TOPIX - A Series: Exile In Normalville.

TOPIX - A Series: Exile In Normalville.

. 31 min read

TOPIX: Exile in Normalville.

Let’s Admit There’s No “Normal” to Relationships in Midlife & Start Talking About What We’re Really Doing

By Dish Stanley

Midlife has always been that point when we begin to realize that life is getting short. Too short to worry about what other people think. A turning point where people begin to craft the kind of friendships and romantic relationships that actually work for them, inside the lines (or out). TOPIX is our way of getting opinionated, courageous conversations started on what living and loving really looks like in midlife now.

There is a prevailing narrative around midlife that maintains that being in a couple — ideally a long-standing married union unblemished by infidelity or sexlessness — is not only widespread but also the natural and best way of living. In the “couple narrative,” each person’s partner is their everything (or nearly so): best friend, soulmate, lover, roommate, business partner, work-out partner, chess partner, pickle partner, you-name-it playmate. In a secondary constellation around them are coupled-up friends to throw dinner parties and go on vacation with, as well as each partner’s same-sex friendships.

But we’ve gone through seismic shifts in society over the last decade+. Divorce, same-sex marriage, an increase in the number of working women, artificial insemination, and single parenting have become commonplace. Against that backdrop, in midlife, we become empty nesters, divorced, and widowed. We change jobs or retire early, lose an increasing number of friends and family to death, move to sunnier places, grow apart. These evolutions, tragedies, and disruptions, along with just everyday ordinary life played out over time, add up to knowing ourselves more deeply. We become clearer about who we are, what we need, what we like and don’t like — and more confident acting on it in.

If we take a closer look, we see that midlife relationships are a messier picture than we like to acknowledge. Among adults 40 to 54, there has been a significant increase in the number who are unpartnered (neither married nor living with a partner) — 38% in 2019, up sharply from 29% in 1990. And those who are married in midlife have a more complicated story than we admit: the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report shows that 43% of people who are 55 to 64 have gone through a divorce. Many remarry, but many marriages after 55 are not first marriages - many who are married are actually remarried, in other words. Seemingly slight cracks in the prevailing narrative, but the numbers are not minimal and the trend is pronounced.

Where we’re at, I believe, is a turning point. Where more of us are constructing more “curated” relationships in midlife — relationship histories, and even structures, that divert from the ideal narrative. We are living in far more original and varied relationships than are acknowledged by our friends and family, let alone society at large. We're still only whispering about them to our most intimate friends (if even that). But we'd all be better off if we found a way to speak up.

TOPIX is going to share those stories.

We all know of or have friends who are doing the Jackie O-Maurice Tempelsman thing - living in committed, long-term romantic and life partnerships with no intention of getting married to each other. In their case, Tempelsman and his wife of 30+ years never divorced; he separated from Lily Bucholz in 1984 and moved into Jackie’s Fifth Avenue building in 1988, 13 years after Jackie was widowed from Aristotle Onassis. Jackie and Maurice's relationship was not a secret, though there was remarkably little coverage of it at the time, particularly given the press’s love affair with Jackie.

Even among those who are married and appear to all the world to meet society’s familiar expectations, the stories are richer and more nuanced than they seem.

Anecdotally, in my own small world I’ve encountered the following:

A friend who has been married 20 years and hasn’t had any kind of sexual intimacy with her spouse in over a decade. They’ve never talked about it. She assumes that he, like she, doesn’t want it any more (from anyone) and is going without.

Another friend, same set of facts. Except he has an old college friend (also married) who lives on the other side of the world with whom he started having regular, scheduled phone sex about five years into his sexual drought with his wife.

Another friend, same set of facts. Except they agreed to what I’ll call a “Not Divorced But Not Really Married Either” lifestyle. What does that entail? Ninety percent of the time they lead entirely separate lives. She stays in the city, he stays in the country. He does golf trips with his buddies; she goes shopping in Milan with her girlfriends. They have agreed that they can discreetly get involved in “curtailed” romantic relationships with others - for a trip, a season, an event - but the married couple comes together under one roof with their children for extended family vacations twice a year, as well as all the holidays, and presents a “married” front.

Another friend, same set of facts. Except she discovered five years into their 20-year marriage and after two children that her husband had been having a series of very IRL extramarital affairs with much younger women. He has lived a double life for 15 years while she has lived her own variation of that - keeping up the front (painfully, and for strategic reasons) of a solid partnership to her children, parents and friends.

