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Midlife Marriage: Love it, Leave it or Reinvent it

As they hit midlife, Americans are rethinking just about every part of their lives these days — their careers, their locations, their appearances, their lifestyles and even their favorite pets (welcome back to No. 1, beagles). It’s all a natural by-product

Ingrid Doyle and Michael Doyle, Separate apartments, Midlife Marriage

Kendall Waldman

It’s all a natural by-product of the anti-status-quo Boomer mentality. So it’s no surprise that the most sweeping reinventions are coming closest to home: their marriages.  

The old paradigm: find a mate, procreate, and raise what at least appears to be a happy family. Then, regardless of what’s left of your relationship, stick together until the (sometimes-bitter) end. Phew. But now there’s a whole new reality: Put that midlife union under an electron microscope, figure out what makes the molecules collide and dance, and then do whatever it takes to live your next decades in true happiness. It may mean finding new ways to rekindle the initial points of combustion. Or, just as likely, it may mean ditching a lost cause of a marriage or finding highly creative ways to keep a troubled one going.

 “When couples are first married, they still believe the other person has the potential for dramatic change,” says professor Deborah Carr, chair of the sociology department at Rutgers University and an expert on midlife development. “But by 50, couples today think: ‘He or she is not really going to change. But I’ll be living another 30 years.’ That’s why so many couples now feel they owe it to themselves to bring real happiness and excitement into their lives, not passivity.”

The statistics help tell the tale: Divorce rates for people 50 and over doubled from 1990 to 2010 according to a landmark study by Bowling Green State University in 2013. It’s the highest split-up rate of any age group. But the same study found that the number of unmarried people 50-plus living together tripled between 2000 and 2013—also the highest gains of any group. Translation: People are doing what it takes to be happy, regardless of preconceived notions or traditional rules.

 “We’ve never had such high expectations of marriage before,” says Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Marriage, a History. ”There is much more potential for people—women especially—to reinvent their long-term relationships. Or to choose not to.”

Emil and Lise Stoessel, portrait, Book

Lise Stoessel

Lise Stoessel wrote about her unusual living situation with husband, Emil, in "Living Happily Ever After —Separately."

Finding Togetherness—Separately!

One option gaining traction among midlife couples is to stay married but live separately—what experts refer to as LAT (living apart together). Lise Stoessel and her husband, Emil, are practically poster children for this trend, and she chronicled their story in her book Living Happily Ever After — Separately.

Their unconventional arrangement began the way most marital problems do, with an unhappy wife ready for change. After 23 years, Stoessel had reached the point where she felt she could no longer live with her husband. Their daily interactions had become laced with bitterness. Emil was a pack rat who worked from home; Lise felt crowded out. So with their kids grown and out of the house, she secretly began looking for a house of her own. In the process, she came to a realization.

“Looking at these places, I began to imagine what life would feel like being divorced and splitting up our family,” she says. “It made me very sad. I thought, ‘Do we really need to do this? Maybe we just need space.’ It immediately felt like a yes.”

Stoessel broached the subject of living apart with her husband: “He asked if I wanted a divorce, and I said, ‘No, I want to see if we can reinvent our relationship. I want to see if we can make it work.’ ”

They came up with a plan. Emil would stay in their home, and they would buy a second house for Lise nearby. For seven years they’ve had the same weekly routine. She sleeps at his house three nights; he sleeps at her house one night and comes for dinner another two. He packs a razor and whatever book he’s reading; she brings a change of clothes and food. (“He’s got a bachelor’s pad.”) On Wednesdays, they don’t see each other at all. They plan their calendars together, including vacations.

Having separate homes has relieved a lot of the tension and brought them emotionally closer. “We still have our points of contention, but not 24/7,” says Stoessel. “We’ve given ourselves breathing room so we can celebrate the parts of our relationship that work and minimize the parts that don’t. We’re more open and honest with each other.”

Robert Fontanelli and Rolf Sjogren, Separate Apartments, Midlife Marriage

Brad Harris

Neither Robert Fontanelli (left) nor Rolf Sjogren wanted to give up their inexpensive New York City homes. So they didn’t. They alternate between apartments and spend some quality time alone.

