IN THIS MONTH dedicated to love, as many celebrate romance, companionship and everything in between, we take a look at the institution of marriage here in Marin. Five couples ranging in age and circumstance speak candidly about how they navigate married life. To encourage total honesty and deep reflection we have changed the names of those interviewed. We found that marriages in Marin are, for the most part, the same as marriages anywhere else — and that is, in a word, challenging. Like everywhere else, couples here deal with basic “bread and butter” issues: concerns about trust and fidelity, as well as differences in how to handle money, sex and parenting. Meet five couples who are facing the struggle head-on.
Alice and Dan
The Soon-to-Be-Empty-Nesters Marriage
Alice, a stay-at-home mom, and Dan, a financial consultant, met in college and began dating in their early 20s. After a few false starts — a breakup followed by an engagement that Dan broke off due to cold feet — the couple reconciled once and for all and got married. Many different phases of life and 22 years later, they have a son in college and another son and a daughter close to graduating high school.
Dan and Alice describe themselves as best friends. Their mutual attraction has remained constant throughout the marriage, although they claim that their sex life has now “dwindled” to twice a week. They make concerted efforts to carve out time for each other, from a long-standing Thursday date night to getaways without the kids.
They live in a 7,500-square-foot house in Southern Marin, and their primary issue at this point is the next stage in their relationship, when their last two kids move away.
The Challenges: Life Beyond Kids
A: “Everyone is so busy. Our stress is around money in that it takes a lot to run a house like this. But I feel good about the job we have done raising the kids, and I am looking forward to more time together with Dan — wine tasting, traveling.”
D: “We are looking ahead, planning what we are going to do next, making things simpler, downsizing the house. I’m kind of excited for it. It’s fun to do things as a family, but I love doing stuff just with Alice. I like teasing her.”
The Advice From Alice and Dan
A & D (IN UNISON): “Talking.”
A: “So many of my friends seem to lead separate lives and just do not talk to their husbands. I guess they feel if they don’t communicate, they don’t have to argue. But we discuss. There is a lot of discussing in this house.”
A & D (IN UNISON): “And sex.”
D: “You have to have sex. If you are not having sex, you’re in trouble.”
A: “We like sex. Sex is our friend.”
Nora and Anna
The Finding-Time-for-Us Marriage
Nora, a retired investment banker, and Anna, a writer, have been together nearly two decades and married for eight years (they wed as soon as they were legally permitted to). They live in Novato.
An adoring couple, with Anna stating unabashedly that the relationship is the “thing she is most proud of” in her life, they’ve clearly prioritized nurturing their marriage. They reach out and touch each other as they speak, make eye contact and gently finish each other’s sentences. A recurring theme that seems patently true in their marriage is that they accept each other for who they are.
As for sex, they actually have it about once a month — “sometimes more, but sometimes less.” And although Anna might like more physical intimacy, she acknowledges that desire levels can differ and doesn’t view that as necessarily a problem. The couple’s biggest issue is physical presence: specifically, how much time and attention Anna, who is working full-time, can give to Nora.
The Challenges: Work-Family Balance
A: “Marriage represents the ultimate commitment and connection. Nora is the greatest person on the planet. I think working on our marriage is sacred, holy work, and to do it is a gift … I tend to overdo it with my work. I work late hours, and I have less time for Nora. I wish we could always be taking strolls on the beach or having picnics in the park. But I try to treat whatever we are doing as a romantic interlude, even just a walk together.”
N: “Anna is my best friend, my cheerleader, and a shoulder to cry on. But sometimes it seems that I don’t get enough of her attention. Other times, Anna will come to me with a problem and I want to fix it, but she just wants to be heard. I tell her to do something and she won’t. She views it as a control issue, that I am ordering her around.”
A: “I thoroughly, thoroughly support Nora. Her veil, her denial, her inability to feel my love is my biggest frustration. For years I tried to fix myself, but now I realize that it is her issue.”
N: “I don’t always feel the connection, but I do know that it’s always there.”
The Advice From Nora and Anna
Commitment is the key to this marriage for both partners. “I am not going anywhere,” Anna says. “We both have a stake in the ground.” They also believe their relationship is strengthened by having the same values and by remaining fully involved in each other’s lives.
Ruby and Sam
The Blended-Family Marriage
Ruby, a veterinarian tech with two adolescent-age girls, and Sam, a medical researcher with two similar-age boys, blended their families five years ago in Larkspur.
All the typical issues facing a marriage, like finances and parenting, can be land mines in a blended family, with complex custodial time-sharing issues and ex-spouses thrown into the mix. And second marriages have fewer shared memories for the couple to fall back on.
In Ruby and Sam’s marriage, their sex life is vibrant (several times a week), as might be expected of a new relationship, especially one in which kids aren’t around all the time. Financial issues are not a point of conflict, save for negotiating moments of perceived favoritism toward their own respective kids or questions of inheritance: when an estate may not be left to all children exactly equally, big-ticket purchases like a second home can become highly complicated. For this particular couple, though, the thorniest problems involve parenting with ex-spouses in the picture.
