Marriage, monogamy and the mirage of perfection
I read a survey the other day that said older people are more accepting and compassionate about affairs of the heart
François Hollande: despite the messy entrails of his private life smudging the Élysée mirrors, his popularity has risen. The French never need to be reminded that amour is ageless. Photograph: Michael Kooren/Reuters
I’ve been married for seven years, cohabited with the same bloke for a decade or so beforehand, and prior to that commuted back and forward between London and Dublin after we met, spending money neither of us had on air fares and telephone bills. (This was in the good old days before FaceTime and Skype, when you didn’t have to exfoliate before you made a call.) Statistically, if you count the years spent living together before we hobbled into an Edinburgh registry office, we’re less likely to get divorced in our second decade together than if we were still negotiating the thin ice of our first.
Apparently, the most treacherous years for a marriage or partnership are the first 10; survive the initial shock of your mate’s Mickey Mouse pyjamas, their torn Bon Jovi posters and their tendency to dribble at family functions, and odds on you’ll survive a few more years. As the decades mount up, marriages, like elderly dogs, tend to slow down, stop worrying sheep and settle into some kind of rhythm.
There are exceptions, of course. Whatever about the stats, I’ve been engaged in lively conversations recently with more than one gleefully liberated Silver Splitter, which is how people in their 50s and 60s are now described when they leave their marriages.
The Silver Splitter phenomenon is a consequence of how we live and of how long we live. It seems we’re not curling up with our knitting or shrinking into our tobacco pouches so readily these days; instead we remain determined dreamers and spenders with big ambitions, delicate fantasies and hopes that refuse to sleep.
In a changing world it’s certainly not the case that beyond middle age the closest you’ll get to intimacy is unpeeling the HRT patch. A worn credit card will buy you collagen implants, Viagra, tummy-control tights, and toupees that don’t look like roadkill. Hell, it’s a challenge to get through the night without some search engine offering to find your first girlfriend and zoom in on her washing line while simultaneously offering you seven nights in a Mongolian yurt with a deep-tissue massage and an en-suite.
Look at François Hollande, tootling around Paris on the back of a moped, in his bifocals and sock suspenders, with a brace of croissants in his mitt, on his way to an assignation with a woman who still has all her own teeth. (It’s difficult to imagine Enda Kenny in a comparable situation, head down for the tryst, cycling to Rathmines with a package of bacon sandwiches on his backer.)
Despite the messy entrails of Hollande’s private life smudging the Élysée mirrors and the French getting vaguely fromaged off that he probably looked more lovestruck Teletubby than dashing statesman on the back of his scooter, his popularity has risen. The French never need to be reminded that amour is ageless.
I read a survey the other day that said, and I’m paraphrasing wildly here, that older people are more accepting and compassionate about affairs of the heart, more forgiving of spouses and partners who fall off Mount Monogamy and bruise their thinning shins. You know the kind of thing: “Darling, I slept with the double glazer”; “Okay, you put on the kettle, I’ll finish my sudoku, and then you can tell me all about it.”
This is not the case with younger couples, apparently, with some of the less mature survey participants even suggesting that going out to dinner with someone else constitutes betrayal. I suspect this attitude has less to do with sex and more to do with a kind of exhausted fury at trying to keep up with some fabricated, sugar-coated, celluloid-inflected notion of romance and family life.
I watched a young family drink expensive hot chocolate in a local cafe one morning shortly after Christmas: two parents, one fashionably balding, the other with a frozen smile painted on her face, and their three daughters. The daughters all had jazzy wellingtons and new bicycles and wildly varying and untrammelled opinions as to which toppings should adorn their beverages. It was raining, it was cold, the sky looked like revenge. It was still early enough for a hangover and not at all late enough to anticipate bedtime, and despite the great pantomime of the family outing, nothing seemed quite perfect enough. The children seemed seismically disappointed, the parents terse and disillusioned.
I was grateful for my quiet table and warm coffee, grateful to know that no matter how carefully you follow the instructions on the self-assembly perfect-family, perfect-marriage box, the construct will always remain skewed.