A woman seated next to me on a long flight shared this less dramatic, but no less fascinating variation on her enduring marriage: very early in their tenure as empty nesters her husband got seriously ill and decamped to their son’s former bedroom. They had been in marital therapy and on a hard, committed course toward divorce, which got stalled while he recuperated. Lo and behold, they discovered that sleeping and living on opposite ends of their large home was the miracle their relationship needed. It offered independence and space that ultimately lead to “invitations” and “intimate dates” in each other’s “quarters.” It somehow worked against taking each other for granted and toward more effort and appreciation.

They have lived that way now, happily, for 20 years. She offers the “separate bedroom solution” up to all her friends as an antidote for a failing marriage that is much less complicated and painful than open marriages, extramarital affairs or divorce.

And then there are the two women in their 60’s I met last winter. They were longtime neighbors in Connecticut - one divorced, one widowed. Neither of them has any interest in dating or remarrying. They are best friends who bought houses next to each other in Florida and have executed contractual documents giving each other similar authority and legal rights to what a spouse might have by law - health care proxy, banking, and other legal proxies and rights, limited inheritance, etc. It’s “like a platonic same-sex marriage,” one of them told me. It “might seem weird or ruffle family feathers,” so they haven’t shared it with anyone, but it feels “much safer than being alone, and certainly calmer than dating.”

Every one of these arrangements looks conventional from the outside. In many cases, few friends or family are truly or totally clued in.

Certainly, it is nobody’s business but their own; I would not argue otherwise. Yet the sum total of so many unconventional arrangements remaining secret is inarguably harmful to us all. It serves to strengthen the dominant “couple narrative” that on its face leaves an increasing number of those who are divorced, widowed or never married left out and feeling socially ostracized. Of course, it also leaves the far greater number of couples who appear to meet the “couple narrative” but who actually engage in rich and complicated ways to partner up feeling hidden on some level. Perhaps even embarrassed or shameful.

At its worst, a pervasive adherence to a “couple narrative” has the stifling effect of encouraging people to stay in or enter into unhealthy or unhappy (sometimes even abusive) arrangements in order to feel socially accepted. (“I just don’t want to be alone — I’ll be invisible,” is what one friend in a verbally abusive marriage to an alcoholic admitted to me recently.)

But there is an insidious, creeping tragedy to the lack of honest conversation on midlife relationships that causes more widespread, corrosive damage, I’d argue. When nobody is talking openly about anything other than the prevailing, socially acceptable “couple narrative” then all of us are missing out on a cross-pollination of problem-solving ideas on how to live this one, short life we each get. We’re held up. We could be learning so much more — more approaches, more tactics, more tolerance. Not to mention the obvious by-product that it would undoubtedly give some of us more courage to take healthy, bold steps.

Those of us who are perfectly content with our own more traditionally structured relationships may be curious, even if some of these realities seemingly don't apply to our own lives, if for no other reason than to learn how life looks for a widowed friend, unhappily married sibling or happily solo neighbor. Maybe we can be more understanding, more inclusive, more supportive. By staying silent about these less conventional arrangements, we're all living lives with less imagination, less understanding, less courage and on some level, ultimately less love.

The truth, of course, is that there is no normal for marriage, for love or for sex. No normal for friendships in midlife either, come to think of it.

Let’s open up, share the real stories about our midlife relationships. Even if all we were to learn is that we are not alone in our glorious messiness, that would be enough. That would make some of us feel much less isolated, more validated. But the opportunity is so much greater. It as great as our imagination and willingness to share. The way I look at it, one thing we’ve earned in midlife as we’ve accumulated these years and experiences is the right to craft the intimate relationships that keep us feeling secure, excited, joyful and fulfilled.

Let’s start talking about it.

Stay tuned to this continuing series. Got a TOPIX? Write to me! Dish@PrimeCrush.com.


TOPIX: I Don't Want To Be The Group Planner Anymore.

“At this stage, if I have to make the plans, I don’t want to go.”

There was a time when my friends referred to me as “Julie McCoy,” the adorable Cruise Director who had the Love Boat’s guests’ days and nights planned out for the perfect holiday getaway. While I have never actually gone on a cruise, this tendency to take charge and make things happen for my friend group started as early as childhood. I suppose I have that natural tendency to try and bring people together to have a good time. This also included me carefully introducing new friends into our group, with different degrees of success, as well as getting us on the list of exclusive events, and sometimes proposing and organizing the occasional weekend getaway.

