Many of the women I work with, in my workshops and one-to-one sessions, are unhappy regarding relationships. Perhaps their partnership lacks vitality, or they are single and despairing of ever being happily paired with a compassionate other. I can empathise with both these states which, amazingly, I can also now look back upon through the eyes of a happily-married older woman. I have been asked many times to share the “secrets” of my belated success, so here goes:
I didn’t marry until I was 52 years old. Before that I had three long-term relationships, two of which resulted in three children as beloved as any ever born in wedlock. Following an upbringing that engendered a fear of commitment, a reluctance to love with all my heart, and a long severance from anything that hinted at convention or religion, I unknowingly chose men with commitment issues similar to mine, and never tied the knot.
Before I was (very gently) bowled over by my husband I had resigned myself to a single life. I couldn’t do relationships, I thought. I had never felt I “needed” a partner. I enjoyed my own company, and that of the daughter who remained at home (then aged 14).
I hadn’t lived with another adult for 13 years and to do so now would be too great a sacrifice. Why would I even consider it?
So when a beloved friend died after a long illness, and her husband and I gravitated towards each other because our budding friendship made us feel closer to her, it didn’t enter my imagination that this connection might lead to marriage within three years, and the happy sharing of a home for many more.
Sometimes I still cannot believe I’m happily married. It is a miracle I never thought possible for me. Living with someone after so long wasn’t without initial challenges, not least for Alan. Asking an older man to share a home with a peri-menopausal woman and an adolescent girl is akin to the dragon-slaying tests of folklore. But we all survived and now the menopause is (blissfully) over and my last daughter has (sadly and wonderfully) flown the nest.
Once I’d decided, to my own amazement, to commit to this relationship, I worked hard at it, inspired by words attributed to one of my heroes, CG Jung: Falling in love is not sustainable; learning to love is.
I became my own tutor, undertaking a course I entitled, for myself alone, Learning to Love. I observed my own reactions as they followed familiar patterns that had previously not served me, and deliberately took a different route each time.
I was courageously honest with myself, and also with Alan, although I didn’t trouble him with all the codependent thoughts and feelings that bubbled up with sulphurous potency. Instead I kept a journal, exploring my emotional journey in great detail. I talked to trusted friends. I practiced self-compassion, tenderly acknowledging the childhood pain that had resulted in previous defensiveness and sabotage, but not letting it get the better of me this time. I worked with sub-personalities, the different parts of my psyche that battled in a constant conflict of desires, and I blessed my training as a transpersonal therapist, as I supported the most challenging client of all times – myself!
Gradually, I found that I was changing. Responding instead of reacting, surrendering to the extraordinarily simple process of loving and being loved by someone who wasn’t triggered by the complex drama of emotions I was used to – and neither was I!
Eight years on, I love living with Alan. I love the companionship and ease with which we co-exist, the balance of autonomy and counter-dependence. I love the way we love each other, without drama or demands, with reverence and tenderness and joy. Even at home we spend a lot of time apart. Alan likes to watch TV in the evenings and I prefer to read or write. We might compromise on a movie night or an occasional outing to the theatre if there’s something we both want to see. But we each spend lots of time in our own space, and that’s OK with both of us.
We are very different in some of our opinions, beliefs and interests, even some values. When I was younger this would have troubled me, but now I realise it makes for a rich pairing. We learn from each other, we listen to the other’s perspective, mostly without defensiveness. Sometimes one or both of us will change our outlook, or else we agree to disagree. I am adventurous. Alan is grounded. We complement each other, and both benefit from the merger.
Alan is retired, and I mostly work from home, so we are often around each other in the day-time. I like to know he’s there, to wander down occasionally from my work-room for a chat, a cuddle, a snatched coffee or lunch together. He helps with some of my projects, and happily leaves me to the rest. He’s self-sufficient, and enjoys his solitude as I enjoy mine. He walks each morning. He plays lawn bowls, with an enthusiasm lost on me, unmotivated as I am by any sport, and is a bowls coach, much in demand. He’s fascinated by wildlife, he reads, he’s writing two ongoing children’s fantasies, one entirely in verse. And also he loves to be with me.
When Alan proposed, I was overjoyed. But I was also anxious about what I might be giving up. I said “but what if I want to go to South America for six months on my own?” His reply was perfect: “Then you’ll go to South America, I’ll come and visit you part-way through. And I’ll be waiting when you get home”.
Since then I have never felt inclined to go away alone for six months; it’s enough to know I could! I have travelled a few times for up to one month, within Europe, to Japan, Botswana, Scandinavia and South Africa, for working adventures. (I still haven’t made it to South America but I’m open to invitations!)
At first I did my traveling alone, but Alan accompanied me on my third trip to Soweto, then my fourth. He taught Pentanque to diverse groups in the townships, and supported me on train-the-trainer courses, and workshops inspiring and uniting youth beyond their perceived limitations. Repeatedly teaching the wonderful Virtues Project together, endorsed as it is by the United Nations for its powerful effect on family relationships, was a gift! We are planning another South African trip in November. It feels more natural to take Alan with me than to go alone. Progress indeed!
But this week I am in London, staying in a cosy Air BnB room, working with a group of beautiful, diverse women and taking time out at the end to spend with each of my daughters.
I love my husband very much. I also love time alone like this. It’s like rediscovering my most comfortable garment at the bottom of the wardrobe after years of not even realizing it was missing; like tasting again the most delicious dish I’ve ever eaten, like returning, after the longest time, to my first, beloved home.
I need solitude like I need water. If I go too long without it I begin to dehydrate. I can’t believe my good fortune in having found a partner who respects this about me, and values his own almost as much.
When I return to Alan in a week’s time that will also be like going home (well, technically it will be, but I don’t just mean the bricks and mortar.) Our marriage is a chemical formula that works to maximum effect in continuous animation. We seem to have got the balance right. Long may this last!
Whenever I am away from Alan, part of the joy I feel in my solitude comes from the knowledge that there is love, so much love, his love, surrounding me from afar, but never really far away. I feel it blessing me in my temporary retreat, waiting to welcome me home when I’m done (for now) with my sole (and soul) adventure.
We are touched by the frequency with which strangers (a waitress in a restaurant, an elderly man who knew my mother) comment on how happy we appear together. Often when we say we married late in life, they retort, wryly or wistfully, “there’s hope for me yet then!”
There is always hope. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone! They ask our secret, and I can only reply that we respect each other’s freedom. We care for each other with compassion and acceptance. We recognize the need for space within our union. We trust each other and ourselves, and we are not complacent. We work at keeping the exquisite balance between togetherness and solitude. We communicate; we check in regularly to ensure the other is OK. And we are very, very blessed!
Each year we renew our vows, acknowledging that we still choose to be together. We never forget that we are here because we want to be, not out of habit, or fear of the alternative, not through a sense of possession, but because our love is as precious as our solitude, and the balance of both creates something so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course our partnership is very different from others that may have spanned decades, spawned children and grandchildren. But then no two relationships can be the same. Each one will require a different balance of ingredients. If these include basic virtues such as respect, compassion, honesty, courage, tolerance, acceptance, vigilance and love, it is likely to be rich indeed.