Is marriage naturally better the second time around?

Our next-door neighbor Suzanne passed away unexpectedly six days ago. On Monday she was complaining about her gut hurting. On Tuesday she had a four-hour surgery to try to repair an intestinal blockage. She moved from surgery to critical care. On Wednesday afternoon she was dead, her husband Bill became a widower and everyone on our little cul-de-sac was in a state of shock and grief.

Yesterday I went to the local funeral home to pay our respects and to celebrate her life. We’ll be trying to come to terms with this for a long time because Suzanne was a terrific neighbor: always friendly and helpful. She made our little street a real community. Her New Year’s Day parties were renown here in our 55+ community.

It seems kind of crazy to feel loss, as we knew her only two years, but we do. The night of her death, I slept fitfully at best. She and Bill were an item and were one of those crazy, always-together, supremely happily married couples that are actually hard to find. When not traveling they could be found daily on bikes or long walks, and when walking were hand in hand. There was a tangible intimacy between her and Bill that just radiated from them. When Bill told me the story of his first date with Suzanne ten years ago, his voice picked up and his face glowed. At her funeral he said without a doubt that their ten years together, eight of them married, were the best years of his life.

The truth is I was more than a little jealous of Bill and Suzanne’s relationship. It was the sort of marriage most of us aspire to have but don’t have. It was also second time around for both Bill and Suzanne, having divorced or lost spouses. I’m 32 years this month into my first marriage and don’t plan to change the situation. Still it’s obvious that my marriage can’t compete with theirs. I married a fellow introvert. We love each other and now that we are retired obviously see plenty of each other. We share some passions like Star Trek and politics but mostly inhabit our individual universes, intersecting mostly in the morning and at meal times. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Yesterday at the wake I chatted with many of the couples present. Without exception they agreed that Bill and Suzanne were exceptionally well matched. Their marriages could not compete.

I have noticed of those couples whose marriages I think are exceptionally intimate, they all seem to be second marriages. Thinking through the marriages I know well, like those of my siblings, all still on their first marriage none of theirs resemble Bill and Suzanne’s. Bill and Suzanne were an older couple (I was shocked to learn Suzanne was 81; she certainly didn’t look it) that nevertheless seemed eternal newlyweds. There was such an honest passion and intimacy between them that it seemed somewhat surreal. And it carried over to their larger lives. It touched us as next-door neighbors. It was like their house at the end of the cul-de-sac radiated happiness and warmth.

The cause of her death appeared to be due to an earlier cancer that went into remission, but which left her intestinal wall thin. She had the bad luck of having an obstruction at the spot, which tore the wall, which caused peritonitis. These days you sort of expect people to die slowly, at least from natural causes. When I heard she was in critical care I figured it was nothing to worry about. Someone with such spirit of life as Suzanne would doubtless pull through.

But she didn’t. Bill seems to be handling her death pretty well, expressing deep gratitude for their time together and hope they will meet again in some nebulous afterlife. Here’s hoping, Bill. Ten years of the kind of relationship you and Suzanne had should have more than filled your cup to overflowing. Perhaps that’s why Bill is handling it so well. He knows he was blessed to have these years together with her. What remains is a sense of profound gratitude rather than the deep loss I expected. Perhaps the loss will manifest itself in Bill in time.

There may be something to this second time around being better. It makes a lot of sense when I think about it. What are the odds that a first marriage will actually last a lifetime? Consider that most marry young and that both are thrust into adulthood, usually with children to quickly follow. There are so many natural tensions to deal with in a first marriage: jobs, kids, aging parents, aging people with changing needs, likely unemployment somewhere along the journey, general societal stress, siblings, toxic coworkers and maybe bad neighbors. That so many first marriages survive at all is amazing, although it gives us no insight into the quality of these marriages. I know in my case, having a life partner is deeply gratifying. With our daughter all grown up and with both of us retired, this phase of our marriage is quite sweet. We are hardly alone. It’s a phenomenon psychologists know well. Remove a lot of the stressors from a marriage and its overall quality will likely improve.

Still, I think there must be something about a second marriage that by its nature will make it likelier to be better than a first marriage. It’s likelier that fewer marriage stressors like kids and jobs will exist in a second marriage. Hopefully you have a chance to reflect on what you did to stress the first marriage and take corrective action in the second one. Most likely you will be more focused on shared interests and compatible natures than beauty, Donald Trump being the exception. Those of us in first marriages deal with the marriage as it has evolved over a very long time. We know our partner as intimately as you can possibly know someone. What you eventually end up with is someone imperfect and with foibles just like you.

Perhaps in a second marriage these imperfections become easier to overlook as they take a long time to discover. Maybe that in some part explains Bill and Suzanne’s good fortune together. Or perhaps you get a better sense of the spouse you need now since the rose-colored glasses are off. The spouse you had then doesn’t quite fill your criteria anymore.

My own father remarried late in life, and had five years together with my stepmother before passing last year at 89. I don’t know if it was a better marriage than the 55 years with my mother, but it certainly was a different marriage. It allowed my father to grow in his last years, which was good, and gave him the companionship he craved.

Should I also suffer my father’s fate of being a widower and choose to remarry, I won’t be surprised if I find that it sweeter. By no means would I say this is because there were things about my spouse that were unlovable. But just as a plant that is repotted in fresh soil often perks up, I suspect people can too. Should I predecease my wife, I certainly hope she finds a new love. It would give me pleasure to know that someone else would have the joy of her presence if I cannot.