You might be saying to yourself: “So you made a few restaurant reservations? So what?” To this I would say to you, “You were obviously never the designated ‘Cruise Director’ of your group.” You weren’t the one trying to wrangle schedules and research the perfect acoustics/price point/table for seven. You, apparently, were one of the ones who was happy to go along for the ride.

Truth be told, for a long time, I was content in this role. I may have even sort of liked this role. I’ve moved several times and have found myself with varying friend groups, always landing the same friend-organizing job. As we all know, friendships mirror family dynamics—we all play our part. But some time in my mid-40s I found myself negotiating nights out with my friends via text. One friend clearly was taking time off from us—which, of course is fine—and I scrolled up through our texts and saw some words I didn’t like. It was me, accommodating, trying to make things work. There it was in black and white (literally): “When are you free to meet? What time is good for you? Yes, I know what it’s like being busy! Sounds like you have a lot going on…” It was all very, very one-sided. It made me both sad and angry. This on the heels of a weekend getaway I’d planned for us, where me and two other friends had flown to a nearby beach town for a sleepless 48 hours (or so). We did have a good time, but one of us was dragging and moody. I over-analyzed this, trying to figure out what the issue was, until I realized…she was always dragging and moody. When I wasn’t the motor—or the one cheering her on or up—she reverted back to “the one with the issues.” I don’t mean occasionally, I mean all time.

These dynamics—and this role I was playing—wasn’t working for me anymore.

Before I looked at my friends, I had to take a hard look at myself. I have always loved having a group of friends to hang out with, ever since I was a child. Three or more was the perfect number for me. Three, as we all know, is one of the toughest dynamics to pull off—one friend seems to always be on the outside. However, I was always up for that challenge, making sure there was always full friendship equality and enough happiness to go around.

By midlife, this was just too damn exhausting. Moreover, if we’re going to be honest, we all have issues at this stage: money, spouses, family, health. In order for true friendships to work, we all have to respect where we are at the moment.

For many of us in midlife, where we are at this moment—if we’re lucky—is contentment. That’s why, in my opinion, it’s so tough to make friends at this stage. We are either content or preoccupied with trying to be, and we don’t have time to build the history and trust to make new friends old friends (which is an impossibility, I know). Our lives are both settled and unsettling all at the same time, with very serious issues and changes. We are in a constant state of navigating difficult changes and trying to get back to level ground.

In 2020, like many of us, my job went remote and I moved to a new town, purely because I could. I formed a new friend group during the lockdown. Two women and I formed a powerful bond. Before I knew it, I was organizing brunches and lunches, sifting through everyone’s schedules, researching menus that worked for the three of us.

Then, I just stopped. And so did the socializing. It’s not a commentary on them, they are still wonderful. I just decided…I’m retired from my job as the friend planner. If they want me, they know where to find me. And I’m content with that.


TOPIX: Embracing Hetero Monogamy at 57. By “Kevin Cox”

For the longest time I have had a theory about this phenomenon, which, I am sure, many of you out there will dispute, but I stand by it. It’s my love/lust theory.”

My entire life I ran from monogamy.

One way or another I did not embrace any of the theoretically monogamous relationships I found myself in. If I wasn’t cheating, I was obsessing about cheating, or about upgrading, getting out of the relationship I had currently found myself in, and finding someone else.

But just recently I have learned the joys of embracing monogamy. And I think my story may serve as valuable insight to the many men — and perhaps women — who have found themselves in a similar predicament.

But we need to go back before we go forward. I married late in life. I was 37. Part of that, no doubt, was my issue. I could not commit to a partner. But pushing 40 I was ready to — more subconsciously than consciously — settle down and start a family. So, I settled on a partner in order to settle down. I did not marry the love of my life, but rather, married the woman I happened to be in love with at the time. Not surprisingly, it was not a good fit. But I soon had children, finally, and I was happy with most aspects of my life (my job, my kids, my house) just not my partner.

Seven years into that marriage I had an affair. I fell deeply in love with another woman. That soon led to divorce, but, like a lot of affairs of this type, that relationship was not a great long-term fit either.