The Challenges: Fairness in Dividing Time, Money and Attention
In blending their families, Ruby and Sam have found that every single household policy and parenting philosophy has to be negotiated or “lived in conflict.” Bedtimes, eating habits, vacations, even holiday traditions have had to be readdressed and compromised on. For the most part, the kids get along — if amid a daily deluge of jealous resentments: “Why do I have to eat broccoli if he doesn’t?” “Why does she have Uggs/an iPhone/a hamster when I don’t?” “Why do I have to wear a jacket if he doesn’t?”
R: “Most of the hurt our kids feel revolves around the lack of our attention and time, and there is never enough to go around. Only having my kids half of the time to begin with, and then having to dilute the remaining time with the competing activity schedules and housework involved with two more kids is debilitating. It has gotten so that I am almost never able to spend quality time with just my girls.”
S: “The vision I had of enjoying a big, happy family has actually turned into more like air traffic controlling. I had great plans for us all to take the type of family vacations I loved as a kid, but it turns out that our various custodial schedules makes getting away together all but impossible.”
R: “With our blending situation everyone always makes the inevitable comparison to the Brady Bunch, but we always respond that there never seemed to be any ex-spouses around on that show. As if our situation wasn’t difficult enough, my husband [Sam]’s bitter ex-wife uses her children as spies, extracting information from them on my spending, my parenting, my job and my relationship with their dad. As a result, I have become incredibly guarded around her kids, watching everything that I say or do.”
S: “Ruby has a cooperative relationship with her ex, which is generally great, but it also means that he dumps the kids on her a lot during his custodial time, and it often interferes with plans that we have.”
The Advice From Ruby and Sam
Ruby and Sam have tried to find creative solutions, such as separate vacations, to spend time with their children from their previous marriages, and they have made extra efforts to strengthen their own relationship during the times they do not have the kids around. Still, they now say, couples with kids from earlier marriages should think long and hard about blending. As difficult as it is to admit, they believe their relationship would likely be stronger if they had remained with their kids in separate residences and “dated” (or had a very long engagement) until the kids were older.
Irene and Randy
The Staying-Together-for-the-Kids Marriage
Irene, a part-time interior designer, and Randy, an attorney, have been married nearly a quarter of a century. They live in Corte Madera with their three sons, two in high school and one in junior high.
Although they remain a strong parenting team, Irene describes their relationship as being “buddies.” Sex is no longer a part of their marriage and has not been for years. Several years ago, when Randy was traveling a great deal and Irene was alone much of the time, she secretly had a brief affair with an old college boyfriend simply to have somebody “find me desirable and want to take me to bed.” At this point, Irene feels “stuck” in the marriage and is essentially waiting until the kids are through high school to split and make a new life for herself. Randy, who knows about the affair, acknowledges this possibility but thinks things will get better when the kids are out of the house.
The Challenges: Intimacy and Financial Stability
Irene and Randy have a strong bond born of similar parenting styles and a feeling that they have done a good job raising their sons and providing them with every opportunity. But that has come at a cost of substantial financial pressure, with neither parent able to deny their sons anything. Team sports and other activities put them on the hook for about $1,000 per month per child, which has been taking a serious monetary toll. The biggest problem by far, however, at least for Irene, is the lack of intimacy in the marriage.
I: “Even though Randy has had a solid job off and on since we have been together, we are always stretching, especially with the boys’ activities. Neither of us can say no. We want the kids to have a well-rounded experience living in Marin.”
R: “We are still in our ‘starter house,’ which drives Irene crazy. There are choices we made way back when we decided to have three kids and live in Marin. Irene seems to forget that we made that choice, and now she is just angry about it all the time. If we were living outside Marin, we would have a much easier lifestyle.”
I: “We can still have a good time together and we get along well for the most part, but the romance, and the fun, is gone. The thought of taking care of each other’s needs or making each other feel attractive was lost a long time ago. I got so tired of being the one initiating sex that it just stopped for me. I probably only have three more decades on the planet — I still feel young and healthy and like there are other options out there for me. I just want to get the kids through high school and off to college and then start over, and I don’t want to start over with Randy.”
R: “I have been working so hard to keep the house paid for and the family expenses paid that I am totally exhausted. Sometimes it takes everything I have just to get through the day. And frankly, Irene can be nasty — when there is so much conflict, and she is pushing, pushing at me, I don’t want to be with her. Once the kids are gone, I think there is a good chance that we will reconnect.”
The Advice From Irene and Randy
Randy’s recommendations are primarily tied to finances — keep closer tabs on them, and turn down, for example, a trip to Aspen when the family can’t really afford it. He admits that he generally feels if he ignores a problem it will go away, and that perhaps that perspective has harmed his relationship irrevocably. Irene wishes that they had truly hung on to date night early on and never let it go. She believes it is essential to treat each other with love and respect and to show it rather than just say it — “work on your marriage monthly, weekly, daily, work on it before it seems insurmountable to fix, before it’s too far gone to bring it back.”
