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.

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