Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


The Happy Couple: Wrinkled but Radiant

by Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The grandchildren issued the invitation. The groomsmen were the grown sons of the bride. When Susan Leonard, 60, and Ed Thornton, 68, walked down a makeshift aisle at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington to exchange their vows, the generations were upside down. Yet the ceremony was traditional, with flowers and music, readings from "The Little Prince," champagne and cheers.

Late-life weddings are a phenomenon of healthy longevity. Couples who marry at this stage are an experimental group in the laboratory of marriage because they are not looking to the institution as a framework for raising children or establishing a work life. They seek intimacy, comfort and companionship in the final decades of life. In this way, they reflect how marriage has changed over the past 50 years. Rather than primarily an arrangement of rigid gender roles and economic dependency, marriage has become a much more flexible institution that places a high value on love and mutual fulfillment. It also is an embattled institution with relatively high rates of divorce and living together without being married. All this leads some social scientists to ask: Can marriage itself be saved?

Couples like Leonard and Thornton have something to tell us about the new rules of romance that can make modern marriage work. For example:

Rule One: Be single for a while. Both Leonard and Thornton have spent time as single adults. After Leonard's first marriage of 30 years broke up almost a decade ago, she turned to her career with the federal government and created a circle of women friends.

"It was extremely important. My identity changed from being wife and mother to being a professional woman," said Leonard. Without that single period, Leonard said she wouldn't have been ready for marriage. "I had to have some bad experiences--and some mediocre ones -- to find out what I wanted and to be clear about it." Thornton had also spent some years on his own after his wife died. They had learned to live on their own -- and enjoy single life.

It seems ironic, but with longevity, the architecture of modern marriage now includes important periods of "singlehood." In many long-lasting marriages, spouses are able to carve out spaces to develop as individuals. For others, a single period takes place before marriage. And for others, singlehood occurs between marriages to different spouses.

"Singlehood has given marriage new meaning," says family researcher Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage" (Viking Adult, 2005). A period of being single allows people to grow and gain confidence in negotiating relationships, an essential skill in making sure there's an ebb and flow in marriage for the benefit of both spouses.

Rule Two: Choose marriage, not just a spouse. Leonard decided she wanted to get married before she met Thornton. At a two-day retreat in 2004, she announced to the other participants: "What I'm after in my life is a juicy, succulent relationship with the man of my dreams." Leonard recalls the flip in her stomach at the retreat. "I could feel something turn over inside me. I really do want the commitment," she said. "I thought: If I can have my dream job, I could go for some other dreams before it's too late." She had to open herself up to the potential of the institution before she would let herself get involved in a married relationship.

Rule Three: Once you've made the marriage commitment, don't waste time. Leonard thought it would take a while to find the man of her dreams, so she acted fast. She told friends and colleagues of her plans to get married again and enlisted their aid to find a husband. She cleaned out her closet so that she would only wear clothes suitable for a date. She made up a list of 43 characteristics that she was looking for in a mate.

She admits she had luck. A woman at the retreat was so inspired by her declaration that she gave Leonard's name to Thornton, who was also looking for a partner. But on the first date, Leonard was so nervous she couldn't remember what he looked like afterward. On the second date, he brought a Polaroid camera. He sent an e-mail all about himself, what he wanted, how he liked the movie "A Beautiful Mind"--which she liked, too. She gave him the list of characteristics and he scored 83 percent. If there were deal-breakers, they wanted to know early so "we could finish before it got started," said Leonard. "When you're young, you think you've got all the time in the world. When you're older, you know things could change."

They both were looking for someone with similar interests and values. As men and women age, they converge more, Coontz points out. Men are not so rooted in work; women become "a little feisty," she said, and grow more independent so that the gender roles are more similar. "You find greater blending. Male and female stereotypes are softened. That augurs well." The more Leonard and Thornton got to know each other, the closer and more committed they became.

On their wedding day in early May, they glowed at each other, a wrinkled version of Romeo and Juliet. Leonard is giving up her job and moving to a new city. "This will be the best I can make it," she said. "It's an adventure. I am not doing it frivolously."

Taking the marriage leap is always a risk, but age confers some advantages. The triumph of experience over mere hopes can bring a confidence and clarity not yet earned by younger swains. " 'Til death do us part" may not seem so difficult a promise to make.

As more men and women reach these later decades with a powerful drive for love and companionship, it's likely that the institution of modern romantic marriage will always have a following. •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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