Split the house: the best way to stay together?
Angela Neustatter’s book shows how defying convention can be good for couples as they age
Angela Neustatter: she and her husband live in separate parts of their house
When you are married so long that you can’t be in the same room together for more than a few minutes, there is a solution. Separate residences in the same house. That’s what Angela Neustatter, controversial feminist and Guardian journalist has done with her husband, Olly, a Dutchman she met during her formative 20s in Amsterdam.
The crisis came when her two sons had flown the nest and an “inconsolable emptiness” took Neustatter hostage.
Their marriage had been through tough times before, but the splitting point came when Neustatter – “on one of my moral phases, of which I’ve had many” – strode in on her husband watching an architectural programme and told him that the television was coming between them. “I did not approve, so I stood there with a filthy face.”
Olly replied: “You have to live on your own.” She was shocked when she realised he meant it. They talked and realised that if they split up and sold the house, they would lose each other and all the memories of family. “We are good at family,” she says.
So, in their golden years, they rebuilt their life as a couple, each with their own kitchen. “We can get very irritated with each other, but now we’re enjoying being elderly folk together,” she says. “The matrimonial etiquette is: stick to your space. We knock before entering, or we text.” They also have sex on visits to each other’s pads in the same house, though it’s gentler, slower and more affectionate these days. “It’s a warmth, a friendliness and a familiarity,” she says.
A new chapter on the wall
Neustatter’s experience and advice on ageing is the subject of her latest book, The Year I Turn . . . A Quirky A-Z of Age . It should perhaps be called “this is how hippies age”. In the same spirit that she let her children scribble on the walls of the big old house, she and Olly are writing a new chapter against convention. They do pilates together and watch box sets.
Under S for sex, she quotes the view – “That’s gross! It should be illegal” – that people of 50 and over should stop having sex, and retorts that sex is essential for health, especially in old age.
So the emptiness had started to heal and they had grown accustomed to living together but apart, when their son Zek married a Japanese woman who wanted to live with Angela and Olly, because that’s the tradition in Japan.
Now the house – a former pub – houses three residences: Zek’s family on one floor, Angela on another and Olly in his “Captain’s Cabin” on the roof. It’s a busy family home once again.
Work in progress
Under R for reinvention, Neustatter writes: “Nora Ephron said it’s good for women to reinvent themselves every decade, which sounds like rather hard work to me. But I take her point: we do well to be constantly aware of the need to see ourselves as a work in progress rather than ossifying into a single strand being from a young age.
“Seeing our personalities shimmy into different positions is one way to keep oneself, as well as others, interested. And in today’s world where a job for life, a career that will guarantee you a lifestyle and identity no matter what, is an in-your-dreams idea, reinvention is a vital protective measure.”
In 2012 Neustatter reinvented herself too much for some feminists’ tastes when she argued that children need their mothers in the home. Her own choice as a Guardian fashion editor in the 1970s was to throw it all in and work freelance from home when she felt her sons were suffering from her absence.
Looking at pictures of herself then, she sees a “pinched” face and the suppressed panic of a working mother coping with conflicting demands. Today she still believes the time when a string of au pairs looked after her baby and toddler was bad for her sons. “Children have profound needs and attachments and a need for stability, and we can’t put our needs before theirs. It seems to me cruel,” she says.
Her “charmed existence” allowed her to work from home as a freelancer, a choice most women don’t have, she agrees. “I see a great deal of sadness in my generation. It all felt upside down and wrong, and yet it was so political to show you could do it all,” she says today of the feminist argument that mothers should step up to the plate in the workplace.
The Year I Turn . . . A Quirky A-Z of Age by Angela Neustatter is published by Gibson Square Books , £9.99