As for Suzanne, you are already missed and have left a hole in our lives. It will never quite be the same.

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.

Advice for the lovelorn

I won’t claim that this advice is directed to anyone in particular, but it was inspired by reading this blog. Asplenia wears her heart on her sleeve, or at least on her blog. I am glad she remains anonymous, and also grateful that she reads my blog and occasionally leaves a comment. I’m not sure how many regular readers of this blog I have, but I suspect she has more.

Nor can I claim to be a fountain of wisdom on matters of the heart. It is true that I can point to a marriage of twenty-six years, but neither my wife nor I will claim we have had an easy marriage. I often think that if you have an easy marriage, something is wrong. Life is not designed to be easy; hence love should not be easy either. In my experience, love is more about continuous challenge than comfort.

No, love is not easy, so it might seem like it is something only the foolhardy should attempt. However, avoiding love is not easy either. There is nothing wrong with being single, just as there is nothing wrong with being married or in any heavy relationship. I don’t live in the delusion that I would necessarily be better single. Instead, I suspect I would be chasing other issues. Maybe I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me, and it would tug at my inferiority complex. For we are all relational creatures. Like it or not, we almost universally assess our self worth based on the quality of those relationships.

Asplenia is recently divorced and is actively searching for a new mate. She goes on lots of dates. Reading her blog the last year or so has been heart wrenching, so heart wrenching that it is sometimes hard to read her posts because they cut so close to the heart and often are so pierced with pain. It’s hard to put yourself back on the love market after a long marriage, particularly when you thought overall it was pretty good. It is hard to invest time in relationships, hard to think things are going great and then to find yourself dumped or disillusioned and back on square one. Asplenia has spent a lot of time riding reasonable expectation waves only to find them dashed. She has expectations for what a solid relationship should look and feel like. It is doubtless borne out at least partially by experience, but she also invests time in pondering the opinions of relationship experts, who she often quotes. If you have a hard time judging what a solid, intimate relationship should look like, these experts will sort it out for you. Good luck to her and the millions of others who deserve a terrific, long lasting, enduring and permanent partnership. Perhaps it will be an ideal one that checks off all the boxes the relationship experts tell us should be checked.

The temptation to keep looking for the perfect relationship keeps gnawing at most of us. Surely someone out there is better than what we got, or what we had, right? Surely, when I marry a perfect 10, I won’t end up getting someone who deliberately farts in my presence. Surely I will get someone who is not a spendthrift, and who can ignore a line of cocaine at a party? Surely there is someone out there without baggage, who will understand me intuitively, who is always kind and gentle and who never has a bad day, or doesn’t have a fatal flaw?

Maybe there are a couple of these creatures out there, but I haven’t met any yet. I think they are a myth, like the unicorn. On reflection, I’m not sure that even if I was fancy free and one of these wanted me that I should marry one of them. This is because I might feel the pressure to be perfect also and, well, not to give away a secret or anything, but I’m not perfect, and I never will be. I too am saddled with baggage, some light, some not so light. I too am the product of a mixed childhood and a mixed parenting experience, and it shaped my personality and I carry a lot of it into middle age. I will probably carry it into old age and to my grave. I will die an imperfect creature, as will my wife.

I am not sure where this desire to chase perfection comes from. Maybe it comes from going to church at a young age, where we learn God is perfect and we can be too in some nebulous afterlife. Meanwhile, if we rigorously follow the rules and spend much of our lives repressing our less than perfect aspects, we can sort of look perfect, at least most of the time. What typically happens is we give it a modest try, but we soon fail. This happens because, unlike God, we are programmed to be imperfect. But it also happens because perfection is just an idea, and what we think the perfect is is largely due to what others have told us all along should look like perfection. How did they know? Well, someone told them. And so it probably goes back to the point where us apes came down from the trees and started crawling on terra firma. All they really knew was that much of life was miserable, and hunting mastodons and spending evenings on animal skins wasn’t much to get excited about.

If we can’t be perfect, maybe we can look perfect instead. It may take losing forty pounds, or a nose job, or a tummy tuck, or spending three times a week at the local gym getting exhausted and sweaty. All that work doesn’t make us perfect, but may feed the illusion that we can become perfect, or at least more perfect than many. Sometimes it works, at least for a while, but just as often or more it fails because we discover some new flaw in ourselves.

Much of falling in love is based on a self-delusion. We see in others things that are not really there. It’s the phenomenon of psychological projection. To see our new lovers as the imperfect creatures they are is actually kind of hard, and perhaps makes it impossible to fall in love with them. We have to unlearn our innate talent at tuning out their flaws so early in the relationship. That stuff is supposed to come later, long after the wedding bells. And if we can deal with their reality, then we have to ask ourselves a harder question: can I live and love this imperfect person for maybe the rest of my life as he/she is? Is there enough commonality, shared interests, love and caring to make the relationship, on balance, good or very good?

It’s my opinion that wise people will realize this sort of relationship is probably as good as it is going to get. Surrendering to this reality won’t exactly bring total happiness, but it may bring acceptance that can lead to greater happiness elsewhere. This is because lots of things can make us feel happy, and a love relationship is just one of them. Surrendering to an imperfect loving relationship may allow a space to open up where we can be in a generally positive relationship. It may allow us the freedom to escape relationship-expectation hell for a while, or maybe forever, and wallow in the rest of life instead, which will have its challenges too.

