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 of separation can be if it is entered into with smart guidelines and intentionality. This lack of recognition is deeply unfortunate for a number of reasons.
By separating, the couple is making a bold statement. Whether they realize it or not, the announcement of separation does not necessarily say the couple is giving up (that is what divorce would mean). Separation at least leaves room for the possibility of restoration and reconciliation. The couple can enter their time of separation intending to air out the anger and hurt that has built up, then commit to entering individual counseling to work through their problems.
True, most couples who separate end up divorcing, but many don't, and that's no small thing. Beautiful and hopeful stories abound of couples who faced what seemed like the radical end of a desperate marriage and, after doing the hard work of separation, are now enjoying satisfying marriages. The redemption of that which seemed most unredeemable from our human perspective—that is precisely the business of the gospel we are in, is it not? And the gospel applies to our wrenched marriages as much as it does to our souls.
There is another important reason why separation can be a gift to a marriage: It lets the cat out of the bag and gets our community involved. That truth—that one marriage can affect another—is why we are talking about the Gores. It is an important gauge of how much we value marriage when even hardened political reporters are mourning the Gores' news and expressing collective romanticism and hopefulness about what marriage should mean. Even The Washington Post lamented passionately this week, "Please Al and Tipper, don't do this. For our sakes—don't!"
And here we find one of Satan's most potent tools in killing marriages: isolation and false fronts. All of that is smashed to pieces when a couple announces they are seeking separation before divorce. It gives our friends time and space to get into our business. This is profoundly healthy and should come as no surprise—after all, our Trinitarian God is inherently about community, accountability, and investing in one another, while Satan is all about loneliness, abandonment, and shame. Separation can be an opportunity to bring godly counsel and support into the marriage, as it serves to bring the relational infection out into the healing light.