Now single and in my 40s, I found the freedom and sexual renaissance I had been seeking since I was 13. I had finally come into my own as a sexual partner, tons of women found me attractive, online dating had exploded onto the scene, I traveled often for work, and I could not become emotionally attached to any one woman even if I wanted to.

Let’s go back in time again. I was young for my class when I went to boarding school as a freshman, and my formerly all-boys school was in its first year of co-education. We had 50 boys and just seven girls in our class. In my mind, with so few girls to pursue, and nowhere else to turn, I spent my high school years over-aggressively chasing the opposite sex and feeling rejected when that didn’t work. I felt that no one wanted me. So when I found myself to be something of a hot ticket in my 40s, the pull was irresistible. I was the guy who could not say no.

For the longest time I have had a theory about this phenomenon, which, I am sure, many of you out there will dispute, but I stand by it. It’s my love/lust theory. Now, if we take it as a given that every human wants to, and probably needs to, feel loved, but also that every human wants to, and perhaps needs to, feel lusted after, my theory goes like this:

Most women get plenty of lust early in their lives. From the moment their breasts and other curves come in, they become a sex object to us naughty, young boys. We make no secret that we want them and want to play with their bodies. (Now, having daughters myself, I can understand the complications and dangers of this for young girls, but for a moment let’s try to ignore that and focus on the feeling of having the power and thrill of being wanted. Acknowledging that if only subconsciously, learning to manage that even, over time.) For the most part, this same experience of being wanted by the opposite sex is not true for young boys. Young girls are not objectifying them and telling them how much they want to play with their genitals. As they approach adulthood, women look for a partner primarily who loves them - they of course assume they are still lusted for. Not so for men. Even — perhaps especially — when we find a woman who loves us, we do not think she lusts for us, that she wants us for our body.

This is one reason, I believe, more men tend to cheat, even when they are in what would seem like an otherwise happy relationship.

We men need to feel wanted for our body, and our body alone.

As I like to put it, when the woman we love goes down on us, we think it’s because she loves us. But the stranger, the woman who does not love us, when she goes down on us we feel lusted for, plain and simple. We can imagine she wants us just for our body.

As I have grown older, I have amended my theory. I have seen more of a balancing out, as we men, or perhaps just I, start realizing that we can be objects of lust, and older women, perhaps more insecure about their looks, need to be reminded just how lusted after they can be. Don’t hate me. It’s just a working theory, up for continual evolution. Consider it an effort to explain in shorthand what’s floating around my brain. (I am not justifying or defending, I am attempting to explain impulses and drives, to share a perspective, to engage in — or perhaps start — a conversation that may lead to greater understanding.)

Analyze it any way you want, the bottom line is if a woman wanted me - no matter who - I had to act on it. Nothing else mattered.

This went on for about 10 years. But then I finally fell for someone. It happened rather quickly and unexpectedly, over a few meetings and in just a matter of weeks. I found myself in love for the first time in a long time. And my new partner and I were a great fit. We were able to successfully merge our complex midlife lives, no small feat these days.

The only problem was, even though I should have been in a committed, monogamous relationship — and my partner thought we were — I was not. I certainly didn’t behave that way. My habits were too ingrained. After years of being single I had accumulated a great number of “friends with benefits” throughout the country, and, even though I was no longer free, I maintained my arrangements with many of them.

Worse, I was addicted to Tinder, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I was in control of it more than it was in control of me. But the pull of Tinder is strong. Perhaps the need it satisfies, to find someone out there — out of nowhere — who is interested in you, and maybe wants you, is irresistible to many of us.

Even as my relationship progressed and became more serious, I would go on Tinder and hook up with women. I would tell them I was seeing someone else and if that was a problem for them to say so and we would go our separate ways. But the Tinder world is vast, and I found plenty of women, who, for whatever reason, were okay with sleeping with me on my terms. It served my need to be wanted perfectly.

Another reason I cheated was because I had been telling myself a twisted narrative. I rationalized that things were working for all the parties involved. No one was getting hurt. My partner did not know what I was up to, and was no worse off for it. In fact, as I told myself, she was probably better off because I was more alive, happy and sexual than ever before. You see, every sexual relationship I had experienced over my entire life had become stale and boring at some point, usually pretty early on. But not this one. We were still having great sex a year or two into our relationship. This was new for me. And I attributed it to my cheating.

Now understand, I never cheated when I was going to see her that day. I never was not interested in sex when I was with her because I had been satisfied by someone else. The system was working, at least in my mind.