Alas, I can’t claim the credentials of all the great relationship gurus that Asplenia reads, as my learning comes mostly from the School of Hard Knocks. But at least when it’s quiet, I can ask my gut. I may not like the answer it gives, but it has the aspect of feeling uncomfortably correct. It takes courage to accept not the best, but the pretty good. And that’s probably where we will find our optimal happiness, which won’t ever be at a hundred percent, at least not until our self-delusion phase wears out and we realize that perfection itself is a cruel illusion. However, with luck, maybe we can cruise somewhere around eighty percent most of them time. It may not be where we want it to be, but it may be what we need.

There is love

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.

Lyrics by Joss Stone
Sung by Dionne Warwick

The organist was playing something appropriately holy and Catholic, but as my 83-year-old father appeared from the wings of the chapel in suit and tie and a minute later his 77-year-old bride solemnly processed down the aisle, I was hearing Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man instead of the organ. I heard it all: from the blaring trumpets to the rattling bass drums. It is hard to think of a more common man than my father. Yet, if any occasion in his long life deserved a fanfare, this new wedding, sixty years after his first wedding and nearly five years after my mother died, this one qualified. He stood erect and humble, a man still in remarkable health, and with a natural glint of tears in his eyes waited patiently for his bride. His bride Marie gently ascended onto the altar and, at the invitation of the priest, sat next to my father to begin the rite of marriage. Almost immediately, and seemingly instinctively, they were holding hands.

It’s not that “old people” don’t get remarried, it’s just at my father’s age it happens so rarely that when it occurs it is so remarkable that it is almost bizarre. In my father’s case, it was also newsworthy. Someone from the bride’s family thought their story might intrigue The Washington Post. A Post photographer was present, sporting two enormous cameras that rarely had a moment of rest. A golden late summer sun beamed through the chapel’s windows and backlit an interdenominational stained glass window behind the altar. The room was nearly as radiant as the majestic smile and somewhat stupefied look on my father’s face.

My father and new stepmother
My father and new stepmother

My father and his bride met and fell in love at Riderwood, their retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. Residents of retirement communities know and accept death. Death is a daily fact, soullessly articulated by notices on the walls in the common areas. The residents do not know quite what to make with a wedding. The sedate residents of Riderwood mingling on the edges of the chapel seemed very confused by all the children, flowers and the general giddiness. “Goodness, it’s like someone is getting married,” one of them remarked to my wife. “That’s exactly what’s happening,” she told them. “My father-in-law is getting married here today.” This news caused great excitement in this land of walkers, wheelchairs, shuttle buses and residents with oxygen flowing up their noses. “You mean someone who lives here is getting married? Here?”

Yes, it does happen from time to time. When you read about a man in his eighties getting married, he is typically filthy rich and marrying someone half or more his age. Typically, the man is dead within a few years and his bride is locked in legal disputes with his children trying to claim his fortune. However, when your bride is seventy-seven, she is probably not after your money, and you are probably not after her for her youth, as she comes with just as many age spots as you do. Procreation is also out of the question, even with our modern medical advances. Sex is potentially possible if both bride and groom are in good health but it is likely that elderly couples will do much more hand holding than copulating. Who knows what anyone’s motivations are for marrying so late in life? In my father’s case, he married Marie because he loves her.

They love each other in spite of age spots, sagging skin, yellowing teeth and other maladies that come with age. They love each other because, well, they do. There is no accounting for it, but it helps that they are both institutional Catholics, raised large Catholic families, and yet remarkably still find themselves in good health for their age, with good life still ahead of them. They marry perhaps because they have the audacity and impertinence to enjoy whatever time they have left with someone they love.

It is audacious for people their age to look forward to a new life together. It is audacious to revel in the present and in the joy of life, rather than dwell on its inevitable conclusion, which actuarial statistics suggest cannot be too far in their futures. It speaks to their character, their values and their faith that they will not allow age to be a barrier to life or to love. Only the weak worry about an end of life. The blessed, the strong and the true of heart accept what life gives them and challenge life and themselves to fill their cups to the brim. Sometimes, as in the case of my father and his new bride, nature rewards them with rich years and a well-deserved new love late in life.

My father marries well. I have had four opportunities to meet my stepmother’s extended family. In some ways it feels like I have known them all my life and it is only now that I can associate these familiar voices and faces. When someone you know gets married, you often pick up immediate vibes from their relations on the future state of their marriage. There were no warning flags here, just warm, curious and interesting people with generous hearts and deep humanity. My hope is that long after my father and his bride have met their maker, my stepmother’s family will still be in our lives. For a marriage means new beginnings not just for the bride and groom, but also for all their relations, if they are smart enough to make the most of them.

With our parents off on a honeymoon (final destination: Switzerland) we hosted the remainder of our new extended family for a picnic in a park in suburban Maryland. My stepmother’s grandchildren drew on colored chalk on the concrete floor. Burgers and kielbasa (the latter acknowledging my mother’s unseen presence) grilled over a charcoal flame. Mostly we did not need the nametags we now wore. When our parents called us on the cell phone, we yelled Bon Voyage to them. We laughed. We ate. We enjoyed each other. We connected. We felt their love. We radiated in their spirit, and hopefully they in ours.

