My parents met in high school and got married at 21. They are now in their 70s. If you count the four years they dated, they’ve been together for three quarters of their lives. The only memories they have that don’t include each other are of childhood. I love this about their marriage. There’s something beautiful about a couple growing up together; becoming adults together; doing all of life together.
David and I don’t have that. By the time we met, we had each become adults on our own and had lived lives of our own. We had each built intimate friendships with people who continue to be part of our lives. I had been in two previous relationships; one that lasted nine years, and one that lasted three. He had built a successful career, saved enough money to live as a full-time writer, and finished the first draft of his first novel. I had gone from convinced atheist to apathetic agnostic, to believer. He had been through reparative therapy, and had considered a mixed orientation marriage and lifelong celibacy.
David and I will always have a lifetime of memories—good and bad—that don’t include each other. There’s a part of my story that he can never fully know, and a part of his that I only catch in glimpses. This doesn’t mean we don’t know each other well. We communicate with ease, and it sometimes feels like we understand each other by instinct—we have been able to construct comprehensive “love maps” for each other. What it does mean is that we perhaps need those maps more than couples like my parents do. We have to be more conscious of telling each other our stories because we weren’t part of them.
The archetype of the high school (or college) sweethearts is ingrained in our collective imagination despite the fact that it’s no longer as common. It harkens back to a bygone era and makes us go “aww” when we read stories about elderly couples who have been married 60 or 70 years. It makes those of us who have married later in life mourn its loss. I’ll admit I feel a hint of sadness when I think that it is unlikely that David and I will celebrate our Diamond Anniversary.
The midlife-sweethearts archetype is yet to be fully appreciated. It pops up in romantic comedies, but the focus is usually on the dysfunction that leads to it: A 40-year-old lone wolf meets an insecure and lonely writer; a cradle-robbing womanizer falls for a heartbroken divorcée. We rarely get to see the midlife sweethearts down the line.
Yet there is also something uniquely beautiful about meeting and falling in love at an older age. The life I didn’t share with David has left me a treasure trove of stories that I now get to tell my husband. With time I’ll repeat some, I’m sure, and perhaps in 30 or 40 years he’ll be able to tell many of them for me. But some of my favorite moments these days are when I’m doing something random and a memory I haven’t shared comes to mind. It will prompt a conversation, and with each of these stories he’ll see me a little bit better, understand me a little bit more. And according to new research, telling stories leads to increased happiness in a relationship. The author of a Wall Street Journal article about that research reminds us just how intimate talk can be: “In William Shakespeare’s time, the word ‘conversation’ meant two things—verbal discourse, and sex.” Through these chats, sometimes brief and sometimes long, we strengthen the bond between us.
I have many friends my age who are single and sometimes feel like they have lost something by not marrying younger. May this be a reminder to them of what they have gained.
Photo by Maritè Toledo, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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