Till whatever do us part

The day before I got married, my mother and I stood in a hayloft overlooking the barn floor where the reception would take place. Workmen were rolling out tables and the florist was rigging up giant branches over the dance floor, to make it look like a bower. My mother and I were considering where to hold the ceremony – in a pasture outside or there in the hayloft.

It was August, and the field was at its peak – a dazzling madness of grass and goldenrod – and would require mowing, for which the venue charged a modest fee. Also, it looked like rain. The hayloft was a little warm and cramped but wouldn’t cost extra. The wedding budget was already dangerously bloated, and I was reluctant to spend more. My mother shrugged. “You and Orlando are going to be married for the rest of your lives,” she said. “That money isn’t going to matter in the end.” But I’d grown weary of the “you’re spending for posterity” argument over the months of wedding planning. She persisted. “When I go to a wedding, I always hope the couple will be married forever,” my mother said. “But with you two, I know it. Get married wherever you want.”

That moment has stayed with me over the years and, in moments of marital despair, even given me hope and comfort. (“Well, if Mom says we’ll be married forever, I guess that means we’ll get through this….”) It feels almost embarrassing to say – and like it will jinx my marriage – but it’s one of my main goals in life to make good on the vow I took in that hayloft (it did rain) and stay with my husband, for better or for worse, until death do us part.

At the moment, though, American culture doesn’t seem like it’s rooting for my marriage – or anyone else’s. The brightest lights in politics, sports, and entertainment seem to be engaged in a secret competition to devise

the most outlandish way to humiliate themselves and their spouses. (Anyone for a hike along the Appalachian Trail with a call girl – or 20 – with a swastika tattoo and a blackmailing fiancé?) And now Al and Tipper Gore, poster couple for the baby boomer set, are going their separate ways after 40 years of marriage.

According to Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson, the Gores aren’t an anomaly. Just as the boomers were responsible for the highest divorce rate in history – 22.8 per 1,000 married couples in 1979 (by comparison, the 2008 rate was 3.5 per 1,000) – they now appear to be creating a wave of “gray divorce,” with nearly a third of divorces, according to the most recent census, among people who’d been married 20 to 40 years. Stevenson called them “the greatest divorcing generation in U. S. history” in The New York Times. She has pointed out that many reasons for these breakups are positive: Gender roles changed dramatically during this group’s adulthood, stoking more conflict in their marriages but also more equality; people are living longer, healthier lives, making starting over seem more doable and attractive; and since the boomers married younger than my generation, they achieved key milestones earlier. (When I graduated from college, my mother was 44; when my eldest does the same, I’ll be 56.) In an interview with NPR, Stevenson said that she thinks we need to reassess what success means, and look at the divorce rate not as a failure of marriage, but as “a celebration of life.”

You know what I think of that? Bullshit. The Gores’ marriage failed.

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Till whatever do us part