It is odd that their late-in-life marriage would bring happiness not just to them, but also upon us happy but often overwhelmed offspring and grandchildren with the joy of new connections. In the process, they bring new growth, vitality, energy to all of us.

Love cannot be defined. You only know it when you feel it. There is love.

The shock

So I am sitting in a conference room in Lakewood, Colorado. My laptop is purring away and I am enmeshed in the business of making money. But since I have internet, I have GMail open in a tab in my browser window. When I checked it periodically, it was full of the usual drivel, which are mostly various political campaigns and organizations grubbing for money or asking me to sign a web petition.

This time the subject of the email nearly gave me a heart attack. In big capital letters my father was announcing he was getting married.

I have nothing against marriage, being married nearly a quarter of a century myself. What you do not expect is that your father, after fifty-five years of marriage and who will turn eighty-four this autumn would be getting remarried. While certainly not immoral or illegal, it feels deeply unnatural. It’s like snow falling in Miami. If something bizarre like this ever happens to you, you will probably react a lot like I did. You sort of sit around dazed for a while not comprehending the news and wondering if this is some sort of late April Fools joke.

Once the initial shock wore off, I found that I was overcome with a mixture of feelings. There was a vague sort of happiness for my father. After all, who doesn’t want their parent to be happy, particularly in old age? There was also a touch of concern. Just how well does he really know this woman anyhow? Then there was my selfish side manifesting itself. If he dies married to her, will she inherit everything? Would his estate eventually end up with her children and grandchildren? There was also a touch of anger: how dare this woman come between me and my father! Maybe he would be happier being married, but the chances are his marriage would perturb our close relationship. Would she control him to the point that my relationship with Dad became wholly superficial? There was also amazement: why on earth would anyone want the hassle of getting remarried at his age? Does he want to be sexually active in his eighties? I had never broached the subject, of course, but I sort of assumed at age eighty plus, even if the desire was there, the ability to perform probably wasn’t. And there was a certain amount of relief. When it is his time to leave this planet, I won’t necessarily need to be at his side for days or weeks at a time watching him slip further and further into the void. His new wife will have the bulk of the duty.

That my father wanted to get married again was not in itself a surprise. My mother was hardly resting in her urn in the cemetery five years ago before he was checking out the many available widows at his retirement community. In fact, within months of my mother’s death, he had proposed to a woman a floor below him. She liked my father, but she just wanted to be friends. So friends they were. Yet I suspect that much of my Dad’s interest in her was the wan hope that friendship might eventually yield love. Of course, it never did.

Years passed and he finally figured out that he was wasting time. Otherwise, he seemed very happy. Unlike me, he is naturally affable and sociable. In a retirement community of thousands, it seemed he knew everyone’s name. So I wasn’t too surprised when he started dating Marie. Maybe I should have put two and two together when over the winter he took her to California to meet his sister, but I didn’t. I finally met her a few weeks ago, but I assumed she was just a girlfriend, some arm candy. She seemed nice enough, but I hardly had a chance to form more than a superficial impression of her. And now my Dad and this Marie woman are going to get married! They are scouting for a new apartment in their retirement community. I am warned there will soon be furniture to excess. Maybe this is as close as I will get to my share of his inheritance.

In truth, my father has been undergoing a late life renaissance for a number of years. Overall, I have been impressed with his ability to squeeze so much joy from this time of life. He was also fortunate to be a reasonably healthy and mobile male in a community where the men his age had mostly died off. If they had not died off, they were on their last legs. Still, I figured when I am his age, I might be principally dwelling on death. Instead, he is reveling in life in his retirement community, joining clubs, ushering at church, and even taking up square dancing. The square dancing thing took me for a jag. I come from a family of Dilberts with no hand eye coordination, but here he was with a Square Dancing for Dummies book, a weekly practice session and soon he was dancing with the dames.

I keep wondering, how will he surprise me next? Will he take up smoking, even though he never put a cigarette to his mouth? Will he start drinking, although the closest he came to drinking was sipping communion wine? Marie is apparently Irish. The good news is that means (unsurprisingly) that she is Catholic, still an important criteria for a spouse for my devout Catholic father. The bad news is that the Irish in general have a propensity for booze. So there might be plenty of alcohol at their wedding, date TBA. And he will probably be dancing for joy whilst my siblings and I are likely to be hanging on the sidelines and queuing up for carrots at the vegetable tray.

And then there’s his wife to be, my future (and the word is so hard to say aloud) stepmother. Here I am at age 53 and the last thing I expected to happen to me at my ripe age is in a new relationship with a stepmother. Should I call her Mom? I don’t think Marie would expect me to, and I hope she does not because Marie is probably all I will be able to muster. Thus far “Mom” has been reserved only for my biological mother (may she rest in peace) and my mother-in-law. I call my mother-in-law “Mom” only because I know she likes to hear it and she thinks of me as her son, somehow. I haven’t the heart to tell her I don’t think of her as my mother, never have and never will. However, I am pragmatic enough to realize that calling her “Mom” does do a lot for maintaining a harmonious relationship with her.


For the most part my siblings have not weighed in on this impending nuptial. I suspect most realize what I do: there nothing we can do about it anyhow and if we tried to interfere it would only generate bad karma. So if it makes Dad happy in his golden years, why not give him our blessing? So I will, but not without stifling some of my negative feelings.

