06/02/2010 11:49 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Al, Tipper and the State of the Union

I just heard the news about Al and Tipper Gore. I'm shocked. Yet I'm not.

I won't sink to speculation about the cause of their separation. To suspect Al Gore is another link in the chain of celebrity cheaters didn't even occur to me. (Okay, it did -- but just briefly). Whether or not fame and power are factors in their situation, there could be a myriad of other reasons.

Marriage is always a mystery. And 40 years is an eternity in marital time -- way longer than dog years. Assuming the Gores truly remain on friendly terms, 40 years of marriage could be seen not as a failure but as an accomplishment.

I've come to wonder whether our species is meant to mate for life. Mating habits evolve just as humans have. Now our lifespan has multiplied the years spent under the same roof (or cave). We don't require a mate to survive, and the challenges to survival are less threatening to the individual and more threatening to the institution. (I'm not the first person to wonder why we call marriage an institution to which we commit ourselves.)

I confess I sound cynical, and it extends to authorities on "successful" marriages. I don't buy the idea that there is a recipe for something that is tried and tested and tortured by life, often through no fault of the people involved. Over the years, if there's anything I've learned, I've learned that I know nothing. It can be impossible to predict what brings people together -- and what holds them together.

Personally, (15 years married; one divorce; a second marriage of 15 years and counting) I've come to believe marriage is a no-brainer. As in: don't think too much. So much about marriage is not found in the brain or the heart. It's a function of timing, circumstances and just plain luck. You have to wonder whether marriages worked equally well when matchmakers or parents did the job of finding a mate.

Equally impossible is to assess the institution itself -- when one size doesn't fit all, it seems impossible to measure the meaning. It's hard to have faith in any theory of what makes marriage work when it works in a completely unique way for each unique couple.

Take the Gores and the Clintons. The Gores locked in a passionate kiss at the Democratic convention at the moment the Clintons were mired in the morass of Monica. Which couple would you have predicted would stay married?

As for finding that perfect mate, I'm also cynical about that. Some people say marriages take work; others claim it's a piece of cake. Some say opposites attract; some say people should be like peas in a pod. Some couples thrive on separation; others are joined at the hip. How do you determine who and what to believe?

I just finished reading Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. In her new book she applies considerable energy to examine the institution of marriage. Her personal experiences are engaging, still she doesn't really come up with any answers. (Not that Gilbert claims to be an expert -- and neither do I.)

I'm leaning towards a theory that comes from a friend who is definitely not a marriage expert. She speculates that couples who endure look at each other with less than clear vision. In other words, her theory is that in order for a marriage to last, when it comes to feelings about your mate, both people involved need to have a screw loose.

I love it. Definitely offers a new way to think about the state of the union: Are we committed, or screwed?