Suzanne Tobias

Marriage: Happy ones don't just happen

My initial reaction to Al and Tipper Gore's divorce went something like this: Forty years?! Forty?! Heaven help us all. Not to mention: If a guy with a Nobel Peace Prize can't make marriage work, who can?

It's surprising, perplexing, disheartening and sad. And I don't even know the Gores.

I do remember that infamous kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention, which I found both adorable and unseemly. It's the same reaction my 12-year-old daughter has when she catches my husband and me snuggling on the couch or stealing a kiss in the hallway, that expression that says, "Awww, look at the precious old people! OK, stop."

I know couples divorce all the time, for all sorts of reasons. I know others stay together inexplicably, perhaps ill-advisedly, through tragedies, infidelities and the ever-popular "growing apart."

But when you hear about couples breaking up after 40 years together — 40 years?! —it makes you re-examine everything you know about marriage, about togetherness, about making it work.

Elizabeth Gilbert's new book, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage," examines what marriage is and isn't, why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I read it recently and recommended it to several friends, including some who are engaged and, like Gilbert, are approaching marriage like the ultimate research project.

The once-divorced Gilbert is now married to Felipe, a Brazilian man she met during a journey she chronicled in her memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love." But she's not all schmoopy love songs and happy endings.

"Felipe and I had each learned firsthand this distressing truth," Gilbert writes. "That every intimacy carries, secreted somewhere below its initial lovely surfaces, the ever-coiled makings of complete catastrophe."

Harsh. But marriage is not for the faint of heart, Gilbert argues. A real, mature, sustainable relationship — the kind that pays the mortgage and cleans the house and picks up the kids after school — requires more than love. It takes patience, courage, commitment and respect.

Randy and I, nearly 17 years in, are still learning. Late at night we discuss our day, share laughs and gripes. We still imagine growing old together and still like the picture. We realize, though, that it's a long road. Scenery changes, kids grow, struggles appear, often out of nowhere.

We see friends, family and celebrities split. I read books like Gilbert's, share passages aloud with Randy, talk about what it all means. And every day, we recommit.

Because happy endings don't just happen.