I am impressed by the sheer physicality of a couple who have spent four and more decades married. There is something implacable, massive, monumental, well worn and a bit weary in their presentation. I see them in my office, town events, airports and cocktail parties. Like the elephant whose swaying bulky splendor moves towards the watering hole, beautiful and beaten up but ultimately triumphant, the Senior Coupledom triggers curiosity and inspires awe. How have they done this, the elephant, the Senior Coupledom: Gotten so far and for so long?
(This may appear to be a false comparison: one elephant compared with two people. Elephants are matriarchal, the young males go off but the females remain with their babies and raise them with other females. But for me the Coupledom is one entity made up of two inhabitants. It is a single space, the domicile where the couple’s relationship resides.)
A couple’s decades of shared experience should be as visible and traceable as the aging spots, scars and freckles on their skin. But they are not. I too am a member of a Senior Coupledom – though I find my fascination and wonder draws me to ponder others, it is easier than pondering the intensely familiar. As recently as a month ago, standing up to debark from a plane ride south, someone called my name – a high school chum who sorted through my age related changes to recognize me. She and her husband were actually seated in the row behind me. How did I not see her? But there they were – together like forever – probably forty-five years now. So much personal history, so many hours and woes and triumphs and losses. Yet what I saw was an attractive, well-groomed couple who, in some ways, could have met each other yesterday. All those years of shared experience suggested only by how familiar they seemed with each other; the absence of tentativeness, no quick starts or searching glances – smooth like a well-worn boot.
The shared life is a precious thing. And what I see, and why people chuckled knowingly when I told them the title of my latest post, is just how hard and gratifying it is to accomplish this task – the sharing of a life with another over the decades. When I work with couples in the throes of life altering events – someone has an affair; someone feels isolated and alone in the marriage; someone feels unappreciated and exploited; in-laws and triangles and financial mistakes that create a loss of respect or spark hot rage; child disabilities or illnesses so burdensome that they shred slivers of the connective tissue; child rearing disagreements – to them none of this seems like a temporary phase. All appears as if a permanent truth – about a partner’s indifference or selfishness, cowardice or narcissism – like something that will last forever. But it doesn’t last forever. None of these “chapters” actually lasts forever. Yet they leave scars – blotches of pain – deep gashes. So with the elephant: scars from clashing tusks; infections; endless treks to watering holes; human cruelty. But they move along and the gashes become scars and the scarring ages too.
What’s my point here? When couples are in their tenth year or sixteenth year of marriage (and now marriage is for everyone so I can freely use the term and mean all of us in the U.S.) or twenty-fifth year, and troubles bubble up like indigestion, chronic or incidental, stopping the pain frequently translates into stopping the marriage. That’s okay. Many marriages should be stopped for the benefit of all. But before the attorneys get the call, cast a glance over the full scope of the passage of years. Is this a chapter of hardship, perhaps developmental (empty nest; male or female menopause; crushed dreams of financial invincibility at midlife; a drug addicted child; a difficult or dying parent; a geographic shift that triggers loneliness and increased dependency on a spouse)? Is this a phase where maturing means recognizing that the person you married is imperfect, permanently so, despite all your hard work to change them; yet what they are not isn’t necessarily all that they are?
Be very careful here. Because an aged Coupledom, which yours could evolve into, is a warrior worth protecting. Memories shared become memories scattered when you break up the team that created them together. Generational family passages, new babies, new graduates, become complicated and frequently disjointed events. The couples that I work with, who have spent decades together but hit a wall whose bricks of resentment were assembled over decades as well, can deconstruct the wall, brick by brick, and move on in life together. They don’t have to forgive their partner for each and every scarring. They just have to tell them that they still can feel the hurt and the other has to get it, feel it and genuinely care. A couple with whom I have worked for two decades off and on, not steady so don’t be scared, came last week to tweak something with me. Unexpectedly for them, in the context of the session, each hauled out a pretty deep, very alive hurt from the recent and not so recent past. We did the work and then I checked in and took their pulse. “Do you guys still love each other?” “Yes more than ever.” It makes me tear up just writing this. Because I was their guide and I got scared. When the hurt is so palpable and the anger so alive, even the seasoned clinician can worry – are we all right here? Did I drop the ball somewhere?
Nope, they are an intrepid team of two, a Coupledom, like the elephant, majestic and scarred, in their love and in their shared life. And is it worth? Oh yes – “I love her more than ever.”
* My term Senior Coupledom is not restricted to couples 65 and older or of any particular duration or number of decades together. It can be a second or third marriage, even, but it has lasted over time and adversity and mostly for good reasons, in spite of the bad reasons – through turmoil and challenge but with humor and kindness too.
@Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015