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Commitment on Their Terms

Kevyn Burger February 4, 2020
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From commitment ceremonies to “apartners,” some older couples are redefining love and devotion.

Marriage has long been the gold standard for commitment, and there’s lots of evidence that happy unions not only enhance lives, but extend them.

But for various reasons, the matrimonial bond doesn’t suit some couples as they get older. Some of them are tweaking tradition and finding novel new ways to reframe loving partnerships—and thrive in them.

Rituals to Honor, Bless Late Life Love

The Florida sun is a treat for Mary Ann and Tom. The midwestern snowbirds, aged 86 and 90, are savoring two months on the Gulf Coast where their days are filled with walks and golf and free of worry about driving on icy roads.

Even better than the warm temperatures is their close and constant companionship, which was a long time coming.

The high school sweethearts separated when Tom was drafted during the Korean War and Mary Ann went to college.  Although they both married and had families, they’d kept in touch with an annual holiday card.

Two years after Tom’s wife died, Mary Ann divorced and she moved out of her family home. She sent out a change-of-address notice to everyone on her Christmas card list.

“I got a call from him and he said, we should have lunch,” said Mary Ann. “We renewed our old friendship; we have such history together! Three years later we got married. God works in mysterious ways.”

But the “marriage” that the couple initiated was very different than the one they entered the first time around.

“We are both people of faith. We wanted God’s blessing, witnessed by our families,” Mary Ann explained. “We were certain about the faith part, but we wanted to protect our children and our estates.  We didn’t want the government part, the legal part.”

The couple was well aware that combining assets in a late life wedding is complicated. Matrimony lead to the loss or disruption of spousal pensions and Social Security benefits, alter inheritance plans, create tax complications and put spouses on the hook for one another’s medical expenses.

That’s one reason why today many older sweethearts choose to live together. A Pew Research study in 2016 found that 18 million Americans were living with an unmarried partner, with nearly a quarter of the cohabitors over 50. That represented an increase of 75% in that age group over ten years.

But living together was not an option that appealed to Mary Ann and Tom. They hungered for a religious ritual to acknowledge their commitment.

They turned to a pastor who agreed to officiate at a service that honored their love. Held in a chapel, it included prayers, vows and what Mary Ann called “five best men,” her two and Tom’s three grown sons standing up with their parents.

“It’s a generational thing. Before having a physical relationship, people of this era went to church to affirm their faithfulness. It’s a value they carry from childhood,” said the pastor. “They want to be partnered, but without the financial quandary that could be a negative for them. We want to support people who want to live in faithful monogamous relationships.”

While services to honor such commitment could be considered heartwarming, they are also controversial. The pastor interviewed for this story, an ordained minister in a traditional Protestant denomination, asked that her name not be used to avoid upsetting some in her church leadership.  She is careful to never use the word marriage; she calls the ceremonies she quietly conducts a ‘Christian blessing’ and does not refer to the participants as husband and wife.

“I do a few every year; people hear that I do this through word-of-mouth. Couples who want this are all over 80. They do not take this lightly,” said the pastor, who knows several other ordained ministers who also discretely officiate at such services.

She points out that elsewhere in the world, the legal marriage contract is separate from church acknowledgment. Many European and Latin American countries require a civil ceremony for the state’s recognition of the union. Couples can follow it with a religious service that carries no legal weight but provides religious recognition.

Before their service, Mary Ann and Tom both hired attorneys to review their wills and talked to their adult children to clearly state that the ceremony would not change their inheritance.

“We want to be together, we love each other, but we wanted to be responsible so our kids knew exactly what was theirs and what was not. We did the right thing, looking ahead so we don’t create a conflict that our children don’t deserve,” Mary Ann explained.

While the practical focus on finances may not seem romantic, the pastor knows many of her older congregants who are interested in intimacy.

“Used to be when a spouse died the surviving grandparent moved in with an adult child. Now they all move into these senior places. It’s like a college dorm,” she said. “Older people have more opportunities for relationships. They’re healthier and they live longer.  And they fall in love.”

Mary Ann and Tom are both in good health, and Mary Ann is convinced their companionship has contributed to their wellbeing. It’s been two and a half years since they had their union blessed and “we’re still newlyweds,” she said.

“We had been alone and it’s been wonderful to find someone to have breakfast with, share devotions, talk about the day. Being the age we are, we have so many stories to tell,” she said. “We are so happy together. We are blessed. God has blessed us.”

Loving Without Living Together

Another group of older people is redefining what it means to be one half of a committed couple. They are choosing to live—and love—in monogamous relationships, but without sharing the same address, with no plans to ever live together.

The phenomenon is called Living Apart Together or LAT relationships. Seven percent of adults 57 to 85 identified being in such a partnership in a survey conducted by the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.  

Researchers at the University of Missouri interviewed adults 60 and older in “long-lasting, high-quality relationships without committing to marriage or living together.” The resulting research, “Older Adults Developing a Preference for Living Apart Together,” was published in 2016.

It concluded that the older couples in these untraditional relationships were motivated by “desires to stay independent, maintain their own homes, sustain existing family boundaries, and remain financially independent.”

Through its Love After 60 Lab, the Missouri research team is now recruiting older people choosing LAT relations for further study on how they function.

Sharon Hyman, 57, has been in such a relationship with David Demetre, 63, for 21 years.

“David is my spouse in all the important ways. We’re in it for the long haul We’ve taken care of each other when we’ve had health issues. We’re legally responsible for each other, with our powers of attorney and our wills,” said Hyman. “Living apart gives us time to recharge our own batteries so both of us can bring more to the relationship.”

She’s coined a new term for the way she and many others choose to live. She calls them “apartners.”

A filmmaker, Hyman has interviewed hundreds of partners with separate households for her upcoming documentary Apartners: Living Happily Ever Apart. Now in production, Hyman has interviewed hundreds of apartners. Her Apartners Facebook group, with a global membership of over 1300, includes unmarried couples but also married ones who find their relationship works better when they’re not always under the same roof.

“I’m not on a crusade to tell people this is best way to live but to show them that options exist,” she said. “When people find the group, it’s heartening, they feel so validated connecting with other people who live this way. Especially the older people; this tends to be unconventional for that generation.”

While Hyman is talking to people of all ages for her film, she’s found the concept particularly appealing to older women.

“Women were socialized form more friendships and social circles so they’re not lonely.  In their previous relationships, women have done a disproportionate amount of the domestic chores, not just the housekeeping, but the work of planning the family’s social life and keeping the calendar,” she said. “Been there, done that, no thanks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that.”

A 2014 Pew Research study on the demographics of remarriage quantifies Hyman’s conclusion. It found that while the divorce rate for adults 50 and over has doubled since the 1990s, only 15 percent of divorced or widowed women say they want to remarry, while 29 percent of divorced or widowed men in the same cohort remain interested in finding another wife.

“There’s an idea that it’s men who want to be footloose and fancy free but it’s just the opposite,” said Hyman. “Men are more content to be in one all- encompassing relationship. But that feels like a lot of pressure for a woman.”

Photo credit Valeria Bismar


This story is part of the special editorial series “The Landscape of Love, Sex & Friendship As We Age.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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