Until it wasn’t.

Eventually, she caught on. She confronted me. We had it out many times. I came clean about everything I had done, and why. After going through all the colors and emotions of the situation, it ended up liberating us both to some degree when it came to our own sex life.

Fortunately, she did not leave me. She forgave me enough to stay with me and find a way to make it work.

We even tried to open up our relationship for a while, but found that did not work. There was too much jealousy and too many wounded feelings from my past transgressions.

It was time to do what I should have done from the start: be exclusive and faithful to the woman I loved and wanted to be a partner to.

But could I do it?

I had come up with an analogy for giving up my extracurricular activities. I likened it to giving up ice cream. Throughout my adult life I had enjoyed ice cream as a dessert pretty much every night. But as I got older and it became harder for me to shed extra pounds, I finally had to go cold turkey. “No more ice cream,” I told myself. But could I break the habit? Much to my own surprise, I could.

I realized that as adults sometimes have to make tough choices. We have to give up things we like that are not good for us. And sometimes we realize quickly that the sacrifice is worth it.

And so it has been with my relationship.

I have found that I did not need the things I thought I needed. My sexual life could remain alive and enjoyable without outside stimulation.

There is another angle to this, the intimacy angle.When I had the affair, the one that ended my marriage, I suffered the greatest broken heart of my life. It certainly played its part in my not being able to fall in love again, but it also remained with me after I did. I am sure it’s part of why I continued to struggle with monogamy even after falling in love again. It was a way of protecting myself, not letting anyone get too close.

But when I finally was able to be faithful to my current love, I found something that surprised me. Monogamy — full commitment — opened my heart up more. My partner and I were able to find a deeper connection than we had. This, unsurprisingly, improved every level of our relationship.

Who knows what will happen next. All of it is an ongoing process. I have remained faithful, and it has not been that difficult to do so. But I must stay on guard against my other old habits, like closing off my heart or taking my partner for granted. I want to do this now with a level of commitment I have never felt before.

Things are going great, and I expect it to continue. Or, putting it more simply, I am in by far the best, healthiest, most satisfying, rich and rewarding relationship I have ever been in and I am committed to its success.


TOPIX: “I No Longer Feel The Need To ‘Forgive’ My Parents”

"The dynamics that make up a family are so complex and life-long—and personal. Which is exactly why it’s difficult for anyone to give you advice on your family and what you “should” do, how you “should” treat them, in spite of how they treated—and possibly still treat—you."

I am a woman in midlife who grew up watching “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch”. Even then, I knew these were unrealistic depictions of the American family, but also even then, I had some inclination that the core truth about families was that, at the end of the day (or episode) they knew they were a unit.

As I got older, it became more and more apparent that my family was the opposite. It’s true that many families back then didn’t have the tools to learn to do better. There was a real day-by-day mentality in our house—if we made it through the day without incident, freak out or some serious emotional scarring, it was good enough, and we moved on. Kids can’t be expected to repair generational dysfunction, though sometimes there’s this miraculous blossom of love and closeness that forms within a family in spite of all the hurt. A close friend’s parents were openly abusive, but she and her siblings were the closest I’d ever seen, even compared to a sappy television sitcom. It’s not a unique story and it takes many various forms, all of which defy analyzing. It is what it is. Sometimes, what it is, is a strong outcome of love and bonding in spite of the roughest of circumstances.

But that didn’t happen for me.

The dynamics that make up a family are so complex and life-long—and personal. Which is exactly why it’s difficult for anyone to give you advice on your family and what you “should” do, how you “should” treat them, in spite of how they treated—and possibly still treat—you.

This whole issue gets more complicated as we approach midlife because our parents and family members begin to grow so much older and dependent on us. And yes, they are closer to the end of their lives. It’s expected that we will all become caretakers. As best as I can, I have become that, too. However, after literal decades of trying to repair the damage my family has caused, trying to bring us closer, trying to overlook appalling and abusive behavior, I’ve finally decided that it’s not important for me to work on this anymore, there’s simply nothing else to repair. I know now how stereotypical it sounds for that one “child” to go to therapy because no one else is going—and then failing miserably at repairing everyone else.

I’ve read all the books and I’ve approached this from every angle. I know that my parents are human and they, perhaps, “did their best”. Their best was toxic and damaging. After a lifetime of tactics and communication, their behavior hasn’t changed. It created gigantic cracks that rippled amongst all of my family members. I cannot be a fixer anymore. This is what we have now.

