A writer, much better than I once said, families are complicated. And as family members begin to navigate the landscape of old age, each person will reflect on the moment through her own lens of history and sense of family cohesion. This came to mind recently, when an essay appeared in the NY Times speaking of a husband and wife in their mid-80s who had divorced after some 60 years of marriage. The piece was written by their adult daughter reflecting on the sadness and loss of the marriage – one she had always assumed or imagined was perfect. The family home and the stable marriage was, in her own words “her sanctuary.” She speculated that the loss of her sibling at age 31 many years ago, from breast cancer, may have been at the root of the separation and divorce. A hurt that can never be healed.
The daughter’s sadness at the loss of the marriage, is certainly understandable, but as I considered this elderly couple at this juncture in their life, it does not shock me.
What I began to wonder was the fatuousness of the idea expressed at a marriage proposal or so many wedding ceremonies that goes something like this: “I want to grow old with you,” or “as long as we both shall live.” What do any of us know – as our younger selves – what it will be like to grow old? Perhaps we have watched grandparents or even our own parents age with multiple medical problems or disabilities. But can we ever really imagine ourselves in that changing condition. At my now (tender) age of 66 years, although I’m beginning to see signs of my own aging, I can’t begin to imagine what I or my husband will really be like 10 or 15 or 20 years from now. How can we know what illness or infirmity or emotional hurt we will each suffer and how that will impact our relationships?
The daughter does raise the question about changing expectations. The wife had become impatient with her husband’s slow and unsteady walk, an indication of his growing old; the husband was finding it hard to tolerate his wife’s beginning memory loss. Perhaps each partner began to recognize the demands that would be placed upon them to fulfill a caregiving role. Are they ready? Are they capable? Can they do it well? I was astonished when the daughter writes, “Is it possible that it might be easier to live without each other by choice, to break that once indestructible bond now, rather than to wait until it is broken cruelly, against their will?” Does the daughter believe that fear of death and grief can be avoided by divorce?
Is separating at age 80 different than at an earlier age? Couples have come to some agreement that their sense of individuality is greater than their need to stay together. I began to consider Erikson’s stages of development, when, in the last stage of ego integrity, the task is to reflect on one’s life – to evaluate if one has accomplished their life goals and that relationships are settled without guilt or remorse. Is it possible that either partner in this very long marriage was looking back on life and judging that it was time to seek peace and personal contentment? Perhaps to restore a sense of individuality and a cry for independence – a touchstone for all older adults whose integrity seems to be based on a desire to remain as independent as possible.
Would I wish that they could have done this together, yes, of course. But was trust and communication so badly fractured throughout so many years, that some elements of trust couldn’t be restored? I cannot say, I do not know this family. And I do ache for the daughter.