Roger and Maria Housden are, in their own words, flying by the seat of their pants. They've been married four years, but for the last year, he's been living in Greenwich Village and she's been living about 35 minutes away in New Jersey to be closer to her children by a previous marriage. Three or four nights a week, in one of their places or the other, they have nuptial visits. "Aside from the obvious challenges—like the fear one steps into when you and your spouse are living separate lives by design—the benefits really surprised me," said Maria. "I shared a room with my sisters, and then with a roommate in college, and then with my first husband. I was 42 years old before I painted a room the color I wanted.
"But the unexpected joy of our choice has been that I get to see who my husband is without my influence or blending with him; we can recognize and celebrate each other's distinctions." Roger is 18 years Maria's senior. They both see their living arrangement as a metaphor for their intention as a couple, which is to foster an environment, a context, between the two of them that can allow them, each in their own way, to stretch in areas they might not have alone. Without getting into the specifics of what that means for this particular couple—Roger made a reference to poet Robert Bly's idea of the "third body" in a relationship, which, I took to mean, is the product of both individual's selves—I appreciated their commitment to finding what's comfortable for them. Maria put it poignantly. "It's inspiring to be with someone else who is hungry for who he is becoming," she said, "to live in a marriage that supports that idea."
"Yeah, but I have so many questions about how to do that," I said.
"Marriage isn't an answer," said Roger.
"It's a riddle," said Maria, "a mystery about two people coming together." Right, I thought. And maybe also about living apart.
It turns out that among the masters of supple, long-term, enduring attachments are gay men and women. "The successful gay relationships I've seen are better than successful heterosexual relationships," says Judith Stacey, PhD, professor of sociology at New York University and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families. That's partly because gay couples—without the social scripts, rules, and conventions that bind heterosexuals—can negotiate more honestly and openly about what works for them in a relationship. According to Stacey, a lower percentage of homosexuals have long-term relationships than heterosexuals because there's little institutional support, but those who do navigate them more creatively. Their relationships are, in a way, custom-made. "Our scripts for marriage are limited and trap people when they don't have the courage or the creativity or the resources to be able to imagine and implement an alternative," said Stacey. "If you want to do something differently, you're automatically swimming upstream."
I'm wondering whether swimming upstream is necessarily a bad thing in a marriage. When you've been with someone day in and day out for more than 20 years, might choosing not to be carried along by the current be revitalizing? Depending on the terms of your relationship, swimming upstream could mean anything from simply asking, Why are we together? to claiming a room of your own (or a chair or a weekly night out) to taking separate vacations to living apart some of the time or even all the time. It might mean not cooking dinner every night or alternating you, then him, every other night.
The notion of the married couple as an isolated nuclear family is distinctly Western, and only a couple of hundred years old, according to Roger Lancaster, PhD, director of the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. But it has had hearty social and governmental support, which has undoubtedly fed our reluctance to think about it as a more flexible institution. That, in turn, has had the unfortunate consequence of making us feel that there's something wrong with us if we don't happily participate in our conventional system of modern love, says Lancaster. He believes that our ideal places too many demands on that relationship, and that creativity is vital to any kind of livable domestic arrangement.
I hope I prove him right.
More from the O relationship vault: Hang up the gloves!