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.