Thursday, June 11, 2015

Long and Winding Road: marriage at midlife

I was flipping through a magazine last fall when I ran across an article about how to have a happy marriage at any age. You know how those articles work--In your twenties, do this. In your thirties, do that. la la la. For "in your fifties," the article said--drumroll, please-- in your fifties, the best predictor for happiness in marriage is a new partner.

I swear I'm not making that up. That's the best they could do? Once you're in your fifties, if you're still married to the same old partner, give it up. Find a new one, or else it's all downhill.

Long-term relationships--and I'm not talking about three years or seven or even ten, but really long term relationships, are a complex topic. No surprise there. If you've been together for a long time, lots of things have happened. You've seen each other at your very best and your very worst, because you've been there, right there, the whole time.

Dean and I are both pretty nice people. We're fairly easy-going, don't fight much, manage our day-to-day life pretty well. But still, each of us could tell you stories about the other that would curl your hair. Not because we're so awful, but because we've been together since 1981, married since 1984, and when you've been together that long, there's no hiding yourself.

You might be able to put up a good front and look awesome for a few years, maybe even six or seven, but after three decades together? Nobody is that good at acting. Just look at the math--even if I only had one total bitch-a-thon every three years, that's eleven bouts of ugliness that Dean has had to live through--and trust me, there have been a lot more than that. With the hormonal mood swings of menopause, we're lucky to make it a week.

So what's a married couple to do? Do we just resign ourselves to living out the rest of our lives in bored tolerance because we don't have the courage to branch out and start a new life? That's the impression that this article gave.

The assumption seemed to be that if you've been married that long, you've changed significantly (and that's true--we have). So there's no way the person you're married to can still be the "right" person. You're better off cutting your losses and finding someone who suits the new you.

Sometimes maybe that's true. But like I said, long-term marriages are complex things. You can't ditch the relationship without ditching years and years of intertwined experience.  In sickness and in health? check. For richer and for poorer? check. Good times and bad? check. You know each other's siblings, you were there when your partner started his/her career, you've watched your children grow up. Perfectly suited or not, there's no replacing that.

I know most of you who read here regularly are in this category--some of you have been married or together longer than we have. So you don't need advice from me. In fact, several of you would do a better job writing this post than I can.

But I'm watching the marriage of some of our dearest friends disintegrate right now, and I've been thinking about this quite a bit. I listen to my friend talk, and many of the things she's upset about are things that I could say about Dean. But we're not splitting up.

What I think I need to tell her is: you just have to let go of the idea that you'd be better off married to someone else. Even though it might be true, no good can come from thinking that. Dean and I don't share many interests outside of our kids, and over the years, we've each grown in different directions. We met and fell in love when we were too young to really know what we wanted. Neither of us is the same person we were when we said our vows. Of course we're not. No one could be nearly 35 years later.

But we're still here, and we still like each other, and even if we're not the ideal partners, we are in this relationship and have been for a long time. It's our reality. We can't ditch each other to find a better-suited partner without losing all those years of inter-mingled experience, the base of solid togetherness that has taken us decades to build.

Would my friend be happier with somebody else? Would I be? Maybe so. Maybe not. There's no way to find out without destroying what we've got, and what we've got is worth quite a bit.

When I was thinking up a title for this post, I tried to decide if a long marriage is a midlife celebration, or a midlife problem, or both--as I sometimes specify in the title. I'm still not sure. You certainly can't be in a 31-year marriage if you're in your twenties, so it's a topic that's specific to middle age.

You know what it is? It's a privilege. To be with someone who has been willing to put up with me for that long, just as I have been willing to put up with him. We're pretty lucky.

Go, us. And all of you who are hanging in there and making it work: Go, us.


KarenB said...

Sometimes it's just not giving up.

Thinking you'll find someone better is so totally the wrong reason to leave. I think the best reason is really I would far rather be alone than with this person. You can't hang your happiness on anyone else, you can only make it happen for yourself.

We're celebrating 22 years today . . .

Liz Flaherty said...

I always remind myself (that the worst day with him is still better than the best day without him. 44 years and counting. Enjoyed your post!

BarbN said...

Karen: I've been known, when asked what is the secret to staying married so long, to say, "You just don't get divorced." Of course there are times when divorce is sadly the best option, but lots of times, if you just keep going, things right themselves and you can move on. So, yeah. And Happy Anniversary!

Liz: Thanks-- and 44 years! wow!

London Mabel said...

Given the high divorce rates for second marriages, even higher for third--yeah, not the best reason to get divorced.

Congrats! :-)

dreag said...

Love this post. And, yes, it is a privilege. I also love the image of years of intertwined experience. I have been making hot air balloon crafts using different sized twine the last few weeks (I could probably do an entire blog post on hot glue gun injuries) and twine is fascinating. It's sturdy and strong and has a definitive pattern and feel to it as you run your hands along it, but every once in awhile there are frayed strands or blemishes that ruin the flow but makes the twine more interesting -- almost more real -- and more fun. When you think of the shared memory and experience that a long marriage provides I think of strength and stability and dependability. As long as the frays and the blemishes aren't so severe they are threatening the strength and stability of the twine, I think most marriages are worth holding on to. It takes a long time for two strands of string to build a solid rope. 24 years for us.

Debbie said...

Well said, my Sister of the Heart. I learned, right about the 10 year mark, that I needed to ask myself one question when HHBL would do something that just irritated the ever lovin' heck out of me. "Is this a hill that I want to die on?" That little question, and taking a step back and a big breath before speaking, has saved me many a time.

BarbN said...

Drea-- love the twine analogy, that is great. And also I am so impressed with anyone who does crafts. Sounds very cool.

Debbie-- perfect question. I know what you mean, even when things are bad between us--and everybody has their bad moments-- I've never had one where I thought, OK, this is worth divorcing him.

Julie said...

We met in 1980, married in '82, so we're along the same number of years as you are.

Yeah. Starting over? Oh, hell no.