One couple - two houses
For varied reasons, a growing number of married couples today are notliving together
Jake Passa smoked for all 55 years of his married life. His wife, Blanche, a nonsmoker, finally had enough after their children grew up and left home.Skip to next paragraph
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Mrs. Passa moved out, but not far away, just next door to Jake in a little house on Fourth Avenue in Grand Forks, N.D.
One of their daughters put up "His" and "Hers" signs on the shared lawn in front. They were the talk of the neighborhood, and even envied by some.
"Jake took care of both houses," says Passa, living now as a widow in Pennington, Minn., after her husband passed away last year, "but he couldn't stop smoking. We took care of each other in a kind of impersonal way."
Passa's forthright decision to move out, but stay close, also placed her near the center of a kind of postmodern relationship upheaval that is rolling through American society.
The United States Census Bureau has a name for this marital shifting: "Married, spouse absent." According to a l998 census figure, some 7 million spouses fall into this category, up by 790,000 from 1994.
In fact, "Married, spouse absent," could be the name of a TV show exploring the cultural changes occurring in the lives of people who say, "I do," but later say, "I don't."
"Twenty-five years ago unhappy couples would have lived in separate bedrooms, and would have kept the appearance of an intact marriage," says Froma Walsh, co-director of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago. "Now it can be out in the open, particularly if they are choosing separate houses or apartments rather than separate bedrooms."
But the growing number of spouses who are absent may not be just those teetering near divorce or wanting separation because of marital problems.
Dual careers keep couples apart geographically, or a spouse may be in long-term care. And many military families endure at least occasional separations. Men and women in prison may also be a factor. Even members of congress live in the Washington area, while their families remain back home.
Still, according to sociologists and lawyers, there is a trend toward divorce among couples who grew up in a time when divorce carried a stigma. "That's the major shift now," says Walsh. "As our population is aging, there is a higher divorce rate in later life even though overall divorce numbers have leveled off."
Part of the reason for fewer divorces overall is that many younger couples simply forgo marriage. The number of unmarried-couple households has grown from 523,000 in 1970 to 3.7 million in l994. Marriage is not seen by many couples as necessary to living together.
"In the 19th century you married to have children," says Walsh, "and you didn't expect to have your partner be everything to you. Couples often had separate bedrooms, and husbands often had mistresses. So, maybe the pattern of 'married, spouse absent' isn't all that new; it's just more in the open."
But there are contradictions at work that indicate the mixed emotions couples have over marriage and divorce today. "Divorce, which was going up to nearly 50 percent of marriages, has now leveled off to under 50 percent because there is more commitment for some to work at marriage and family life than there was in the 80s," says Walsh.
Divorce can also be difficult and expensive. Dividing assets can be emotionally draining leaving both partners less well-off. "There's always a segment of society that simply opts not to terminate marital ties," says Jerry Miller, a divorce lawyer in Beverly Hills, Calif., for 37 years. "These are the garden-variety procrastinators. But there is an ebb and flow to this over the years. I see fewer people trying to reconcile these days. We are in a society where instant gratification is the key, and this impatience is no different for some when it comes to divorce"
On the other hand, Gregory Firestone, a mediator and marriage counselor in Tampa, Fla., says, "I see divorces that can take two or three years, and sometimes people stay separated because they want to avoid the stress and strain of divorce."
Joan Medlicott, who lives in Barnardsville, N.C., and is the author of the book "Celibate Wives," has established a living arrangement with her husband over issues that might have ended other marriages.