I admired Aeron’s courage in raising important, and difficult, questions in her June 29 column. I wanted to respond with equal candor, but it’s difficult when one is not writing anonymously and when there are others involved. I will say this, though:
My husband and I will have been married for 36 years in November. We have experienced periods of intense passion verging on obsession (not all of it at the beginning of our relationship), periods of anger, distance, and contemplated separation, and periods of extended, quiet contentment. We lived apart when I was on internship in North Carolina; we are considering cohousing when Ben is independent. We are very different people from the naifs who strolled down the aisle in 1975, assuming that all of our growth and change would be in the same direction and at the same pace.
What strikes me when we mention the length of our marriage is that people often respond with a congratulatory “Wow!” as though we had announced that we were on the home stretch of a marathon. This tends to make me feel like a survivor of some sort—that one or both of us must be so difficult to live with that “sticking it out” is a major life accomplishment. It equates longevity with success; divorce with failure. But of course it isn’t that simple, ever.
One of the nicest, most loving events I have ever attended was a Christmas party hosted by my friend B and her husband last year. Among the guests were B’s ex-husband, C; their grown daughter; C’s new wife and their toddler; and B’s mother and stepfather. The interrelations and family feeling were strong and heartwarming. Similarly, my friend S and her husband were recently able to take a long-planned overseas trip even though S’s mother had fallen and broken a hip, because her ex-husband, a doctor, volunteered to move her into his residence and look after her.
I find these stories encouraging, not because I’m looking at an imminent split myself, but because they offer an example for the next generation of successful, adult coping. People can grow apart, recognize the need to part, and continue to care for each other. We can uncouple the concept of divorce or separation from that of failure, and recognize that a new love, while more congenial on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t have to obliterate the old.
We may live a very long time; our kids even longer. It’s unrealistic to expect that everyone who vows to love forever, in the same way, at age 23 will be able to fulfill that pledge at 43 or 63. It can be helpful to look at other models of successful relationships.