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Is This the Secret to a Better Marriage?

I no longer long for the independent life I didn’t live.

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illustration of a couple holding hands sitting in their own homes, living apart, marriage advice
Martina Paukova
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After more than 60 years of marriage, my husband and I live separately. We sold our house at the edge of the sea, where afternoons we sat in Adirondack chairs and watched waves gather strength, curl and hurl themselves against rocks. Before this move, I peeled away chairs, desks, tables, beds, bureaus, rugs, photographs, artwork, glassware, dishes.

Gone: my mother-in-law’s 100-year-old Renaissance oak dining table where the family gathered for birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving and Passover. Gone: the house where the grandchildren spent summers. Gone: the land that held my mother’s and my father’s ashes. Gone: the place that held our one history — we all have our own apartments.

I came of age in the 1950s, and after I married, my identity was Mrs. Richard F. Morse Jr. My job description included raising our three sons, preparing our meals, entertaining Dick’s business associates and sitting at his side during “important” dinners. I’d chosen a strong and powerful mate, thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that his independence and place in the world would transfer to me.

From the beginning I felt locked in, confused and constrained. I longed for the independent life I didn’t live.

Constant motion was my answer — working, jogging, cooking, baking, hiking, skiing. Sometimes, though, I sank down into the malaise inside of me. I spent whole Saturdays in bed and stared at the ceiling. Was I happy? Unhappy? Was it my marriage? Was it me?

I had no words. The Feminine Mystique hadn’t reached me yet. Then, at 39, I matriculated at Dartmouth College and earned a master of arts in liberal studies degree. Paula, my roommate, piled books on my desk: Daughter of Earth, Silences, Of Woman Born.

She’d taken classes in a new discipline: women’s studies. I thought about my life as a woman — what I’d lost when I married at 21, what I’d endured as a young wife, deferring to my husband’s wishes and tastes. Yet, I was the engine of our family, planning parties and celebrations, soothing tears and bandaging skinned knees. I was helper and healer. I was never alone, not even in my thoughts. My job was the care of others.

That August when I returned home, Dick and the boys took on a few more household chores. They scrubbed pots and swept the kitchen floor. Dark winter Saturday mornings, Dick served the boys pancakes and drove them to ski races while I turned over in bed.

I wish I could say that kindness and cooperation were the DNA of our marriage. We were kind, but too often we weren’t. We fought bitterly and repeatedly about Dick’s addiction to cigarettes. Perhaps, though, his smoking was a metaphor for a deeper fissure. Dick was funny and kind, though he was also a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy.

He gaslighted me. “I’m not smoking; I don’t know what you’re smelling.”

Slowly, the glue that had held us together flaked. I lost my hiking buddy, my skiing buddy, my walking partner. Sex waned, then disappeared. Dick leaned heavily on a banister to climb stairs. He fought for breath. He stopped walking except to his car. He no longer had the stamina to travel or to visit a museum. He no longer read, not even his John Grisham books. He watched TV. He stared into space.

I wondered about the man I married. Did I know him? Had I ever known him?

All he wanted, he said, was for me to be nice to him. Being nice meant hands off his habit.

So what if I leave my dirty napkins and balled-up, snot-filled handkerchiefs for you to pick up? So what if I don’t follow my doctor’s instructions? I’m fine; my memory’s fine; I walk fine.

I’d cared for him after three pulmonary embolisms and open-heart surgery. I’d begged him to give up cigarettes, to exercise and to stop chowing down on McDonald’s hamburgers and shakes. “You’re at me,” he said. “You’re always at me.”

Before we left the house by the sea, I’d returned to a place I thought I’d left forever, behavior of the early tumultuous years of our marriage, when I screamed and smashed plates to the floor. One night, as I swept up the shards of a coffee mug, I realized I’d reached the moment when staying was more difficult than leaving.

Divorce wasn’t an option. Dick and I had grown up together. We’d created a family, and we cared deeply for that family. Despite our troubles, we loved each other.

From the pocket-sized deck of my condo, where I live with Zeus, my 9-year-old standard poodle, my view is now a house with a rusted-out soffit and peeling paint. A “For rent” sign hangs from a doorjamb. Thick black cables hammock from utility pole to utility pole. A far cry from my seascape; yet I am content.

Dick lives in a retirement community nearby, where he smokes in his apartment. We meet for lunch and dinner each week. We celebrate holidays, birthdays, our anniversary. One recent summer evening, Dick sat on the deck and sipped a Scotch on the rocks. “We get along better this way,” he said.

“Yes, we do,” I answered.

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