Over 60s find love and sex but live apart

October 7, 2013
oldercouple beach

It’s 14 years since my widowed relative fell in love, and still she hasn’t married or moved in with her beau. There’s no way, she once told me, she would live with another man. It’s not that her 35-year marriage had been unhappy. She’d been devoted to her husband. But he’d been a lot older, and old-fashioned, too. He’d been kind but stubborn, especially on the matter of women’s role.

So though my relative was no feminist firebrand, indeed quite conservative, widowhood in her late 50s had brought her freedom – to drive, socialise, to call the shots, to be herself. We were surprised and delighted when a couple of years later she found herself a new man, a man who took her dancing. And it’s proved an enduring relationship.

Interestingly, she’s adamantly chosen to be “together but separate”. She’s resisted his pressure to marry or cohabit. He spends nights with her, and some holidays, but eventually she sends him home. She relishes her space. My relative is part of a trend, it seems. New Australian research shows that unlike younger people who look for partners to live with or marry, many older people choose to live separately, even though for all intents and purposes they’re a committed couple.

Sue Malta’s PhD research through Swinburne University of Technology took her into the homes of 45 Australians aged 60 to 92 on an exploration of love and sex in later-life relationships. Most in her sample had been widowed or divorced; 32 had found each other online while 13 had found each other in face-to-face settings. The positive impact of online dating services like RSVP and eHarmony on older people’s love-life is a familiar story.

But what took Dr Malta by surprise was that most of the couples preferred to live apart. They considered themselves to be in a committed, meaningful relationship; they might sleep together three or four nights a week. Indeed sex and intimacy were vital from the youngest to the oldest. But they maintained separate households for a few reasons. Like my relative, they were keen to preserve their independence and autonomy. “They wanted to come and go as they pleased; they didn’t want to have to account for how they spent their money,” Dr Malta told me. “One gentleman in his 70s said he kept a very untidy house and he didn’t want to change. A woman said, ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s his is his and neither of us will encroach.’”

It was also important to protect the primacy of their relationships with adult children as well as their children’s inheritance. Children could be welcoming of the parent’s new partner, or hostile. In one case the children damned the new woman as a gold digger and refused to meet her. But whatever the attitude, the parents felt they could better keep the children onside and avoid financial complications by maintaining their own place.

Another reason was the couples’ reluctance to do the day-to-day caring jobs for each other – changing her light bulbs, washing his smelly socks, doing her garden, making his dinner and his bed. And while the research didn’t push in this direction, I wonder whether they also wanted to avoid the responsibility of caring long-term – through sickness and dementia. Anyone who’s seen David Williamson’s classic play Travelling North will remember how the dashing silver-haired Frank evolved into a cranky, sick old man not so long after having swept Frances off her feet and away from Melbourne to live with him in the country. A cautionary tale, heeded by many  women, it seems.

What’s made this “together but separate” arrangement possible is, I believe, a fascinating about-face in attitudes to sex. The pre-baby boomer generation once might have believed the only proper place for sex was in the marriage bed (well for ‘good’ women at least). Now they’ve absorbed the sexual mores of their children, and with time pressing, they’re grabbing the moment.

Could this be the perfect arrangement? Certainly Dr Malta, now a fellow with the National Ageing Research Institute, met many happy people. And they were keen to tell her sex didn’t stop at 70. “The sex in a long-term marriage was not as fulfilling or as intimate or as liberating as the sex they were having in older age,” she said. “Intercourse was no longer the gold standard; lying in bed naked, pleasuring each other was mentioned…” One 73 year-old woman said, “It’s so much more sexual when the penis doesn’t work the way it used to.”

If there’s a downside, it’s that family members may not take the “together but apart” relationship seriously. I know of a man in his late 80s who was persuaded by his children to sell up and move to the city where they lived, away from his partner of more than ten years. Were they worried his partner would not be committed to caring for him if he needed it? And were they right? Traditionally it’s been husbands and wives in 50 and 60-year marriages who’ve been each other’s mainstays in old age. Doubtless there’ll be implications for the government as this new family form becomes more prevalent. But who can quibble with a set-up that brings love, intimacy, as well as autonomy and independence to people in later life?

What do you know about living “together apart”? Do add a comment to further the conversation.

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