute and aware of psychological and emotional currents, they may be less programmed to use a highlighter to mark their concerns in the margins of their marriages and make the phone call to get help.
The Wake Up Call or Opportunity Knocks: In my opinion it matters less who points the light on the relationship and more that someone do so. Make use of this seismic quake of nuptial news to open up a dialogue with your spouse regarding the state of the marriage. Take the projections, whether they be fears or fantasies, out of the picture and replace them with real knowledge: how are we doing? Are we close enough, interested enough, stimulated enough, feeling cared for enough, have enough separate identity, enough shared joy, enough empathy for each other’s feelings, to sign on to another decade or two or three?. Tara Parker Pope’s New York Times article, June 4, 2010 “What Brain Scans Can Tell Us About Marriage” describes the work of researchers who study “the neuroscience of relationships……..the inner workings of long-married couples”. Brain scans of “happily married couples” revealed that when couples looked at photos of their spouses, parts of the brain associated with deep attachment showed activation, a measure of the “calm”, “security” and “contentment” that “deep attachment” brings to a couples’ lives.
“Deep attachment”: Unless you are attachment phobic (which would be worthy of exploration, and usually is rooted in fear of loss), can you imagine a more worthy goal to attain in your lifetime. The drive to protect and improve the Coupledom brings many a couple to my office, and I am always in awe of both members of the team: the one who initiates the call, the one who blows the whistle on the relationship and says, we need to talk. They are often not the same person. Men are responding to the whistle and making the call these days. If the women are often the guardians, the men are hearing the call and coming in with sleeves rolled up ready to do the work. It is impressive. I applaud the Coupledom that reaches for the gold ring of “deep attachment” on the carousal of marriage. What a ride.
©jill edelman L.C.S.W., M.S.W. 2010