My wife Norma and I never imagined we would spend the last 33 years of our 55-year marriage living apart voluntarily. But there it is, and here we are: she occupying her own spacious home in a forest 30 miles outside of Nashville, me making do quite nicely in a rented, cluttered, one-bedroom apartment near the heart of the city. We each live alone, which is exactly the way we prefer it. Ours isn’t an arrangement most married couples would want. But for us, it’s been a liberating experience. And it’s kept our marriage fresh.
It wasn’t choice but economics that first separated us. In 1981, we and our three grade school- to college-age children were living in the university town of Bowling Green, Ohio. Norma was a textbook writer and editor, and I was out of work. Then Billboard magazine, the music trade journal, hired me as an editor in its Nashville bureau. Because I had never managed to hold a job longer than three years, Norma wisely decided to stay put until our two younger kids finished high school. As they did, they also gravitated to Nashville. Finally, in 1991, Norma moved down to join us. She did not, however, invite me to move back in with her. And I knew why.
During those 10 years of living apart, we both had discovered that we really liked being in charge of our own surroundings, schedules, finances and circles of friends. Together, we had constantly bickered with each other, usually over those small matters that loom large when you’re making just enough money to get by. We were never loud, abusive or spiteful, but we were sufficiently inventive to leave a trail of bruised feelings. Under the same roof, we had to accommodate each other’s eccentricities and tastes. Now we didn’t.
And we still don’t. I’m a vegetarian, Norma a carnivore. I’m a night owl, Norma an early-to-bedder. Norma likes television as a faint background noise; I want to be able to hear it in the next room. I rent to avoid having to do any home-maintenance work; Norma dotes on home-improvement projects. Norma has two dogs she cherishes; my affection for animals extends only to not eating them. Norma likes to travel; I’ve never flown and never plan to. I like pointed, relentless, cage-fight arguments about almost everything; Norma hates to quibble about anything.
The privacy that living alone afforded us didn’t lure us into extramarital relationships, but loneliness did. What saved us and kept our marriage intact was our complete honesty with each other. Neither of us ever embarked on a love affair without telling the other it was about to happen. We didn’t do this to taunt each other or leverage more or better sex between us. Odd as it may sound, we simply didn’t want to “cheat” on each other and thus incur the emotional wounds deception always inflicts. Because of our candor, we had no surprises or recriminations to deal with. I often felt and expressed jealousy, and sometimes Norma did too. But we never gave in to the feeling or made scenes in response to it. One by one, the affairs came to an end, but our devotion to each other never wavered.
After renting an apartment in Nashville those first couple of years, Norma — who by then was making a name for herself as an entertainment publicist — announced that she was going to buy or build a house in the faraway suburbs. Had we been living together or pooling our money, I would have thrown a fit. Since we weren’t, I limited myself to uttering a few discouraging words and reminding her that she was strictly on her own. With her usual self-sufficiency, she found and purchased her dream home in a matter of weeks. My lone contribution was signing a document that said I would inherit the house if she died. I still hemorrhage money down the black hole of rent — but at least I’ve never had to drive a nail, mow a lawn or cultivate the hovering company of a real estate agent.
In 1999, Norma underwent open-heart surgery to clear blocked arteries. As our children and I sat in the waiting room at Vanderbilt University Hospital waiting for dispatches from Norma’s doctors on how the operation was proceeding, I met for the first time the man with whom Norma had once had a long romantic relationship and with whom she remained best friends. I can only assume he was there because she had asked him to be. Instead of resenting him, I admired him for caring enough for Norma to risk confronting what might have been an outraged husband. We shook hands, I thanked him for his concern and he came with us when we met with the doctors to discuss Norma’s condition and recovery regimen. A few years later, this same man nearly lost an arm in a landscaping accident. Since he had no family, Norma took him into her home and nursed him back to health over a period of several weeks — and with my complete encouragement. Norma has been equally magnanimous and congenial toward the women who were once close to me.
For the three months it took Norma to mend from her heart operation, I moved in with her, one of the few benefits I had as a freelance writer who could work from anywhere there was an Internet connection. I cooked, did a minimum of housecleaning, administered her medicine, drove her to exercise therapy and ran errands. It didn’t take long for the old conflicts to surface. The better she felt, the more redecorating and rearranging she wanted to do. I spent my waking hours trying to keep those unsettling impulses at bay. When she was back on her feet and strong again, I packed up my laptop and reference books and returned to Casa Debris in Nashville. Neither of us wept at parting.
There are two reasons I’m telling this story and not Norma. To begin with, she’s almost obsessively private. In any given conversation, she will listen intently to the other person while volunteering virtually no opinions or facts about herself. She thinks she’s boring. (She’s wrong.) Moreover, she’s not at all sure that our marriage is everything it should have been. And she would be right if we had possessed identical tastes, goals, and enthusiasms and equal stores of energy. Under those idyllic conditions, we would have savored every minute together. But that’s not how it was with us — nor is it with most married couples. It is telling, I think, that despite her qualms about the soundness or propriety of our living arrangements she’s never even suggested we resume joint tenancy.
Given our penchant for a no-strings existence, why do we even bother staying married? The easy answer is that we’ve never stopped loving each other — and passionately so. And remember those three kids mentioned above? Well, they all still live in Nashville and have collectively enriched our later years with six grandchildren and a great-grandson. Had we let annoyance, disappointment or jealousy cause us to divorce, we would not be enjoying the close four-generation family we have become. On a more abstract level, staying married has enabled us to draw strength and comfort from more than 55 years of shared memories.
Fortunately, our good health has allowed us to keep our independence. When Norma goes on vacation, I stay at her house and take care of her dogs. I vacation on my own, free to go where I will and do what I want without having to accommodate the whims of a traveling companion. Because I dwell in comparative squalor, Norma seldom comes to my place; but I spend many nights and most weekends at hers. We are closer now than we’ve ever been, knowing that, as old as we are, either of us could leave the stage at any moment.
We can’t claim that our way of living is a functional blueprint for other married couples (who’d like to feel a bit less married). But we’ve found it both sane and exhilarating to shuck off convention, disregard what family and friends might think and rely entirely on our own good judgment to lead us. It’s worked so far, and we have no regrets.