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Growing older, staying married longer

In "September Songs," journalist Maggie Scarf shares the findings of her extensive interviews with aging couples, revealing how a longer life span affects marriage. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

As their average life expectancy increases, today's adults experience a whole new stage of life — the years after their children have left home and before the onset of old age. Often, they are experiencing these "bonus years" with their significant others. In "September Songs," journalist Maggie Scarf shares the findings of her extensive interviews with older couples, revealing how these extra years change married life. An excerpt.

Chapter one: Lynn and Carl McBride
My interview with the McBrides began — as did all my interviews — with a short discussion of the “bonus years”: the recent and phenomenal change in the human life span. I stated that in 1900, in the industrialized West, the average person’s life expectancy was not quite fifty years, while in the year 2006 it stood at a record high of 77.6. In a single century, a full thirty years had been added to the time that the average person could be expected to live.

In consequence, a new stage has been added to the life cycle — one that, I suggested, mirrors the adolescent years in terms of the number of physical, psychological and other life changes that had to be confronted. But unlike adolescence, this later stage of living remained relatively mysterious territory, for its challenges and demands had been far less researched than had the earlier midlife years and the latter, declining years (the so-called “old-old” years) near the end of life. The “bonus years” of fairly healthy later adulthood (the fifties, sixties, early seventies) were the area that I had marked out for exploration. I wanted to find out just how people in this age-group were experiencing them.

As I said my little speech, both Lynn and Carl McBride were nodding their heads as if to say they knew just what I was talking about. So I took out my digital tape recorder and placed it on the dark walnut cocktail table between us. Then I opened the large drawing pad on my lap and turned the pages until I came to one that was blank.

I was embarking upon the interview, as I always do, by quickly constructing an outline of the most important facts of the McBrides’ history as a couple. This bare-bones sketch would contain mundane, ordinary details such as the length of their marriage, the names and ages of their adult children, the names of their parents and information about which of their parents were still living. I was also filling in peripheral information about each of their backgrounds, and some general sense of what their lives in their families of origin had been like.

In so doing, I was making use of a well-known device called a “family genogram.” I have invariably found this clinical tool to be the shortest, safest, most efficient way of gathering an overview of a couple’s emotional and relational biography — a preliminary impression of each individual’s life narrative and major themes, as they’d intertwined with each other in the making of their unique relationship. For, dry and factual as these first, commonplace questions posed in the genogram actually are, they are always laden with rich associations —  associations that begin spilling out in the course of the ensuing discussion. And so the conversation begins.

I feel so rich!
Lynn McBride, who is a slim, short woman with straight blond Dutch-cut hair, told me that this was a first marriage both for her and her husband, and they had been married for thirty-five years. Carl, who is much taller than his wife, has a rangy physique and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. He told me he was fifty-nine and Lynn was two years older. The couple had three grown children: two daughters and a son. All of the McBrides’ children were now in their twenties, and all were getting on well in their lives. The older two had graduated from outstanding colleges and were working in New York and Chicago, at jobs they really enjoyed. The youngest was about to graduate from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The family room we had settled in had a friendly, warm feeling. Carl sat at one end of a long, subtly tweedy sofa scattered with loose back pillows. Lynn sat closer to the other end, with her legs up on the sofa forming a bridge between them. I was seated on one of three large, comfortable chairs that were ranged across the other side. I found myself admiring the lovely worn Isfahan rug that covered the floor beneath this grouping, and which was bordered by an expanse of varnished hardwood floors.

When I asked the couple about their relationships with their now adult children, Lynn was the one to supply the answer. “We get along fine,” she said cheerfully. “In fact, just recently they thanked me for staying home when they were growing up.” I smiled at her, and said that moms rarely receive such outright kudos. She laughed, colored slightly, glanced at her husband in a somewhat ambiguous way, then said, “I agree.”

I learned that both the McBrides were accomplished musicians; Lynn played the flute, but the piano was the major instrument for both of them. At the present time, Carl was a full professor of music at a major Ivy League university in northern New England. Lynn had gone very far in her musical studies — she had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree — but had eventually decided that the field didn’t suit her.

“I’d always had an interest in psychology and in mental health,” she said. “This was true from the time I was a teenager. And as I got older I found myself less and less interested in the music business, so I dropped out before getting my doctorate.” She’d wanted to begin her training to be a counselor or social worker immediately, but explained that she couldn’t afford to go back to school for a while. “Of course, we lived in North Carolina at the time,” she said dryly, as if this were part of a more convoluted explanation.