It’s taken me an entire lifetime to realize that I do not need to forgive my parents. In fact, I don’t forgive them. Not at all. I actually don’t need to feel anything for them that doesn’t feel right to me. This might seem so obvious to some of you reading this right now, but it took me a lifetime to come to this place. While I won’t desert them at their time of need—and I don’t “hate” them by any stretch—it’s important for me to create a healthy, necessary separation for the remaining decades of my own life.

Removing the pressure to forgive my parents has allowed me to move forward to create the family–no matter how unconventional–I always wanted. We are taught that forgiveness is the road to progress, but that’s simply not the case for all of us. As I said, family dynamics are not “one size fits all”. Not even the most seasoned experts know you fully or what you've been through. Sometimes you need to do what’s best for you.

Stay tuned to this continuing series. Got a TOPIX? Write to me! Dish@PrimeCrush.com


TOPIX: My Marital Arrangement

By “Mike Johnson”

"My wife recently admitted that she has lost interest in having sex be a part of her life (not just our marriage) ... [B]y staying married to me in this arrangement she doesn’t have to have sex with anyone. Presumably if we divorced and she wanted to be partnered she’d have to confront the issue of possibly having sex with someone else. For me, I’d prefer to have a sex life with my wife. I hate that if my secret life is ever discovered I look like the one betraying my wife."

My wife of almost 40 years stopped having sex with me over 20 years ago. She had left her career to be the primary caretaker of our three daughters, while also taking on significant volunteer work. At the time I was traveling the globe relentlessly for work.

We went to marital therapy. I wanted to stay married and keep our family together, and at the same time, I needed what I’ll refer to as a fully intimate, loving relationship. In other words, sex. With her. Preferably with her. That’s what I wanted. She wanted to stay married and keep our family together, and did not need, affirmatively did not want, sex to be part of it. She said we had “lost each other” in some irreconcilable way that was integral to her wanting sex with me. That wouldn’t change even if I made changes to be a better husband to her, she said. She wanted to stay married to me, just without the sex.

I asked, but never got a response to, the question of whether, in her conception of our marriage, she thought I should just be okay with an entirely sexless life (as it relates to other human beings). I am using sex as a shorthand for intimacy here, but I think we can all acknowledge at this point that sex is the one critical thing that many men need to feel loved. Like if you talk about the “five love languages,” sex is a man’s number one love language. Or at least me and every man I personally know. But sure, I don’t know every man alive.

My wife and I never reached an agreement on the key irreconcilable point. Sex. But having hit a mutually acknowledged wall, if not an understanding on how to scale it, we stopped therapy. I’m Italian and she is Jewish and our nuclear family has always been highly intertwined with our respective families of origin, not to mention with the families of our kids’ friends. So the marriage continued. I felt unloved, ignored, rejected, displaced, ugly, unhappy. Deflated. Eventually I had an affair, fell in love and left my wife. She was furious. And shocked, no less.

The separation was brutal for me. My daughters, teens at the time, aligned with my wife and would not speak to me. Refused any contact. Talk about shock. I did not see that coming - losing my daughters. I believed I had close direct one-on-one relationships with each of them. I went to nearly every game, performance and parent-teacher conference — I arranged travel around that. We hosted them and their friends overnight at our weekend place; I played games with them, was the primary chef, drove them anywhere and everywhere. But then again, of course they didn’t (still don’t) have the full picture, and just wanted their family to stay together. On top of that, their mother was upset and she was their primary caretaker so I suppose I was a fool to be so surprised.

To be clear, it wasn’t just my immediate family that I lost. All the families that we are friends with, my kids’ friends and their parents. My wife’s extended family. Last Thanksgiving we hosted 27 people who were family and friends. I lost those types of experiences as well.

At any rate, I grew up in a tight-knit devoted family. The experience of being estranged from daughters though was brutal for me. I went over to my parents house one night for dinner and crashed there. I didn’t get out of bed for a week. For months I went between bursts of getting the bare minimum done at work, and days in bed.

After eight months I went back to my wife. My girlfriend was long gone at that point. My wife and I did not have any real conversation beyond her asking me if I was just showing up to get something from the closet or had decided to come back. I responded by going to my study, shutting the door, logging into my computer, working and then sleeping on the couch. My girls were thrilled that I was back and our life as a family resumed.

