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The New American Marriage

Why some older couples opt to join hands but not households

The New American Marriage

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Married couples who choose long distance relationships or living apart.

En español | Men and women who quailed at the shackles of marriage in the 1960s and 1970s will rejoice to learn there's a new model that encourages them to keep a room of one's own. These are not open marriages so much as open-door marriages, in which longtime wedded partners opt to share their love but not their living quarters.

Doesn't that dilute the union? To find out, I asked some "double domicilers" — starting with myself! — to explain how they make this alternative arrangement work.

Pepper and Fred. I've been with my guy, Fred Kaseburg, for more than nine years now. But unless you count shared vacations or running back and forth between our two houses (he's in Seattle; I'm 40 minutes east in Snoqualmie), the two of us have never lived together.

About a year and a half ago, we took a serious step: We got engaged.

When old friends learned of my change in status, their first question was, "Whose house will you live in?" My answer was — and is — "Why would we change anything just because we're getting married?"

Please understand: It's not that we don't want to live together; it's just that working out how we would do that has proved dicey. We both love the homes we've made (and we both like each other's abode well enough), but living in the other person's dream house would not suit either of us. Not only would we both have to sacrifice homes we treasure to buy a new place together, but doing so would complicate how and when we pass on that property to our children from previous marriages.

Further complicating matters, I live with an assistant who helps me organize my life, whereas Fred is unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, having an unrelated person present in the household. Throw in my three big dogs (totaling 340 pounds!) and we start to think we should leave well enough alone — perhaps indefinitely.

I know all this flouts the presumptions we hold dear about how married people (or serious cohabiters) should live their lives as a couple. But there's no denying that many older duos are capitalizing on the freedom of their non-childbearing years to redesign their relationship. Indeed, some couples have defined marriage a bit differently from the start, and they see no reason to change now.

Kim and Andrew. Although they've been married since 1991, Kim Anderson (in her late 50s) and Andrew Bentley (nine years older) have never lived together for more than six months at a stretch. Andrew, a British corporate-insurance expert, works half the year in Bangkok. Kim, a retired American lawyer, lives in Seattle.

Far from despairing of the distance between them, Kim and Andrew take pride in the fact that their unusual setup has enabled both of them to honor the needs of their respective careers.

"We manage to spend about half the year together," says Kim. "The key is honesty, communication and trust: You have to trust that you will live your lives, both separate and together, in a way that is true to your relationship.

"I think this works only for a couple who each have a strong sense of self-worth," she continues, "and who are generally self-sufficient. If the relationship is strong, you know the other person has your back, even when you are physically separated."

The downside: "No matter how often and honestly you talk, it can never replace a kiss, holding hands or cuddling at night."

The New American Marriage

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Having a strong relationship makes it easier to be physically separated.

The upside: "With all the travel I get to do, I have an enviable lifestyle. I also like the variety of our 'alternating lifestyles': When we're together we have this close emotional time, but when we're apart we get to live our lives as separate — I didn't say 'single' — people."

Phoebe and Rafael. Writer Rafael Alvarez, 57, married nonprofit director Phoebe Stein, 48, in April of this year, but they have intentionally kept separate domiciles since then. In part, says Phoebe, it's because "I want my own space, and my own place to go back to."

But it also has to do with Rafael's "near sacred" attachment to his Baltimore row house. "That house stands at ground zero of my fictional universe," says Rafael, author of the short-story collection Tales From the Holy Land. "It's the beating heart of all my art."

"As a child," Rafael recalls, "I ate every Sunday dinner in this house, which my grandfather bought in 1930. When my first marriage ended, 27 years ago, I moved in with my grandfather during what turned out to be the last year of his life, and in this magical house I healed."

Rafael bought the place from his father and his father's siblings in 1991, intent on preserving it forever. "It's as much a museum and a shrine as it is a house," he reflects. "Leaving it would be a deal breaker no matter who my spouse was."

Because Phoebe's house in North Baltimore is closer to her job, the couple spend four to seven nights there. "We usually spend the weekends at my house," notes Rafael, "because this neighborhood [Southeast Baltimore], once a landing place for each new wave of immigrants, is now gentrified, and we're near the waterfront and restaurants."

Understanding all the house means to her husband, Phoebe has supported the unusual arrangement from the start. Indeed, Rafael's abode has taken on special meaning for her too: They were married in the small front room, facing wedding photos of Rafael's parents and grandfather, so their two-base union enables them to keep faith with the house's past, present and future.

Lana and Lyn. At ages 67 and 81, respectively, Lana and Lyn Staheli have been married for 24 years. Initially, they occupied a large Seattle house, with one floor devoted to Lana's relationship-coaching practice. Once Lyn's kids from his first marriage left home and he retired, however, the Stahelis' digs felt like a waste of space, so they decided to move to a 1,000-square-foot apartment.

Big mistake.

"Our personal styles rubbed each other the wrong way," Lana observes. "Lyn goes to bed early and gets up early; I go to bed quite late and like to sleep in. I'm more social than he is. We have different standards of housekeeping.

"After staring those differences in the face for about a year, we realized they wouldn't bother us if we had more privacy. So we sold the apartment and bought two condos — one right above the other — in a nearby five-plex."

Today, five years on, Lyn and Lana spend a lot of time together, but they also take full advantage of having separate places. "We've each created the decor we like," says Lana, "and we each have our own dogs. Lyn gets up at 5:30 to walk his, then brings me my coffee at 7, just as I'm getting up."

After work, the couple read or watch TV in Lyn's condo on the second floor. "Around 8 or 9," Lana continues, "Lyn goes to bed and I go upstairs to do emails and projects. We save the weekends for each other.

"Living in our own spaces has eliminated most sources of conflict," she concludes. "It has made the time we spend together more like dates, letting us focus on fun, adventure and romance."

Tobey and Phil. Having shared a therapy practice and written a book together, Tobey Hiller, 73, and her husband of 30 years, Phil Ziegler, 75, are the picture of togetherness. They don't live apart, but they do take separate vacations.

"The first one I did," says Tobey, "was a three-week trip to Turkey with my friend, Alev, who was born there and has many Turkish connections. All four of us are very good 'couples' friends, but Alev and I wanted to travel on our own, in our own way, and have a different sort of companionship than the daily one with our husbands.

"I've since gone on four- or five-day writing retreats with other friends who are writers," Tobey continues, "and a few times to a cabin by myself.

"Last summer we went to Portland, Ore., and I came back ahead of Phillip so I could spend some time on my own at home. I wanted to savor the pleasures of solitude, and working, and other daily rhythms on my own time, and I needed to remember who I am apart from the dyad. I'm introverted and affiliative, so I need 'recharging time' where I'm not highly alert to the needs and energies of my mate. Alone time returns me to base camp.

"Despite the fact that I'm married," Tobey concludes, "I own my life and my time. That realization has freed me to carve out time for these separate experiences and separate adventures. I like being able to discover myself in my own pursuits."

Tobey's outlook perfectly captures the allure of the new "casual conjugality." As life partners give each other leeway to indulge their own interests within the context of a committed relationship, they are discovering that the recipe for intimacy does not require blending its ingredients beyond recognition.

As AARP's love and relationships ambassador, Pepper Schwartz writes about sex for aarp.org.

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