For three of the four years since my husband and I separated, I have been in an exclusive and loving relationship with another man. My new partner was divorced well before I met him — yet I still remain married to my old one.
Friends sometimes see fit to tell me that it’s time to ‘move on’. In many ways I already have. But I realise that this reluctance to legally sanction the end of what finished long ago has been two-fold.
A deep sadness about severing the gossamer threads of a relationship that lasted 23, mostly good, years with the father of my son, and a terror of being free to fully commit again.
It has become commonplace to talk about commitment phobia, a description usually applied by women to elusive men in their 30s whose ardour diminishes the moment the word ‘future’ pops into the conversation. But, increasingly, older women are also becoming wary of commitment, not just because they’re cynical or because they crave freedom, but due to past experience of things failing to work out long-term, as well as the widespread prevalence of divorce.
Put these things together and it’s little wonder that marriage — the ultimate, time-honoured symbol of commitment — is in decline. Dubbed ‘the silver separators’, growing numbers of 50 and 60-somethings are divorcing (in all other age groups divorce rates are declining). A generation of newly-single women are going out and dating with a vengeance, and the idea that they are desperate to settle down with the first man who rolls into their lives is a myth.
11,500 over-60s were granted divorce in 2009, according to latest figures
‘There was a time,’ says relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam, ‘when commitment was the only career path for a woman. Now many are looking to the future and saying they don’t want to be trapped.’ The issues surrounding commitment that young women in their 20s and 30s have to face are quite different, however, from the ones that tend to crop up later in life. ‘Do I want to have babies with this man?’ doesn’t come into it — although I have found myself asking whether I’d like to look after his grandchildren when the time comes.
Nor is the question of whether I’ll still love him when he’s old and grey exactly relevant. We’re both already grey and last month I turned 60. The one thing I never expected to be doing at this stage of my life was grappling with questions of commitment. I wish money didn’t come into it either, but it does. In the past I’d have been inclined to say that when it comes to love, money doesn’t matter, which was hopelessly naive.
Our finances underpin our relationships in so many ways. Fortunately, my husband and I have managed to split our assets without recourse to lawyers, but now that I have seen those assets halved, I’m not at all sure I want to share them with anyone else. As I question the depth of my commitment to this special new man, this is a harsh truth that must be faced.
When I die, I want my son to inherit the most tangible results of decades of hard work — I do not want my new partner (should he outlive me) to be the beneficiary at the expense of my son. I found this difficult to discuss with him — but I’m glad I did, because he, too, then expressed the wish for his daughters to eventually inherit rather than me. If I were financially dependent and didn’t own a home it would, of course, be a different matter. To ringfence your commitment to someone with financial caveats may seem a travesty of trust, but we live in an age of complex relationships and perhaps a degree of elasticity is essential if we’re not to shy away from one another altogether.
I know plenty of couples in their 50s, 60s and beyond who describe themselves as committed to one another, even though they live separately. When raising a family is no longer what binds you, commitment becomes an option rather than an imperative. ‘Weekends and maybe once during the week is more than enough for me,’ one friend told me. ‘He’d drive me nuts if we were together 24/7. Our separateness is what keeps us together.’
And then if you do decide to live together, but are both wedded to your own homes, there’s the potentially contentious issue of which home you choose. Given that my son has recently graduated and returned to the nest, whereas my partner’s two daughters moved away some time ago, it was obvious to both of us that my home should be the base camp. We agreed, after a trial period in which his flat remained empty, that he would rent it out in the knowledge that he could always go back if things didn’t work out between us. It’s the get-out clause that stops either of us from feeling trapped.
Susan Quilliam thinks there are five barriers to commitment for those who’ve been in previous long-term relationships, including the inability to sort out finances and practicalities. ‘Another may be absolute commitments to a previous family, job or lifestyle, none of which you want to give up,’ she says. ‘In addition, there may be feelings of disloyalty to your children about going into another full-blown relationship. And, most important, there’s the business of trust. If you were really hurt last time, you may feel too emotionally wounded to trust again. Or if you feel yourself responsible for having messed up last time, it may be that you don’t trust yourself.’