Housing one marriage under two roofs is a complicated and expensive undertaking. But there are simpler ways on how to rekindle your marriage according to Coontz, and midlife spouses are increasingly open to more flexible arrangements. “They’re more likely to consider commuter marriage, separate vacations and periods of being apart,” she says.  

The New Balance Of Power

More often than not, women are the ones determining whether saving a marriage is worth that kind of extra commitment. They’re also prompting most of the divorces in the U.S. “Middle-aged women tend to take more initiative in their lives now,” says couples therapist Dr. Sonya Rhodes, author of Second Honeymoon: A Pioneering Guide for Reviving the Mid-Life Marriage. “They are more likely than men to rekindle a marriage, as well as walk away from it.”

The reason: As a generation of women has become more independent and less reliant on the security of long-term unions, the balance of power has shifted, according to Terrence Real, a therapist and author of The New Rules of Marriage. “I believe that both sexes, but particularly women, are saying, ‘I want this marriage to be one I want to be in, not one I need to be in,’ ” he told PBS. “We want to have great sex, 20, 30 years into our marriages; we want to be emotionally connected and intimate. I don't think what people really get is that these are brand-new demands on marriage. We now want the same things that you would have gotten in an early-stage relationship …  and we want it now for the rest of our lives.”

But what if this turns out to be an unattainable fantasy?  

The harsh reality: Even if both spouses want to revive a flagging marriage, it’s not always possible. The greatest predictor of whether a marriage can be saved is how good it was in the first place, says Rhodes. “Some midlife marriages aren’t vital, but they have value,” says Rhodes. “There was a strong connection in the beginning. A lot of those marriages are reinventable. It’s a matter of whether you truly want what you used to have. Some couples don’t know, and that’s profoundly scary.”

So, Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The reinvention process starts with tough questions: What kind of marriage do I want? What kind of marriage do I have? The answers can be unsettling. But they can also form the basis for a relationship that’s relevant—one that meets a couple’s current needs, instead of ones from a quarter century ago, according to Rhodes.  Here are some simple, early steps to rekindle a marriage:

Start at the beginning. Think back to when you were first married. What were the sparks between you? What did you love about your spouse? Can you reconnect with that person, or that image? Go on an archeological dig through your lives—immerse yourself in old photos and videos of the two of you in happier times; read letters you wrote to each other. Relearn what made the two of you tick. You may have grown apart, or focused too much on kids or work over the years, says Rhodes. But if you both want what you used to have, that distance shouldn’t keep you from getting close again.

Ingrid Doyle and Michael Denny, Together in apartment, Midlife Marriage

Kendall Waldman

Despite maintaining separate residences, Doyle and Denny see each other most evenings—at her place, the tidier one.

Choose a shared project. It can be anything, from binge-watching all 192 episodes of “24” to learning how to code or taking Estonian lessons. “It should be uniquely ‘ours’ rather than ‘mine’,” says Carr. “Discover something new, whether you wind up loving it or hating it. Do it together.”

Separate “ours” from yours. While it’s important to explore new territory together, it’s just as critical to keep your own interests and activities. Spell out how and when you’ll spend time on joint endeavors and on individual ones, suggests Carr. Schedule both. You can say to your spouse, “I’d love to have a couple of nights to do something with my friends. And hey, it would be nice if you had the same opportunity.”

Expand your circle. Too much couple-time can be suffocating, even for the blissfully happy. Add new sources of stimulation by inviting other people—single or married—into your lives. Go out with other couples, have different groups of people over for dinner, vacation with your grown children. “It adds new stuff to a relationship that can easily become too old,” says Coontz.  

Expect subtle change; not transformation. Marriages don’t suddenly morph into something they’ve never been. And neither do the people in them. Promote change slowly. Plan a surprise weekend for your spouse. Have one heart-to-heart. But don’t expect a total 360, says Carr: “If your spouse didn’t love the theater for the first 30 years of your marriage there’s no way he’s suddenly going to.”

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