I am not the only relative feeling some shock. My niece posted yesterday on Facebook, “My grandpa is ENGAGED?!?!?!?!” Exactly! It’s like the earth decided to rotate from west to east all of a sudden. Whether this remarriage is ultimately good, bad or indifferent, my boat is being rocked. I don’t have to like it, but I have the feeling I best get used to the turbulence.

Raising my glass to Al and Tipper

So Al and Tipper Gore are heading for separate residences. Forty years of a storybook marriage appear to be over. Many of us who have followed the Gores all these years are just shocked by this turn of events. If marriages are to break up, most will break up within the first seven years. It makes no sense for a couple to break up after forty years of marriage, particularly a publicly affectionate couple like the Gores who in 2003 wrote the book Joined at the Heart about the changing American family. Who would have thunk their marriage would now be disjoined at the heart?

Gosh darn it Al and Tipper, even if you were having marital problems, you were supposed to keep them in the closet and carry on. America needed to believe that both of you were committed to each other for life and that your marital bond was unbreakable. While a lifelong, happy marriage is apparently not possible for most of us, at least yours would be. With your separation, you have gone all human like the rest of us.

The good news is that according to the couple no infidelity was involved. At least that is what we are hearing now. Who knows what news reports we may read about in the next few weeks or months? How long before Al has some younger piece of arm candy, and the rumors start to fly? Rest assured if there were any dirt on their marriage, it would come out soon. For the moment, their marital breakup suddenly out shadows the doings of Sarah Palin and her extended family.

Still, if one were looking for signs of marital stress in Al and Tipper’s marriage, there were some tealeaves to read. For one, after Al Gore lost his presidential bid and took up the environment as his new passion, he was suddenly gone from home a lot. He was jetting here, jetting there, jetting anywhere and not coming home much. Could much of that time away from home, most of it apparently without Tipper, been his way of coping with a bad marital situation? A physical separation even if it was not a legal separation? Then there was his sudden weight gain. For most of his life, Al had been at normal weight, and suddenly he got all Warren Harding on us. Maybe he got so myopic about saving the planet that he forgot about eating healthy and exercise. On the other hand, since he spent so much time in airports maybe he had no choice but to dine on their greasy junk. Or perhaps there was a lot of marital stress at home and he compensated by overeating. Fortunately, he managed to take off most of the weight. However, a sudden and large weight gain in anyone is usually a sign that someone is under unusual stress. I know in my case I tended to weigh the most when I felt under the most stress. There were no such clues from Tipper, but then again we were not paying attention to her, as she prefers to spend most of her life offstage.

What went wrong? I frankly hope we don’t find out, but I suspect we will at some point. There must be enough cash some publisher will throw at them for one of them to write a tell-all book. I hope that neither succumbs. For the moment, close friends express bafflement. Whatever marital woes beset their relationship, they kept them far from public view.

What the Gore separation represents then has more to do with spoiling our illusions than the end of their long-standing marriage. With blood relations, you have little choice but to hang in there for life. I am fortunate to love and respect my siblings as well as my father (my mother died in 2005), but even in families where there is a lot of hurt feelings and rivalries, rarely will relations separate for life by choice.

Despite all the sober words at the start of a marriage, marriages are ultimately optional relationships. It is true that for much of human history marriages were for truly for life. This did not necessarily make them happier, but they did endure. Today, if you cannot work it out, you divorce and move on. If, as I suspect, your next relationship means you are largely revisiting the same issues you had in your marriage, then perhaps divorce is pointless. Any divorce is a gamble that your future you will be happier than you were in your marriage.

I also strongly suspect that marriages are not naturally meant to endure for life. Some do, and some percent of those that do are perhaps overall generally healthy and happy marriages. Marriages lasting forty or more years, like the Gores, are a fairly recent phenomenon. The primary purpose of marriage these days is to provide a stable and healthy environment to raise a family. Until recently, you often did not get a chance to see your grandchildren. Those that did were lucky to have their spouse alive after twenty or twenty five years. If, as it appears, the Gores had thirty-five years or so of a happy and healthy marriage, then they were probably extremely fortunate. Most of us will not be so fortunate.

I hate to characterize my own marriage for public consumption, but I suspect it is typical of most marriages nearly a quarter century in length. My wife and I love each other, but like all marriages, ours too has its issues. Neither of us is anxious to head for the exit, but neither are we the enchanted young adults that we were when we married in 1985. We do grate on each other, some days more than other, but apparently not to the extent that we want to live lives apart from one another. In any event, neither of us particularly embraces change, which helps keep us as a “still married” statistic. At the same time, neither of us are naïve enough to think that divorce could not happen to us. All marriages are consensual. For most of us old married people, success in marriage is about succeeding in scaling back expectations of what marriage should be.

So rather than get too upset about the Gores breaking up, why not raise a glass to what appears to be a really good and long run? It appears they had thirty-five years or so of a really good marriage. Most of us would be thrilled to have ten years of excellent marriage, let alone thirty-five. Divorce is not always a bad thing. It can also be liberating. It may be that at this stage in their lives it is the best thing for both Al and Tipper. If so, I’ll raise my glass for both of them having the good sense and the courage to move on.

Civil marriage is still a civil right

Perhaps to really appreciate Valentine’s Day, you have to be single or divorced. When you are an old married dude like me, Valentine’s Day has a perfunctory feel to it. Of course, I get my wife a card, some chocolate and sometimes even some flowers. She does likewise. It should be a special day since after all it is a day that celebrates romantic love. Perhaps we could find ways to make the day more special. For us the truth is that we love each other the same every day of the year, so there is not much point in making a fuss over Valentine’s Day, beyond what is expected.