The oldest couple to get re-married were Californians Forrest Lunsway, 100, and Rose Pollard, 93, who wed last year
Being together apart wouldn’t suit either me or my lover. We both love the rhythm of intimate domesticity, of meals shared, of chatting at the kitchen table or curled up in front of the TV, of walking the dog together at weekends. And neither of us wants to wake up alone when there’s a warm and willing hugger just inches away. For Ruth Beesley, 49, who owns a hairdressing salon near Exeter, the very word commitment causes her to shudder. Her lover of three years would move in and marry her without hesitation. ‘Luckily for me, I’m still living with my husband!’ she laughs.
Ruth, a mother to two boys, now 19 and 22, decided to call a halt on her marriage four years ago at the same time as the bottom fell out of the housing market. ‘We couldn’t sell, and Bob, my husband, couldn’t afford to move out — we still had this huge mortgage — so he simply moved into the spare room. ‘At first it was pretty awful, especially when I started seeing Mark, and in the early throes of my new relationship I admit I longed to be with him full-time. But as time has gone by I realise that I just don’t want the responsibility of a full-time relationship.’
An arm’s length love affair such as Ruth’s with Mark is what Quilliam terms ‘a transition relationship’ — the soft-landing version that comes after a long-term relationship has broken down. It doesn’t mean Ruth will never want to commit again, only that her relationship with Mark may not be sufficiently compelling for her to countenance long-term commitment for now. Older men, in their 50s and beyond, are just as likely to be wary of commitment as older women. It only becomes a problem when one partner wants more than the other is willing to give. Shawna Phillips, a London physiotherapist, 55, is trying to come to terms with the fact that while she wants to set up home and a future with her lover of six years, he simply refuses to knuckle down to life with her on a full-time basis.
‘I suppose I should have seen the warning signs from the start,’ says Shawna, who has two grown-up daughters and two grandchildren and has been divorced for 15 years. ‘He’d just come out of an awful marriage with an unfaithful wife who took him to the cleaners financially. But at the time, despite his hurt and bitterness, I could only see a man who was clever and creative and turned me on. And given that I’d been celibate for five years, commitment was the last thing on my mind!’
Shawna fell for Chris, a freelance film cameraman, in a big way. ‘He never made plans, never knew when he might be called away on a job, and spent lots of weekends in Yorkshire with his kids. I had all the time in the world for him, but he had very little for me.’ Six years on, things have got worse. ‘His dad died last year and Chris has inherited the family farm in Yorkshire. I’d move to Yorkshire to be with him, but every time I mention it I see a shadow cross his face, and then he doesn’t call for a week or more. I’m an idiot, I know, but where am I going to meet anyone else now? Twice I’ve broken up with him, only to go running back.’
A situation like this is hard to unpick. A man like Chris who once freely trotted the globe and is weighed down by financial and familial responsibility, may feel he is already over-committed. Susan Quilliam poses another possibility. ‘The woman in this kind of scenario may not be as self-sacrificing as she thinks. Often we hang in on an uncommitted relationship because it serves us well. It may protect us from investing and then potentially being hurt. It may be that pairing with an unable-to-commit partner means we can sidestep real intimacy but blame him for the situation.’
When I consider my own situation, I am reminded how we share so much, this lovely man and I. He makes me cry with laughter and has an easy, affectionate relationship with my son. My friends think he’s good company, and good for me. Romance, desire, companionship — it’s all there. Are there things about him that I wish were different? A few, but I know that to try to change him would be folly. I have friends who would refuse to compromise, and I think how much they are missing by not being open to someone who doesn’t match up to their Mr Perfect list of required qualities. And yet at the back of mind there’s always the ‘what if?’ The ‘what if this relationship fails to work out, too?’
Quite what commitment and cancer have to do with one another might not be immediately clear. But sometimes it takes a brush with mortality to realise who really matters in your life. My moment of enlightenment came during one sleepless night, around 3am, while worrying about the forthcoming result of a biopsy to determine whether a growth in my spleen was cancerous. (It wasn’t.) I turned to look at the man sleeping quietly next to me and two thoughts came to mind.
A man of his age who doesn’t snore is quite a catch. I also understood, at that moment, that if my health should turn out for the worse, that he would be there every step of the journey. And that if he were to become ill, I would want to do the same for him. Commitment to another person is always a leap of faith, regardless of your age. I felt certain that I didn’t have to marry this man to throw in my lot with him — but that I did have to get a divorce from my husband so that at least the path was clear. Yesterday the decree nisi plopped through my letterbox.
Source: Mail Online