Rewriting the Terms of Endearment in a Long-Term Marriage

Creative ways to get the intimacy, adventure, and self-expression you’re craving in your marriage.

By Suzanne Braun Levine

A Marriage That EvolvesSome months ago, at a friend’s milestone birthday party — an elaborate affair, which she had orchestrated and her husband had lovingly executed — I found myself comparing notes with an acquaintance. "One day I am full of ideas about how I want to spend the rest of my life, and the next day I am just as full of doubts," she said. "One thing I know: I’ll be making some big changes before I get to this birthday — I can feel it." Then she paused and said, "But I don’t know what this will do to my marriage."Most of us in long-term marriages have, at one time or another, worried that changes we were making in ourselves were going to rock the boat right out of the water. "My husband married a very different woman from the one I am now," we say. What we really mean is, "If I’m becoming a different woman, what am I doing married to the same man? Does a new lease on life mean walking away from a marriage of 20 or 30 years?"Sometimes it does. Sometimes women choose to leave — to escape constant conflict, deficient affection, emotional or physical abuse, simple emptiness. But for many others, making changes in their own lives can energize and transform marriages that they can no longer live within but don’t want to live without.Over years of reporting on women’s lives, I’ve talked with hundreds who had no problem revealing intimate experiences. But this subject was different. Most women I interviewed wanted their names changed. Why? I think it was because they didn’t want their husbands to know how pragmatically they were judging their marriages and how seriously they wanted to alter things. As any coffee-break conversation confirms, we talk differently about our husbands than we talk with them. (I had planned to "interview" my husband for this story. But when I suggested it, I found that neither of us wanted to go there. Some things are better left unexplored. That may have been the first lesson I learned doing this piece.)In my conversations with a range of women — in long-term first marriages, in long second marriages, with and without children — I found themes, strategies, and insights that had helped each woman recalibrate her marriage so that it would work for the next stage of her life.For many women, the first challenge is getting the conversation started. In a letter to this magazine recently, a reader lamented wryly: "I wanted to talk about my increased restlessness with my husband, but he was asleep on the couch." Even when partners are wide awake, some women may resent the prospect of once again doing all the "relating" in the relationship — just at a moment when they are eager, as one put it, "to go out of the emotional management business" and concentrate on themselves.The couples here have gotten past old roadblocks and refreshed their emotional contracts with each other. Theirs are love stories, a new kind — about making demands and practicing patience, about self-discovery within the familiar, about old truths and new agendas, about finding joy in the road taken.A Strategic ApproachLucy, a social worker, has been married for 28 years to an elementary school principal; their two children are now in their 20s. They have lived in the Midwest all their lives. Some years ago, Lucy (her name has been changed, as have others in this story) moderated discussion groups in a court-mandated program for divorcing couples. She saw "good people," she says, who became unhappy in their marriages and didn’t speak up until their "hearts hardened and they moved away from each other." What she saw prompted Lucy to ask her husband to take a new marriage vow: Each pledged to the other that in those "pockets of time" when one spouse became unhappy, he or she would talk about it, not stay silent. They often referred back to this commitment, and it helped them resolve conflicts.About two years ago, with midlife changes accelerating, Lucy began gently dropping comments like, "Gee, we need to start doing more things together" and "Gee, the kids are leaving home and…." She didn’t get much reaction. "So I changed my strategy. I told myself, ‘He’s an administrator, a bright man. I’m an educated woman who runs things. Let’s approach it like a business.’"She presented him with a basic assessment: "We have two girls we are getting ready to launch. We have lots of years ahead of us. We’re still committed and want to stay together. But we are in a rut." Her husband agreed; he wasn’t feeling good either, and he felt "drained." So Lucy set a challenge for the two of them, something any smart business team would do: write a mission statement for their future, the second half of their marriage."The starting point was to say, ‘We still have a lot in common. We’ve worked hard, we’ve put the kids first — now it’s our time,’" Lucy explains. Their goal, they decided, was "to celebrate and increase the enjoyment of and with each other." As they got more specific, it turned out that the list of things to celebrate included those they didn’t do together. He was looking for more time to play golf with his buddies; she wanted spontaneous time with her girlfriends. Lucy was struck by research showing that healthy people not only eat well and exercise but also have good social support. She and her husband realized that their busy schedules had kept them from doing much with friends. "So on our new list were the names of some couples we wanted to get to know better," she says.There was another element in the mix Lucy wanted to adjust: work. While her husband was looking forward to retiring and doing much of the cooking (and even housework), she had become more keenly involved in her job. Earlier in the marriage, he’d felt threatened by her work. At this stage, the revised balance felt comfortable. "I’m going to have to carry the ball" — and the health insurance, Lucy told him, and "that’s fine, because I’m such a people person." But she wanted to change their rules for the times when her job takes her to