Absence does make my heart grow fonder. There are times when I feel if we really wanted to rekindle the old flame, we should spend a month apart. A week apart, which happens a couple times a year when I am off on business travel, definitely makes me miss my wife. I miss her as well as all those comfortable, somewhat nebbish things we do both together and apart, like sit three feet from each other while she inhabits one computer and I another but largely never speak. I imagine to feel so distracted that I craved her most of the time would take about a month. I really don’t know because in nearly a quarter century of marriage, we have not been apart for more than two weeks at a time.

Passionate love is designed to be fleeting. It tends to get more passionate with increased separation, up to a point. If your hormones remained as high as they are during the passionate love phase, you would live happy but die young. This is why many of us crave a lower intensity kind of love that amounts to the comfort and routine of being married. After a while, you take it for granted simply because it is so always available. We have someone to come home to. He or she may not be perfect, but neither are we. This low-key love that most of the time is pleasant rather than passionate seems to be the key for many to low blood pressure, health and long life.

Some of us would like this pleasant kind of love but haven’t found the right person yet. Others of us may have found the right person but cannot get married. The person they love inconveniently has the same sex as they do. Except in a handful of states they are out of luck. Perhaps they can live with their love, but they cannot do anything to make their relationship legal.

I do not know exactly how things would be between my wife and I right now had we decided to live with each other the last quarter century instead of tying the knot. I do know they would be a lot different. Would we have ever had a child? These days there is a lot less stigma associated with having a child out of wedlock but childrearing is so much less complicated when you are married. Our daughter could fall under my insurance. My wife of course would not be my wife, unless you count her as a common law wife, so she would have to fend for herself in the health insurance market. Frankly, I doubt we would still be together. We both wanted to settle down. Inhabiting a house together was nice, but until we were tied together legally, it didn’t feel quite right. Marriage was important because it meant we were an established and committed couple and could plan a future together in a straightforward and structured way.

It baffles me, particularly with the passing of each Valentine’s Day, why gays and lesbians cannot enjoy the simple right to a civil marriage. I could enumerate the many reason why denying civil marriage is so counterproductive to our society. However, the Reverend Evan Keely, an interim minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church I attend pretty much said it all in his succinct sermon Forty-Seven Theses that he delivered appropriately on Valentine’s Day Sunday. In addition, I have talked extensively about this injustice before.

Today, I simply want to say to my gay and lesbian brethren just how sorry I am that they were born into a society where they still cannot know the everyday pleasure of waking up with and interacting with a spouse. I never have to worry that my wife will be denied hospital visitation privileges, or that someone I trust can direct our financial affairs when I am unable to do so. I don’t have to worry about finding someone to accompany me to the hospital for outpatient surgery or to drive me home afterward. It comes implicitly with marriage. Having a spouse makes life so much less complicated in so many ways, while of course it introduces relational complexities as well. It is not fair, but I am fully vested in society and you, unless you live in a state that allows gay marriage, are not. Even if you happen to live in a progressive state like Massachusetts, in the eyes of the federal government you are still not married, and are treated as such.

Rest assured that this will change. In time, this injustice will be rectified and you will be treated as equally as the rest of us who happen to have been born with heterosexual orientations. I will not rest until you too can enjoy the right to live pleasantly (but not always with burning passion) with the blessing of civil society with the person you love.

How traditional is traditional marriage anyhow?

Supposedly, you don’t fool with Mother Nature. Never mind that we fool with Mother Nature all the time. We eat all sorts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps you had some seedless raisins with lunch. Many also see gay marriage as fooling around with Mother Nature. Mother Nature has decreed that only a union between one man and one woman is natural. No exceptions allowed! Consequently, Mother Nature does not want a man to marry another man, or two women to marry each other. Nor does Mother Nature endorse polygamy or polyandry.

Or so we think, although these so called natural laws may not be all that natural. Biologists have discovered all sorts of unusual parings among animals that suggest that serial monogamy is hardly the norm. Among humans, social scientist Margaret Mead documented decades ago that the one man-one woman marriage thing we define as traditional marriage is just one natural variation among humans. Across the world, Mead documented numerous cultures where all sorts of arrangements are sanctioned: “traditional” marriage, polygamy, polyandry, polyamory as well as the tribal equivalents of gay marriage. If Mother Nature opposes them, she is turning a blind eye.

The Bible sure tells us deviations from traditional marriage are sinful, right? Not exactly. Depending on which books of the Bible you believe are divinely inspired, these deviations are either permitted, not specifically addressed or are seen as abominations that could even subject you to capital punishment. Polygamy was acceptable in Abraham’s time. According to the Bible, Abraham had multiple wives, as did many of the Jewish elders and kings whose lives are chronicled in the Old Testament. Apparently, the more wives you had the more status you had in the community. Polygamy also served the useful evolutionary purpose of spreading the seed at a time when humans were an endangered species. Mother Nature might have thought it necessary. Abraham reputedly lived to some impossibly old age. Yet, Yahweh apparently saw no abomination with Abraham’s polygamy. While polygamy is unlawful in today’s America, it remains legal in much of the Muslim world and is explicitly permitted in the Quran.

