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Socks on the Bathroom Floor

Anne PerryWe all have a personal definition of freedom –  an alarming statistic released recently points to the increase in the number of long-term marriages ending, that of Al and Tipper Gore raising eyebrows. In homes around the country marriages of 40 years or more are not enduring.  Contrary to the sensational stories in the press, the majority of these quiet sputtering to an end marriages , are not the result of the husband heading off with a glamorous young new wife – rather it is a sad, slow , breaking down of a family unit, and the wife declaring that she’s not taking anymore.

One story from recent press cited a woman standing in the bathroom, looking at the underwear her husband of 44 years had, as usual, left on the floor. “I couldn’t pick it up”, she said. “I could not do that one more time.” Instead she went to the phone and called a divorce lawyer. Another woman told of her husband’s habit of muttering every night “Well, that’s another day served in this marriage.”  She’d heard it for 20 or more years. She has no idea why it was a breaking point on that particular night but by the time he came home the next day, she had moved out.  My own former-sister-in-law earlier this year left a 52 year marriage. “Couldn’t do it anymore”, she said.

And it’s not just women. Men too have their break points. After enduring years of being contradicted by his wife every time he opened his mouth, Alec, an old-time friend called it quits.  A member of our tennis club put it simply. “We grew apart. We had absolutely nothing left in common other than the dog and he doesn't play golf.” He and his wife are now living separately after 47 years of being together.

Anthropologist Margaret Meade opined that there should be differing stages of marriage starting with the desire for procreation and need for a male to support the family unit and moving on to a relationship that is simply because two people want to be together. In the not so recent past, one or both spouses died before the children were out of the house. Retirement was enjoyed for a very few years. Now we look to much longer life-spans and retirement that can last 30 or more years. It’s understandable that people change.   So many older couples opting out of marriage talk of ‘freedom” – not having to answer to anyone, not having to pick up the socks. Instead they find loneliness. A quick survey of Internet dating sites reveals an overwhelming longing for togetherness in both men and women over 60 -  I don’t want to travel alone anymore. I love to hike but am tired of doing it alone. I find it difficult to cook for myself. I just want someone to talk to. The loneliness is palpable and yet so many of these seekers walked out on a marriage.

We’ve all heard the relationship pundits pontificate on the need to ‘work at a marriage’. Maybe that’s the problem – we spend so much time working on something that we forget to play and then once the children are gone and retirement arrives a household is composed of two people with no mutual interests, no ability to play.

For those in a long-term marriage where the division of chores, the same old jokes, the wet towels piling on the bathroom floor encourage dreams of freedom, perhaps a better alternative is to learn to play again. Go to counseling to gain skills in playing, in teasing, in appreciation.  I’m not encouraging anyone, man or women to elect to stay in a relationship where physical or verbal abuse is rampant but if it’s only the boredom, the wearying of the same-old-same-old or the underwear on the floor that’s igniting the dreams of “getting out – living my own life” – give it second thought and turn those dreams into fantasies about how much fun you could have together, how much history you have. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if you think there is the slightest chance of changing your relationship to fit the two people you are at this stage of life. As Margaret Meade wrote: “One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are, when you don't come home at night.

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