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.
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.
"We have a home that is long and narrow, and divided in a sense," she says. "We have separate bedrooms, and separate offices. We even eat separately. We live like people who are not living in the same house, yet we live in the same house, which is kind of interesting. Our habits are very different and this wouldn't work any other way."
Karen Leach, a columnist in Austin, Texas, for The Good Life magazine, knows a married couple who live separately. "The wife moved to Austin and he lived in New York," she says. "She couldn't afford to get a divorce, but he was still willing to support her. She came to Austin because it was less expensive to live here and she also had relatives here."
Eventually the woman moved back to New York to take care of an older daughter with emotional problems. She now lives in a small downstairs apartment in her husband's house.
Other couples today are happily married but face challenges when their jobs keep them apart either out of economic necessity or sheer love of the work. David Hagerty and Louise Cadigan, married for seven years, had jobs they liked on opposite ends of Massachusetts. Mr. Hagerty would drive from Boston on the weekends to the Berkshire area to be with his wife, a personal and executive coach who helps others achieve goals.
"At first it was OK," says Hagerty, a management consultant, of the four years of driving back and forth. "But the problem was simply the amount of time it took to reconnect and be in alignment again, even though we talked on the phone nearly every day. A weekend is not enough to establish the emotional connection. And the house there began to feel more of a home space to her."
Even though they were active on the weekends, they took time to sit down, talk and listen to each other, and "be in rhythm," says Ms. Cadigan, who had previously been married. "We learned how to let each other in with signals, and agreed upon ways to connect."
But they realized the traveling was detracting from new found closeness in their marriage and both wanted to achieve that, particularly Hagerty, who had been single for many years. "We needed to be in a space together," he says. Now they live together in Boston, where both continue with their work.
After many years of marriage, some older couples choose separation to preserve assets, or because a spouse is unable to care for himself or herself and is under care in a rest home or hospital. Legally they are apart, but emotionally connected.
"In order to be eligible for certain government benefits for elder care, you have to exhaust almost all your assets," says Howard Raab, a divorce attorney with offices in Kingston, N.Y., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., "And if you are not married anymore, you are not responsible for your former spouse's support if that's the way you want it."
Other older couples dare to venture into new "spouse absent" territory, or challenge conventional relationships such as the Passas did.
For them there was no reason to divorce. "It costs too much to divorce," says Passa. She and her spouse sometimes shopped together, but ate meals apart, and drove different cars. "He was a Democrat and I was a Republican," she says. "I changed down through the years and he didn't."
Walsh says that because life expectancy was 47 years at the turn of the century, marriages then usually ended in the death of a spouse. "Today, after launching children, couples may have another 20 or 30 years together," she says, "which is a long time to keep a marriage together."
If the marriage has been traditional - husband works, wife cooks and raises children at home - the husband's retirement can mean adjustments that challenge many marriages.
"People who are married, and the man is no longer working, suddenly spend more time with each other," says Mr. Raab. "One or both realize they don't want to stay married anymore. Sounds kind of cold, but couples with long marriages are increasingly getting divorces."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society