Karen and Steve
The Open Marriage
“I think we’ve found the solution to a happy marriage,” Karen says, smiling. “And it didn’t happen overnight.” Most friends and family glancing at the family’s holiday card would see an idyllic life: two grown daughters, one married and holding a smiling toddler on her hip, and Karen and Steve holding hands. However, the photo does not tell the entire story. “Not only do we have an open marriage,” says Steve, “we have swapped spouses and have threesomes with people we meet online.” Giving that information time to sink in, Karen adds, “It’s actually very clinical and hygienic” to find willing partners online, as some websites specialize in matching up people from open marriages. This seemingly unusual situation started a few years ago, when Karen, finished with childrearing and feeling attracted to a co-worker, told Steve she was ready to end their decades-long marriage. He countered with a proposal: “Let’s try an open marriage.” He too felt restless, but didn’t want to end their relationship. He told her it was OK to pursue this other man, but he just didn’t want to know the details. He also added the surprise idea of adding strangers into their sexual mix. “I’m not sure if this will last forever,” Karen says. “But I am enjoying this rather bizarre twist.”
The Challenges: Adjusting to an Uncommon Situation
K: “No one knows about this part of our marriage; we were both born and raised in Marin, and to keep our secret, we travel to other places to partake in our sexual encounters. I wanted to share this story, because as unusual as it sounds, it is working for us. I do worry that my daughters might find out, and I’m not sure what I would say if they did.”
S: “The hard part about our situation, to me, is that we started this later in life, after our kids were out of the house. It’s been a bit of a paradigm shift in how I see myself. I didn’t want to lose Karen forever, and I can understand why she had feelings for another man. We were barely having sex; I wasn’t interested. However, now it’s exciting and new, and I feel like we are discovering each other all over again.”
K: “I also feel it’s sad that we have to keep this a secret. There is an unfair stigma associated with couples who decide to date openly yet stay together, especially in comparison to those who have covert affairs and live a life completely separate and hidden from their spouse. There’s no guilt between us, as we share all the facts of our escapades. It’s not always laughs and passion; there are tears and worries too. But it’s exciting and liberating. We’re honest, responsible adults who haven’t been forced by society to turn off our sexuality. We’re just like any other married couple, except we are maybe a little bit more exciting to gossip about.”
The Advice From Karen and Steve
K: “Honesty. It’s not easy, but once you start down this path, being open and honest with each other is all you have. This includes [mentioning] jealousy. I had to tell Steve that I didn’t want to include one particular woman because of the way she flirted. It made me uncomfortable.”
S: “Try to not be so rigid. We are on this planet once. You are lucky if you find a spouse you care about, and sex is only one component of a marriage. I want to grow old with Karen and we will have a lot to talk about in those rocking chairs at the old age home.”
A WORD FROM THE EXPERTS
In the obvious-but-true category, therapists agree that one key to a successful marriage is for spouses to always treat each other with respect and compassion. Even if partners don’t agree, they still need to be respectful of the other person’s point of view. Making time for each other — some therapists suggest that a couple do whatever it takes for them to get away by themselves without kids for a weekend now and then — is cited as crucial as well.
“It takes a lot to live in Marin,” says Robert Nemerovski, president of the Marin County Psychological Association and a therapist who has practiced in the field for a decade. “Couples have a tremendous amount of pressure in their lives, even if they have extraordinary net worth.” Marin-based clinical psychologist Albert Wong agrees: “The financial pressures of what it takes to live in Marin seems to create significant burdens, both real and imagined, on many, and this sometimes reflects itself in increased interpersonal tension in significant relationships.”
One issue Nemerovski sees that could be more common for marriages in Marin: “There may be a tendency for people here to be more individualistic, more focused on self-actualization.” This “quest for fulfillment can pull someone in a different trajectory than they were originally on with their partner” or create “the belief that their family is not going to meet all of their needs.”
Speaking of family, “taking care of the couple relationship is really important,” says Helga Fasching, a couples therapist practicing in Marin. “It is important not to have the kids run the household but to set appropriate boundaries.” Once you do, there is more time to spend on the spousal relationship, she says.
Couples also feel less connected when they don’t carve out enough time away from work, day-to-day stressors, and parenting and domestic responsibilities. Kyle Canepa, the founder of Modern Shift, a Marin-based divorce resource network, finds that about two-thirds of divorces are instigated by women. She says women who approach their spouse about divorce have generally already made their decision, and husbands seem generally “blindsided” by it, having assumed that the marriage would eventually get back on track by itself. Women, according to Canepa, often reach an “authenticity point,” usually in connection with a significant anniversary or birthday or a health scare, which leads them to decide “this isn’t the life I want to live with the time I have left.” Many couples have sought her resources early in the process of separation to help find “financial freedom, coverage with child care — the issues that can bog a marriage down.” And some couples, using employment and therapeutic resources, do become “more empowered and more communicative” and decide to give their marriage another try.