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A Gore Brain in the Balance: Understanding the Tipper Point of Marriage

06/08/2010 05:38 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I first heard of the 40 year marriage between Al and Tipper Gore coming to the end, a flash of memories came back to me from my psychotherapy days of listening to countless stories of marriages figuring out their emotions of mis-fit. And like a Hollywood script, there were many character plots that seemed to be on a cosmic rerun of "Human Nature TV."

You had the 18 year old immaturity-reigning story that reeked of impetuousness, great sex, and the longing to fill some unfulfilled need from childhood via marriage. These relationships seemed to combust sooner than later as the physical connection couldn't quite carry the load beyond the orgasm. And then of course, you had the "7 year itch" type marriages where the train track switch for moving one from what it feels like to be married to what it actually means to be married locks up and nothing changes despite forced smiles, apathy-oriented family dinners, and benign indifference. And finally, you got the "because of this event we are splitting up" type marriage story where a clear and supposedly convincing reason is always given and one partner is hell bent on being right and not being happy again. These events were usually infidelity-based, be it with a lover, a one-night stand, or some boundary-violating escape act into the world of work or some other addiction.

But what always made my shrink brain ache was the story of the 25, 30, or 40 year marriage that called it quits. My uncle divorced after 38 years and though apparently for very good rational reasons, I am amazed by the psychological endurance that stops all of a sudden in the writing of a marriage story. Perhaps these types of marriages are like someone hanging on to a cliff and not enjoying stable ground and then the psychological muscles give out in a free fall to sanity. Or perhaps there is tons of happiness, very little tolerance and drudgery, and a mere mutually amicable change of heart occurs, with a potentially sacramental bond traded in for a low-conflictual handshake. Nonetheless, this I know: the neuroscience part of transformation is at play here somewhere and the challenge for me as a write is to try to get at that without the defensive button being pressed. That is, to get at what can be called "closest thing to truth" when one removes assumptions and judgments ---which are always thrown out at people like Tipper and Al -- from a religious, cultural, societal or spiritual standpoint. For the question I am hoping to answer here is: If we could create a regression equation that predicts lasting marriages, what would those variables be, when one "controls for" the variance explained by differing spiritual and/or religious orientations? Or at least, what is the one most elusive yet influential variable that the brain can inform us on?

This hit me as crucial to understand when getting at the comment made in the press that the Gore's "just grew apart." Just grew apart. Hmm. The trick here is to try to answer this without tripping the judgmental wires of what you think one "should" do. For this is incredibly dangerous, for the brain is a massive projection screen throwing out its inadequacies and failures onto others all the time. So can there be an objective commentary to the rational discussion of "just growing apart" that can shed light and not defensiveness onto the question of the promotion of a transformationally-oriented marriage that lasts when everything else around us doesn't? I believe so.

First, I believe it is critical to understand the presence of a dialectic here, that usually brains don't like to digest. A dialectic is just a fancy phrase for a philosophical construct that enjoins two opposites to make a greater whole. Said another way, one gets at the wisdom of growing a dialectic comfortably in a marriage when one hears this: that two people find each other for the sole purpose of experiencing the dissonance when it is realized that the thing most needed for your growth is the thing most difficult for the other to give. The brain, in its one size fits all emotional response patterns, makes this dissonance indistinguishable emotionally from the feeling of being an "objectively poor fit." To discern requires something above and beyond just 40 years together. It is equally challenging at day one for the brain to not get tripped in this as it is on day 14,600.

So growing apart may not be the result of incompatibility, the need to take a break, or the beginning of other more individualistic needs. These may be emotionally-oriented half-truths that will always make sense and be indefensible. Perhaps seeking what doesn't make sense may take us to the next level of understanding. Growing apart may be exactly what is to be expected at year 40 to invite another layer of radical togetherness at year 41. What did the Gores miss in this decision? Well, apparently in the absence of infidelity and chronic stress, which the press is not pointing to here, we are left wondering if the "Gore Brain" itself was in the similar balance point he speaks about in his environmental research -- what to do in the absence of catastrophic symptoms of change and yet in the presence of some subtle yet equally clear markers of change? Why could his brain process on another level behind the data for the environment and not on the realm of love? For to me, the planet and a marriage will only be saved if we heed Einstein's quote and solve it on a different level of thinking that the problem was created on. For the planet, it means not relying on statistics and correlational data only. And for a marriage, it means not relying solely on half-truthed emotions. Ah, a both/and world ... the prototypical antagonist to the world of a brain.