During the last election, California voters decided by a four percent margin that gays should not be allowed to marry in the state. Members of the Mormon Church in particular felt a call to spiritual arms and contributed $22 million toward a campaign to overturn court ordered gay marriage in California. This is curious because Mormons were traditionally polygamists and only relatively recently decided this aspect of their theology required some amending. In fact, the tradition of polygamy is much older than the idea of marriage as between only one man and one woman.

What are Jesus’ thoughts on gay marriage? Jesus actually has little to say on the issue of marriage except he said God did not allow divorce, a teaching most Christians are happy to ignore. According to the Bible, Jesus never married, so it clearly was not a high priority for him. Many religious scholars suspect he actually was married or had an out of wedlock relationship with Mary Magdalene but that part was scrubbed from the Bible.

St. Paul had a few things to say about marriage, and they were not particularly nice. In his mind, good Christians completely abstained from sex, since sex itself was sinful. He did belatedly suggest that if you could not abstain from sex you should marry because it is better to marry than to go to hell. In his view, marriage suggested some sort of moral failing, but a minor one. In his opinion, since sex was part of marriage, it was hardly worthy of sanctification. However, St. Paul also appeared convinced that the second coming of Jesus was not too far away, so there was little point to procreation.

If history is our guide, what constitutes “real” marriage should be a confusing muddle, not an issue of clarity. If we strictly adhered to the Biblical interpretation of marriage, most of us would find it unacceptable. As this diarist on Daily Kos points out, the Bible tells us that polygamy is okay (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5). It also suggests that is okay to shack up or have live-in lovers even while being married (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21). However, marriage is forbidden if the woman is not a virgin. In fact, if for some reason she isn’t, she can be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). (Maybe this is where the Taliban got it from?) However, apparently there is an escape clause because a man must marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies, provided she has no children (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10). Also, sorry, divorce is not allowed, no exceptions ever (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9). So, if you find yourself an abused spouse, deal with it. Maybe prayer will move some mountains in your marriage.

I don’t know about you but if this is “traditional” marriage, I don’t want any part of it. Nor do I particularly think that marriage between only one man and woman is the only form it should take. Yet, so many of us are certain that only marriages between one man and one woman are moral, and therefore only they should be legally sanctioned. I am left to conclude that while I respect those who support “traditional” marriage, there is no sound Biblical or natural rationalization to support it.

Supporters of “traditional” marriage are loath to admit it, but marriage, like most human customs, has morphed over time and will continue to do so to fit the needs of people. Another one of these shifts in the definition of marriage now seems underway. Just as divorce and mixed-race marriages are now legal, it is likely that within a few decades gay marriage will be legally available within any state of the union too. Moreover, most of us will simply be indifferent to it.

Love can be unlovely

Just as saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” does not at first trip naturally off the tongue, telling someone you love him or her can be awkward to say. After a while though it becomes engrained. It bubbles out unprompted when you are with your significant other. For myself, after twenty-two years of marriage I no longer know what I mean when I say I love my wife. “Love” has become squishy and abstract. Sometimes it feels like a lazy word. There are times when saying I love my wife feels more like a platitude than something meaningful.

It is a little like that question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” There is no way to answer it without feeling slimed. “How much do you love your spouse or significant other?” If someone to ask this of me, would I recoil? What the hell kind of question is it anyhow?

Just how do I measure my own love? Would I jump off a bridge if my love asked it of me? Hell no. Should she stay with me after I beat her black and blue because she loves me? I would hope that she would get the hell out of Dodge. Would I take care of her 24/7 in sickness and in health in her old age, giving up all semblance of personal happiness? I don’t know. I would probably try to find home health aides. At some point, the burden might become so crushing that I would put her in a nursing home. On the other hand, she will be going in for back surgery next week. Will I be there for her? Of course, I will. In addition, I will be with her at home for a few days while she lies flat on her back. I cannot imagine not doing any of these things for her.

I suspect very few couples have this kind of discussion about the boundaries of their love prior to tying the knot. I know my wife and I never did, but there were certainly many implicit assumptions about love that we carried with us into marriage. Instead, we just say we love each other and leave it at that. We cross our fingers and hope the positive aspects of loving someone outweigh what can be its crushing burdens. In fact, we do not really know the boundaries of our love for someone until they are put to the test.

When they are put to the test then love isn’t so much fun. That is what I have discovered. My wife is a lovely creature, but when God handed out bodies to inhabit, she was handed something shabby. Without getting into details, suffice to say that she is a challenging case for her doctors. In fact, she has a whole team of doctors of various specialties working to alleviate her suffering. You would think after working on her for more than twenty years that they might have cured something, but no. Her body is like a beanie bag chair. If one problem is fixed then another emerges to replace it. This means her life on a good day is full of discomfort, and on a bad day is full of wrenching pain.

Do I love my wife? I must, otherwise I would have checked out years ago. Do I love providing the persistent physical and emotional support to help her cope with her medical issues? Are you crazy? No. In fact, hell no. Frankly, I would rather be in Tahiti, but who wouldn’t? Nonetheless, I love her. In addition, I inherited the dutiful gene. I got it from both sides of the family and at this point, it is reflexive. Moreover, I have certain values, including kindness and compassion. Since I love her, I cannot imagine anyone who deserves more of it from me than her.

