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There are inconvenient truths.

Earlier this week, Al and Tipper Gore announced to a small circle of close friends via e-mail—and thus to the world—that they are separating after 40 years of a seemingly very happy and successful marriage.

Far too often we are surprised by news that a couple is divorcing when we all thought things were fine. But seldom do we hear, as we did with Al and Tipper, that a couple is separating. Was this carefully crafted PR language to avoid the "d word"—or is this truly descriptive of their situation? Few know. Regardless, it provides an opportunity to discuss marital separation and what it can mean for marriage.

There can be a profound difference between the two ways of describing the new status of a marriage. Divorce is always the end of a marriage. It is the absolute death of a small civilization, as novelist Pat Conroy said of his own divorce. And that death has large ripple effects, since no marriage—by its very nature—is an island.

Separation, however, can be an extreme and wise life-giving move for a marriage. It can allow a troubled couple to take a critical time-out from their seemingly hopeless marriage for antiseptic distance and hopefully a new perspective on what they have together, while making intentional plans for the road to health. In this sense, separation can be sad but praiseworthy. Although we don't know how the Gores are approaching their separation, it can serve as a teachable moment for all of us.

Too many of us, Christian believers included, have only two views of marriage: either happy and thriving or divorced and looking for supposedly greener grass. We forget about the benefit—even the gracious gift—that the marital pause button ...

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