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Al and Tipper Gore's sad love story: Where do we begin . . . to express our sadness?

Al and Tipper Gore announced in an e-mail to friends that they are separating after 40 years of marriage.

"Perfect" might be an overstatement, but certainly they struck us as a great pair -- his dorky peculiarities cut by her lively, blond spunk. The truth is, we liked them more as a couple than we did individually. And we never doubted they were real. Forget the Great Convention Kiss of 2000 -- that was politicking and theatrics. Look at the way he cradles her hand in their wedding photo, how she beams at him across the lawn of the Naval Observatory. You don't fake that.

Which means something worse: that affection evaporated, rather than solidified, across their 40 years.

It's hard to conceive of the equation that could make them conclude that life on the other end of a split will be better than it was before. After sticking around that long, what could persuade a couple to forfeit all they had together? The end of incessant arguing? The prospect of another romance?

But who else will recall how adorably frustrated you got putting that model train set together on Christmas Eve? Or laugh about the time we drove out West and got miserably lost but it turned out all right because we stumbled upon that old-fashioned diner and had the best milkshakes of our lives?

A new partner won't remember. Neither will the empty spot on the other side of the bed.

We wanted to see the Gores -- our parents, our friends, the neighbors with the porch -- delight in their twilight years. Playing with their grandchildren, traveling together in a way they never could before, operating more slowly, but in union. We wanted to see them move into sweetness.

"This is supposed to be one of the easiest and happiest periods of marriage . . . the reward for a job well done," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies families.

But the other fact is that we've never before faced empty-nest periods that could easily extend for 20 or 30 years. "The institution of marriage wasn't designed for that. It was designed to help us raise kids and put food on the table," says Cherlin. "It may just be that it's a difficult task for married couples to keep a happy life going for decades."

The Gores knew as much. In their 2003 book, "Joined at the Heart," -- see how seriously they took this endeavor? They wrote a book about it! -- the Gores explored the way a prolonged life expectancy could affect American unions. "If couples are in unhappy marriages they are more likely to eventually divorce as they face so much of their lifetimes together after their child-rearing years are over," they wrote.

Washington divorce lawyer Sanford K. Ain sees it occasionally, a couple breaking up after more than half a lifetime together. It reminds him of that old joke where an elderly couple is asked why they waited so long to divorce. "We wanted to wait until the kids were dead," they answer.

"More often that not, when people get divorced after that length of time, it's because they're just not content -- they're not happy," Ain says. "And they want to look for something else."

As news of the Gores' separation emerged, we jumped to speculate that that "something else" was really someone else, already waiting in the wings.

The truth is, we almost hope there's an affair involved. That makes it easier and understandable -- unequivocally someone's fault. Then it can be detestable, not just sad.

"It's more threatening to us if we see a couple who we thought were happy just drift apart," Cherlin says. "If even well-behaved people get divorced after 40 years, then some of us will worry about what our own marriages will be like later in life."

But even if there was an infidelity, Ain says that is rarely the cause of a separation after this long. "Quite frankly, even if it's a factor, it's inconceivable to me that it could be the reason for the breakup," he says. "Even if one of them has become involved with someone else, it's hard to believe they could have a bond with that other person that transcends the relationship that they have with one another."

To really work, long-term relationships need "regular attention, regular affirmation on a daily basis," says Orbuch, who recently completed a 20-year study of marriage for the National Institutes of Health. She wonders whether Al Gore was gone too much -- out saving the world -- to save his marriage. (Then again, maybe it was Tipper who was inattentive?)

Whatever the case, they did not make the decision to separate cavalierly. But the old adage that you never know what's really going on in someone else's relationship is no comfort here. We need to know -- so that we can point to whatever it was and say, "See, that won't happen to us."

It won't, will it?

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