out-of-town conferences. "I didn’t want to do it alone anymore," she says.When Lucy and I talked, she and her husband had just come back from a conference in England and she was exultant. He had accompanied her before, but on those occasions, she recalled, "I would feel like I needed to attend to him. This time I’d walk out of a session and there he was, meeting people. And when I was getting ready to do my presentation, I looked up and he was standing in the door with roses!"Revising Their Marriage Vows Lauren had less goodwill to build on than Lucy, despite a happy and egalitarian start to her marriage. She and her husband, both lawyers, had shared one job so they could do things together. But when their two children came along and she cut back on work, they reverted to more traditional roles began to resent each other. "Things moved from good to worse," Lauren recalls. Instead of relating to her and to the children, her husband "went into provider mode," becoming a workaholic and sports addict.Lauren hung in; she thought the kids needed two parents, even if her husband was present so rarely that he amounted to "a quarter of a person." And there were times when they reclaimed the old energy. "Whenever we went on vacation, we really enjoyed each other. On a certain level, I really love him and he really loves me. I suffered from his not appreciating me for who I really am, but I got a lot of ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful, you’re so kind. You’re just an amazing woman.’"And the sex was good. "Really great!" she says. Even during the bad times.Turning 50 was a watershed for Lauren. She had always been "very assertive professionally, and successful," she says. But she discovered that she was tired of pushing, and wanted to use some of that boldness to new effects. "I’m going to open up more space for myself," she resolved. As Lauren began to figure out her "third act," she wanted to know if her husband, too, could slow down. Her first impulse was the familiar "we need to talk" gambit. She tried bringing it up at a dinner while they were on vacation. But her husband felt threatened, she says, "thinking that what I really was saying was, ‘I regret being married to a person like you.’" At one point, he panicked and suggested renewing their original marriage vows."Are you kidding?" Lauren thought to herself. "Not until we work out, like, 93 new vows."To get some distance, Lauren signed up for a trip to Peru with a group of women. It was the first time she’d been away for two weeks without her family. She climbed to Machu Picchu and participated in a spiritual retreat in the jungle. "By accident," she says, as if to explain why a rational lawyer would do such a hippie-dippie thing, "I signed up for some kind of crystal treatment. They shoot lights down through your chakras. You’re lying in this room, blindfolded, hearing spooky Peruvian music. I had no idea what was supposed to happen, but after about a half hour, I heard this voice that said, ‘Do not die before becoming the person you were meant to be.’"Heavy stuff. Wherever those words came from, it was the message Lauren needed to hear. "I became more comfortable saying, ‘I’m not going to play inside that old pattern anymore.’" Her own calm surprised her and gave her the courage "to watch my husband freak out" as he saw her and himself in a new light.Taking the focus off him and her marriage, Lauren started acting on the impulses she felt bubbling up inside. She spoke up at moments when she used to smolder silently, calling her husband on behavior she hadn’t challenged before. To her surprise, she found that when she spoke up, she didn’t get as angry, and the tone of her marriage began to change. Her husband was "totally shocked." He hadn’t seen himself as such a forceful person, and "he thought I was speaking up all the time," she says. She realized that what she took for anger was often fear. "Honey, I’m not leaving you," she would tell him. " I’m just trying to tell you what I want."Despite the soothing words, Lauren is on her own journey, she says, and isn’t about to turn back. "I’m trying to be nurturing, while at the same time saying, ‘Uh-uh. This is how I feel.’ It’s a weird dance." And the sex is still great.Taking a BreakSusan and her husband, Alex, didn’t have children — but they had their work. Soon after they were married, in 1985, they began writing together and produced two intensely researched and well-regarded books about media dynasties. Early in the marriage, to use a phrase they once used to describe another couple, they were "not just wedded, but welded together," says Susan.But after 15 years, the stresses in Susan and Alex’s marriage reached a tipping point, and they began to move toward divorce. As Susan wrote, "We had gone through so much therapy and marriage counseling that we were practically shrink-wrapped. But we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Working together had made us competitors and enemy combatants. Yet we never exploded, never shouted, never lashed out. Instead, we maintained a surface calm and suffered in silence."Susan stayed in their New York apartment; Alex moved to Cambridge. Each established a new life. But even as they made efforts to start over, both became aware of the love that was still there despite the claustrophobia. They have now been back together for three years and look on their separation as a kind of marital sabbatical.Recently I caught up with Susan, who is working on a book (of her own) about the upside of aging, to find out what she and Alex had learned. "We understand the importance of being honest about what we are thinking or feeling," she told me. "In some marriages, there is one Big Foot, but not in ours. We were both just too polite to each other. A pox on that!"One of the first things they talked honestly about was giving each other more space. Especially since there were no children to make demands and divert their attention from each other, they had to pay special attention to creating breathing room. How Susan sees it now: "We can cook dinner together, but we can’t work together."The sabbatical and their