That pattern — of me working and then falling asleep alone on the couch — has continued ever since. But we also fell into a comfortable, calm and effective, if not loving, everyday partnership. We don’t fight, we just get on. After I went back, because I was cast as the villain, I have bent over backwards to get along.

About a decade into that, which is about a decade ago, I began to enter into what became a series of exclusive caring, sexual relationships. Exclusive in the sense that I was involved with one woman at a time, with whom I was from the outset entirely transparent about my marital situation. I was going to remain married to my wife and my availability, as well as the scope of our activities together, would be restricted by that, I always explained. The women have been, for various reasons, at stages of their lives where they were okay with that. One was separated but not divorced and eager to keep things discreet. Another was planning to move across the country once her son graduated high school and didn’t want somebody who might mess that up. Another was not wired for commitment. All of them believed that some real intimacy in the context of an ongoing, caring (if not long-term) relationship was better than their other options, like completely going without. In each case, given the limitations, emotions were kept in check. Goodbyes were warm and not without sadness, but also not conflict-filled or dramatic.

My wife caught on but admitted she preferred this arrangement to divorce (or, I should reiterate, physical intimacy at this stage in her life) as long as I am discreet and my relationships are contained. As in, they don’t interfere with my family, which has a geographic and time component to it. I am rarely not around my family. Under my arrangement(s), things get scheduled after/around my wife. She likes to travel with her girlfriends. If she schedules something, I will then schedule something. I’d say I’m seeing whoever I might be dating once a month for 2-3 days. Of course, I go long periods without a girlfriend. My family spends the whole summer together at our weekend house (my daughters have their friends out, there is plenty of room for everyone to work remotely) so I don’t see anyone I am dating over the summer, for instance.

It is not perfect for any of us. It might not look like it but it is much better for my wife than anyone else involved, either me or the few girlfriends I’ve had. My wife recently admitted that she has lost interest in having sex be a part of her life (not just our marriage, but with anyone). Now I realize that by staying married to me in this arrangement my wife doesn’t have to have sex with anyone. Presumably if we divorced and she wanted to be partnered she’d have to confront the issue of possibly having sex with someone else. For me, I’d prefer to have a sex life with my wife. I hate that if my secret life is ever discovered I look like the one betraying my wife. I don’t think that’s fair because it is a form of betrayal to give up on taking care of your partner’s most intimate needs. “To have and to hold,” is literally the promise. And as far as the women I’ve been involved with, it has worked for each of them for a while but they are clear that they are not my priority, my family is, and ultimately the relationships aren’t sturdy.

I am certainly not advocating this for anyone else. I am not even defending it. I am explaining how I get by. I understand this series to be a way to be honest about how we are actually dealing with the balance of responsibilities, needs and realities we have at this stage. This is how I’m dealing. For what it’s worth, I feel like I’m choosing love. My family’s love. Being in the fold of that loving structure, more precisely. It is like the “too-short a sheet” analogy Dish made in a recent Crush Letter. {TheCrush Letter No 99.} In life, you are given a sheet that’s too short. You have to choose what stays warm. My choice is to be wrapped in the blanket of warmth I get from the friends and family who are part of my family’s structure. But my arms are shivering without someone to hold. That’s life.

Stay tuned to this continuing series. Got a TOPIX? Write to me! Dish@PrimeCrush.com


TOPIX: “My Long-Term Boyfriend and I Don’t Want to Get Married!”

“More than all of this, as I’ve grown older, I don’t believe that love is enough for a successful marriage—specifically, not for me.”

I am a divorced Gen-Xer who loves my boyfriend of nearly two decades. When I was really young, I remember listening to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell talk about how they chose each other every day, and how not being married was the best choice for them. My mother told me they were full of crap, that one of them likely didn’t want to do it, that all women want to get married. I’m sure she used the old “why-buy-the-cow-when-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free” adage. (She was a huge fan of that one.) Those imprints stuck with me, and though I was always very happy unmarried, by the time I was 30 I did marry a man completely wrong for me, giving into the idea that it was “time”. The marriage, of course, didn’t last. While I don’t think that marriage was wrong for me in the general sense--and I’m not making a case for not getting married here--I do think it depends on the couple and how getting married impacts their relationship.