Nonetheless, I have discovered some inconvenient truth about values. Having values is easy. Living up to them is hard. Most of us do not have to get a root canal more than a couple times in our lives. How many of us, if called by conscience, would volunteer to get a root canal three times a week? Not many, which is what makes Mother Teresa’s story so interesting, and why I was so drawn to recent revelations. I sometimes feel by providing a high degree of support to my wife, that I am volunteering to get regular root canals. At some point a more dispassionate observer might infer, Dude, your values are really whacked.

It strikes me that all these love problems are easily solved. If love gets too burdensome, just bail out. This assumes, of course, that you can deal with the aftermath. I am quite confident that in my case, because I do love my wife, if I bailed on her the guilt (not to mention the wound I would feel acting at variance to my deepest held values) would likely be worse than providing the support she needs. Nonetheless, bailing out seems to be a popular option, given the divorce statistics in the United States. I do feel some satisfaction being there for my wife, and feel it says much about my character. I cannot say that it is fun. Nor was it fun to be the little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, although doubtless the citizens of Holland were grateful.

If you are in a love relationship, hope that your values are not put to the test too often. If they are, expect it to be a learning experience about just whom you really are.

My odd Valentine’s Day gift

This Valentine’s Day, instead of my wife being next to me in bed, she was 2000 miles away. Specifically, she is in Arizona. She is taking care of her mother who is recuperating from lung surgery. She is doing this even though she herself needs surgery to repair a herniated disk in her back. She has been popping pain pills and getting physical therapy for months in an attempt to avoid back surgery. They did not work so recently the decision was made to operate.

I suggested that since her mother has plenty of family in the Arizona area it might be more important that she say home and get her back surgery rather than traipse across country to try to take care of her mom. But no, duty called. When you think your mother needs you that trumps everything, including your own major back problems.

I hope that she is earning some major karma points. I was similarly dutiful in 2003 when I went to Michigan to offer moral and logistical support to my mother during her long hospitalization and recovery. However, I was in good health. My wife kept the home fires burning on my trips. I am doing the same on her trip. I washed five loads of laundry yesterday, and I hate doing laundry. I even cleaned the kitchen floor.

I am also discovering a few things that I did not expect: it can be healthy to have time apart from your spouse. With my daughter working, I find that this week my household is often reduced to one four-year-old feline and myself. I do miss my wife, but I confess I do not miss all the drama that has been occupying our lives since her back went out after Thanksgiving. Herniated disks must be something like nine on a 10-point scale of painful things that can happen to you in life. Because she is in pain, she cannot help but broadcast her pain. Her back is a constant topic of discussion. I offer moral support, of course, and even some logistical support. I suppose it helps but it does not really solve her back problem. For eight days or so, I am free of it.

Ironically, her trip to visit her mom was perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift she could have given me. Every caregiver needs some downtime and I have had precious little. I realize that since I do not have her degree of back problems, I am merely whining. Still it is a relief to have my wife with her bad back gone for a while. It is as if we are learning to better love each other by being less supportive.

Now that my daughter has her driver’s license, I do not have to fuss much over her either. She gets herself to work on time and comes home when her shift is over. Which leaves work (which was stressful this week), and hours and hours of glorious solitude. I am finding that I am slowly reverting into the creature I was before I got married. I am remembering who I was before I became tangled up in this institution called marriage.

Granted, before I was dating steadily in many ways life was a lot less fun. Sex was more likely to be my right hand than with another woman. Still, there was a certain reckless freedom to being a bachelor. As a husband and principle breadwinner, my life feels controlled and regimented. As a married man living the life of a bachelor for a week, I am discovering the pleasure of doing things at my own pace. Doing laundry yesterday was an example. If I felt like surfing the web for a while rather than move the next load through the laundry cycle so be it. No one was impacted.

I toyed with the idea of going out on the town by myself. Fortunately, I quickly abandoned it. It turns out I can have more fun at home than anywhere else. I am not sure what single 51-year-old men do, but it is probably not what twenty something single young men do. I think older single men congregate at the counter of their local Silver Diners, and read their newspapers while sipping coffee and consuming entrees loaded with fats and carbohydrates. My idea of a fun thing to do by myself is to spend a few hours at the local Barnes & Noble. I pick out a handful of nerdy computer books, hope for a ready cushy chair and just read. In theory, I could do this any night, but in practice, since I have a spouse I do not. I probably will do it tonight since my schedule is free.

Another thing I could do is take in a movie on a weeknight. I hear Tuesday is $5 movie night at the local Reston Multiplex. The leisure class does these sorts of things. They do not necessarily have to be at work at 7 AM. They can be spontaneous. While there are many great things about having a spouse, spontaneity is rarely one of them. No, things have to be negotiated and planned. I do not consider my dining tastes very advanced but I am an epicurean next to my wife. This typically limits us to a half dozen restaurants, generally with American or Italian food. She won’t do Mexican. She won’t do Thai. She won’t do Indian. She will do Chinese but she only likes one particular Chinese restaurant in Herndon. With her gone my dining options are now expanding. The problem is I generally do not prefer to dine alone. However, I can get takeout.

In short, I love my wife this Valentine’s Day. I did send her a card and made sure we had a long chat on the phone. I love her for being devoted to her mother in her time of need. It is an aspect of her character I cannot help but admire. I also love her for giving me this unexpected respite from our relationship. Perhaps I can be a refreshed and better spouse when she returns.

Happy Valentines Day, sweetie.