new approach seem to have unlatched the box they had trapped themselves in over the years, one full of labels and assumptions each had accumulated about the other. "You know, like ‘You are always rude to my parents’ or ‘You never listen to my point of view,’" Susan says. "Those recitations of ‘always’ and ‘never’ deny all the living and growing we’ve each done over 20 years."The fresh air also gave them fresh perspectives on the two people involved. "I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose needs weren’t being met," Susan concludes. "In a marriage, there is another person, someone who has a will and hopes and dreams that are exactly as valuable as yours. It is part of your job to make his happen and part of his to make yours happen."Letting Go of the Little ThingsEve has no problems with being too polite or not speaking up. Never did. Over the 22 years she has been married to Simon, she has always grumbled loudly about how messy he is, how forgetful he is, how he is always late. It is a second marriage for both, and they each have grown children from their prior marriages.Recently, though, the grumbling has dissipated — for reasons that Eve has only just begun to analyze. Approximately three years ago, she left the executive job she had been immersed in and set up a consulting business at home. She wanted more time to write and to indulge in bird-watching. But instead of appreciating scarlet tanagers, she found herself appreciating her husband."Changing my work life meant I wasn’t feeding nearly so many hungry mouths emotionally. There used to be so much of me draining away to other people. I had to marshal my generosity, my limited store of flexibility," Eve says. That has helped tip the glass from half empty to half full. "His finer qualities have more room to blossom when I am not all over him all the time," she explains. "To use a Russian phrase, I am not ‘standing over his soul’ anymore. So he’s able to be more generous, to be more spontaneous, even to remember things — because the stakes are not so high."This shows up dramatically when they travel — which both of them love to do, though, typically, in very different ways. Their styles conflict: He wants to wing it; she wants a game plan. But they have figured out how to work with it. "We recognize that I’m going to want to know in advance what we are going to be doing at any given moment of every day," Eve says. "And he’s not going to want that. But we have discovered that it seems to be enough for me to know what the schedule is and then let go of it. I can say, ‘Okay. Let’s not go on that boat ride we’d planned; let’s check out that bazaar instead.’"Eve has relaxed enough to enjoy Simon’s ability to lead them to weird, offbeat, serendipitous experiences. "He can talk to anybody — and does," she says. "Sometimes it irritates me and I’m sitting around tapping my toes, but then I remember how many wonderful things have come from this. I’ve even learned to load him up like a guided missile and send him out. We’ve ended up hearing about things and going places that would not have happened if we had stayed on my schedule."So, what has changed? "I’m much less anxious. I just look at things differently. When Simon annoys me, I can — sometimes, not always — say to myself, ‘That’s who he is,’" Eve says. This doesn’t spell resignation, she insists. To the contrary, she feels that she has moved on, beyond her irritation at the small stuff. She now appreciates the big stuff.Husbands & HormonesWhat Eve is experiencing — and the insights reported by Lucy, Lauren, and Susan — may be rooted in part in physiological changes taking place. Recent research on how men and women age suggests that nature may work to support marriages such as theirs as couples move through stages of life. Eve’s acceptance of Simon’s laissez-faire attitude may be reinforced, according to some studies, by neurological changes that can make women less inclined — or able — to multitask.These days, Eve isn’t racing impatiently ahead of Simon in the getting-things-done department; sometimes it’s she who "can do only one thing at a time." As the control freaks among us let go a bit, we, like Eve, learn to appreciate ingredients in our lives that we’d seen as "gumming up the works" before.By the same token, a new hormonal mix may embolden women to speak up and let the chips fall where they may. As the level of estrogen in our body falls, the testosterone that’s always been there is, as the scientists say, unmasked, giving us a little boost in daring, in the willingness to take risks.But the amount of testosterone that’s been raging through men since puberty diminishes, making many of them less combative and some — Lucy’s husband among them — more inclined toward nesting. It’s as if men and women experience a hormonal convergence that opens up new realms of compatibility.Scientists also report subtle brain changes that make us more introspective and solitary and less irritated by small annoyances. Of course, the research on the brain and aging is still far from conclusive. Some of it suggests changes that might be less then welcome. Yet a certain degree of midlife mellowness, complemented by feistiness — and the gains of plain-old experience — allow many partners to find the all-important space they need. A private comfort zone gives each of us room to grow, room to strut, room to step back and revise our perspective.As each woman here discovered, change occurs from the inside out. Once they shifted their own priorities, their marriages began to evolve. Each woman, in the course of renegotiating terms of endearment with her husband, gained a new perspective on him, one that was more sympathetic than she would have predicted.Those marriages that endure are about the intimacy of shared history and the joys of embarking together on a journey of reinvention and self-discovery. When Lauren came back from Peru, she made three resolutions for herself: "Express yourself, live at your own pace, and experience gratitude." They work for me.Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:06

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