Recently, my husband and I separated after 42 years of marriage. Little did I imagine when I uttered my marriage vows, “Till death do us part,” what it would take to keep that promise.
Forty two years is a lifetime, a lifetime of change, challenges, surprises and twists of fate. What if during those years a married couple differ drastically in their approach to their life circumstances. What if as the years go by “to love and to honor one another” is the greatest challenge they will face? What if these individuals grow in different directions, so far apart in their outlook on life that there is rarely a meeting of the minds on even the simplest things? How does one sustain a marriage under those circumstances? The answer is with great difficulty.
My husband and I were deeply in love and entered our marriage starry eyed and ready to embrace the dream of living happily ever after. We were only married a month when we found out we had a baby on the way, not exactly what we had planned but we were excited and ready to welcome a baby into out little love nest. Ten months after we walked down the aisle, our son was born and three years later we had a daughter. We were in our twenties, bought our first home, and were well into the American dream. I recall those years as the children were growing up as our happiest. We were blessed with healthy, intelligent, beautiful children and we were filled with hope and promise for our future life together with our little family. The challenges we faced in our daily lives were surmountable and “love and honor” were still very much alive.
As the children got older and parenting became much more of a challenge, so did career choices, financial decisions, health issues, in-law problems, and just plain life happening. This is when we were faced with multiple challenges, yet my husband and I were often at odds regarding the handling of these issues. He was prone to seeing the glass half empty and I tended to see it half full. I saw possibilities where he saw pitfalls. Needless to say, problem solving became a constant struggle. Gradually, our differences went from bickering to arguing to verbal battles. We differed on so many issues throughout the years that eventually communication between us was a test of wills. As the years went by, we grew further apart in our general outlook on life and our view on people and the world around us. In recent years communication between us actually became painful because we agreed on virtually nothing and after years of arguing there were still certain critical issues between us that just never got resolved. We were stuck, like so many couples our age, in a marriage of convenience with financial constraints and other dynamics that held us together.
During the years we had gone for marriage counseling twice, but we were unable to reconcile the differences between us and there remained certain issues that continued to drive a wedge between us. One might wonder what kept us together all those years, a question that I have often pondered. Why when we were both in “our golden years” of mid-sixties did we finally reach the breaking point? First, I would say that our children were probably the main reason we initially stayed together, and thankfully, despite all the friction between their parents, they still turned out to be well adjusted, responsible, loving, caring individuals. Secondly, there were a number of other intrinsic reasons that might have kept us together, like the indoctrination we had both received by our strict Catholic upbringing that “sanctified” marriage, so a divorce was never our first option when our marriage started to deteriorate. Furthermore, like dummies and being both strong willed, we thought we could weather the storms and hang in there. Others we had seen had done so. We had our generation of friends who were old dinosaurs and had apparently weathered their private storms and were still married. Lastly, and most significantly for me, I was afraid to go out on my own. For my husband who was a perfectionist, failure at anything, including marriage, was not something he could easily live with.
The third factor was that there were many times when we did have a good time together and our sex life was not significantly impacted. We were great playmates when we were enjoying some common interests through the years like golf, skiing, and most recently, the opera. Add to that, we both have a great sense of humor, and laughter is always good medicine for any relationship. We do share many good memories of our children as they were growing up, of trips we took and fun times together. Most of all, we remember the passion that we once had for one another, that time in our lives when we were very much “in love.” I guess we both wanted to hold on to those memories and escape into the past. Unfortunately, whenever we had to resolve a life dilemma or any sort of problem be it large or small, the boxing gloves were always ready to come out. Years of sparring finally caught up with us in our sixties. We were just too tired to get in the ring anymore.
This final fatigue together with another major factor was the final turning point. We had gone from not liking one another to not being able to stand one another and the daily tension between us was insurmountable. At long last, we decided we both wanted out of the marriage and that the sooner we could be on our own, the better. Yet, when we looked at the logistics of getting a divorce, we realized that this was not a realistic solution for us for several reasons. We could not afford a divorce at a time when the economy was in such a critical state and our retirement income and portfolio was being significantly affected. We would both have to make drastic changes to our life style and living situation. Furthermore, neither of us was emotionally braced for the stress and strain of going through a divorce at this time in our lives and thirdly, we did not want a divorce to impact our relationship and contact with our children and grandchildren.
In lieu of a better solution, we first tried a “cease fire” co-habitation and became housemates living under the same roof, but there remained an undercurrent of tension between us. Communication between us was very limited, but we experienced a mounting need to escape from the pressure of “playing nice” with a house buddy who could at any moment bring out the old ghosts from the closet. I was desperate to find a solution that we could both live with and would not cripple us financially.
The answer that I came up with was for me to find a reasonable condo for rent near my daughter who lives out of state. We would put our house up for sale and my husband would remain there as long as it would take to sell and then find a smaller place to live. It occurred to me that I would be solving three problems with my move. First, I would be moving from an intolerable situation to find long needed peace of mind and some emotional stability in my life. Secondly, I would be readily available to help a loving daughter as she juggles the needs of a career, a husband, a home, an infant and a toddler. Thirdly, I would be moving somewhere that I had visited often and really liked and had the promise of finding the serenity I longed for.
Much to my surprise, my husband agreed that this separation would be an equitable solution. Our separation would not be a legal one, but would be one where we set the parameters. We would retain the status of married but technically live in two different residences, one that we owned and one rental. When the sale of our house was imminent, I would assist with the search for a small townhouse or condominium that would belong to both of us and I would continue to rent. We would work to establish a cordial relationship between us, unrestricted communication, and visitations between both the residences, especially in light of my husband’s wish to visit our grandchildren who I would be living close to.
I did manage to find a small apartment close to my daughter and our separation has worked out very well for us. It has helped us move beyond bitterness and resentment and presently, we are on our best behavior when we do see each other. We know that we have a very unusual situation, but we also realize that we are communicating better than ever now that we are not living together. Now we communicate via phone, email, and periodic visits and we are able to avoid controversial subjects that we argued about for years. Furthermore, some areas of discussion have been pre-determined as taboo. Most importantly, my husband has come full circle on certain issues that plagued our marriage for years and as a result, I have learned to forgive and forget.
Now we go out of our way to be respectful and considerate of one another. This separation has made us better people, helped us to grow in self awareness, and opened up possibilities for both of us to cultivate new interests as we settle into our new living situation. We don’t “hate” each other as we did before our separation, and this has freed us from holding on to negative feelings. We are both in a very good place emotionally and savoring the peace of mind that we sought. Thankfully, we avoided the trauma associated with a divorce.
As for me, I am very happy with my new life and a freedom that I have never experienced in my life, as I married young and moved directly from my mother’s home and watchful eye to a home with my husband. I cherish this new independence and have no intention of beginning a new life of compromise and commitment to anyone else in my life. I happen to still care for my husband because is a good man. He is and will always be a friend in time of need and someone I can depend on. The bond of love we shared keeps us connected and we have rekindled respect which we had long abandoned.
We don’t know what the future holds for us but we are both very satisfied with our present arrangement. Neither of us has the desire to remarry or see this in the foreseeable future. We both value our independence and can manage on our own. Despite all the bad times we had trying to hold on to our marriage, there has remained a mutual caring and concern between us. Being apart has given us the opportunity to appreciate the good times we had together and heal from the blows we inflicted on one another during the worst of times. Who knows? If time does heal all wounds, then this “New Age marriage” of ours may be the answer to how we might still be bonded somehow “till death do us part."