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
"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.

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