My boyfriend and I are both divorced. When we met, and after a few years, I really did want to get married. I pushed for it. Then, later, the feeling sort of wore off and, as you may have guessed, he pushed for marriage. By then, I was content being committed. We’ve been that way now for so long and it really does suit us best. I’ve known many people who are divorced and happily remarried—that was the right choice for them.

More than all of this, as I’ve grown older, I don’t believe that love is enough for a successful marriage—specifically, not for me. I’m looking at my own baggage here. When I got married all those years ago, I didn’t understand that a marriage had to function within its own healthy and blossoming ecosystem, like any other living thing. I look back at me and my Ex at that time—he with a raging temper that triggered my childhood trauma–and see how clearly and obviously we never had a chance. I left him after one horrific year.

Post my divorce, I had a therapist that told me these words: “We never know the person we marry.” That statement completely blew my mind wide open. The act of marriage opens a whole new world of discovery. For some, that discovery is another level of love and commitment, for others, it’s a world they wish they never knew.

In my case, I do think I know my boyfriend so well at this point. We are two people who enjoy simple rituals, including having coffee together and talking about the day’s events, world news, our work. We agree on many important fundamentals, but definitely not everything. For the most part, we can argue our points with compassion and respect. I’m pretty sure many young couples would find our lives boring, including a twenty-something me. We have a happy relationship, that’s as romantic as it is a die-hard friendship. It’s changed and evolved over the years, and, like every couple, things aren’t always so rosie. Somehow we manage to weather the storm. For now, we are so happily not married. We really, actually do choose each other every day.


TOPIX: “I Vant To [Sleep] Alone.” By A.K.A. Darla

"The older I get the more I realize: couples sleeping separately is actually quite common. Though happy with their arrangement, why is there still a stigma attached to this? And why, of all the things, should there be a stigma attached to wanting your own sleep space?"

The Queen and Prince Philip did it for years. So did Helen Bonham Carter and Tim Burton. Even the U.K’s sexiest couple, David and Victoria Beckham, have “his and her wings.” Yes, like that number one hit from Barbara Mandrall, these couples are “sleeping single in a double bed.”

I thought perhaps it was just a “Brit” thing, until learning that Ryan O'Neal said he and Farrah Fawcett slept apart because they valued their privacy. In the case of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, it’s been reported that separate quarters make for peace between the couple as Broderick’s haphazard housekeeping is an assault on Parker's orderly aesthetic.

Growing up in a Greenwich Village neighborhood where the luxury of an extra bedroom was unheard of, I was shocked when I visited the Upper West Side apartment of a high school classmate who, when giving me a tour of the place, pointed out the separate bedrooms of her parents. Outside of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, it was the first time I had heard of married couples not sleeping in the same bed. In the case of the Ricardo’s, my pre-adolescent self assumed their separate beds were to ensure that Lucy would not be disturbed when Ricky came home late from working at The Tropicana. Perhaps Lucy and Ricky were ahead of their time as it seems more and more couples – especially those entering second marriages – are opting for separate sleeping spaces.

The older I get the more I realize: couples sleeping separately is actually quite common. Though happy with their arrangement, why is there still a stigma attached to this? And why, of all the things, should there be a stigma attached to wanting your own sleep space? If you still feel that this is a sign of a poor partnership, you may be part of the problem.

Truth be told, I have discovered that as I’ve “matured” I have come to value my lifestyle routine and often wonder if I could ever again cohabitate. When I asked a long-time friend for her opinion on the subject, she confessed that her guilty pleasure of watching Forensic Files until falling asleep has driven her live-in lover into their spare room. She says it’s actually been fun having “booty calls” and deciding whose “place” they should spend the night in. Keeping an open mind, I decided to give this some serious thought and made a list of the pros and cons.

Pros:

One is no longer irked by their partner’s morning alarm, snoring, or stealing of the covers.

You never again have to ask the question, “Do you like these sheets?”

One no longer has to feel guilty about keeping their reading light on.

No one will be disturbed at 3am when their bedmate gets up to pee.

The “walk of shame” is only about a hallway long.

There is still someone in the house who will bring me coffee in the morning.

Cons:

Hmmm…

So with everything old being new again, could separate bedrooms keep us together? I’ll need to sleep on that.


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The Crush Letter is a weekly newsletter curated by Dish Stanley on everything love & connection - friendship, romance, self-love, sex. If you’d like to take a look at some of our best stories go to Read Us. Want the Dish?


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