I let that pass, and asked the couple if they had given any thought to their eventual retirement. Since the typical age of retirement in this country is between sixty and sixty-two, I was surprised to hear that they hadn’t. Carl said that he planned to teach until age sixty-five, and maybe seventy. “I will probably teach thirteen to fifteen more years ... or I plan to.” Lynn, who had recently completed a postgraduate fellowship in social work, said she felt closer to the beginning than the end of a career. “I have my first real job in years, and I feel so rich!” She was working at an outpatient unit for recently discharged mental patients, most of whom suffered from borderline personality disorder.

Thoughts about retirement were simply not on this couple’s horizon.

Lynn said she thought that life as a retiree would be altogether boring. “I don’t understand why people retire!” she declared. But then, after a brief pause, she said musingly, “I suppose there will come a time when I have less energy and want to work part-time. And we’re probably going to want to travel, so I’ll want more freedom ....” Her voice trailed off as if such notions had been reserved for a misty, far-off future. Carl’s expression was one of impassive agreement.

The McBrides’ responses were unusual, for most couples in their age range tended to answer this question at length, with a stream of stories, fantasies of the future, recollections of the past, accounts of their career experiences. But neither Lynn nor Carl had given any serious consideration to eventually retiring from their careers.

My next questions were about health. Usually, people at their time of life have a complaint of a trivial or, in some instances, a serious sort. In Lynn’s case, there had been a real scare — a cancer of the thyroid, one that had been successfully removed several years ago. She was using thyroid replacement hormones and feeling completely like herself. There was no effect on her daily life at all.

“Count your blessings,” I said.

“Well, I’m trying,” Carl said — a remark I found somewhat perplexing at that moment.

I asked them if they’d ever given thought, as people at our age tend to do (my instinct was that it would be tactful to include myself in this ticklish question), to what life would be like in the absence of the spouse. “I don’t think that anybody at these particular ages has any idea how long she or her spouse will live,” I added.

There was a pause. “Of course not,” Lynn said, while her husband nodded his agreement.

“Do you ever think about that?”

“Yes, I do,” Lynn said.

“Yes, for sure,” Carl said, almost in unison.

I asked them how they thought that he or she would handle it.

“It’s interesting that you should ask that,” Lynn said, “because he just got back from a weeklong trip to Toronto, and I was pretty lonesome and I thought about it.” She shook her head as if to shake the notion away, then smiled. “The fact is, we expect to live to eighty. But you never know ....”

“Anything can happen,” Carl said, an apprehensive expression settling on his face.

“Yes,” I said, “friends start to thin out ....” I was thinking of my beloved friend Betsey, who had died recently of pancreatic cancer.

Carl said that hadn’t happened to them yet; they hadn’t lost close friends of their own generation. “What we’ve been doing is losing parents. Lynn’s dad died four years ago, and my dad died a couple of years later.” A glance at my sketchbook told me that Lynn’s mother had died many years earlier; the McBrides now had just one living parent, Carl’s mother.

He told me that she was now living in a retirement village in the midwestern farming community where he grew up; she’d had a life with which she was contented. “She is very secure and happy living in that culture,” he said. His tone of voice made it sound as if she were living in a culture that had, over time, grown foreign to him.

I asked Lynn how she thought she would handle things if she were on her own.

“When I think about that, I’m glad I have this career .... because I would probably stay real busy, and I suppose I would reach out to friends more. I would probably depend on friends and colleagues far more than I do now,” she replied.

I turned to Carl. “How about you?”

He hesitated a long time before responding. “I do think that if Lynn were to go first, I would grieve ... I would grieve a lot .... If she were to go first, it would be very, very difficult ....” His voice trailed off.

When I prompted him by asking how he thought he would manage, he simply said, “That’s a tough call.” He fell silent again, and I didn’t press him further.

At last Lynn said, “We thought of that in regard to our parents — which one would manage better if the other went first. And it did come out better, in both cases.”

“For both.” Carl nodded. “Because her mother died first, and my dad died first. And in each couple that person was the more problematic member of the couple. By quite a long shot, I think.”

“I see,” I said, knowing that this was a subject to which we would be returning.

When I asked the McBrides how money was managed, and whether financial decisions tended to be a source of tension, Carl was the one to answer. Money had been a huge source of tension throughout the seventeen years they were in North Carolina, he said. “I had a pretty good academic job, but I was teaching at a state university; and I was stuck, not making a great salary. And I didn’t have that much leverage. And so Lynn had to work. All through those North Carolina years, she had her church jobs — playing accompaniment on the piano, leading the choir. And for a while she had a half-time job in the business school.”

I turned to Lynn. “Yet money was a source of tension between the two of you?”

“Oh, hugely,” she assented, repeating the word her husband had used.

I asked her to give me the outlines of what the money tensions had been about. Lynn shrugged, said that she had always been the one who was looser with money and Carl had always been the tighter one. She thought this had to do with their different backgrounds and their different points of view.

“My dad was a Methodist minister, and while he didn’t make a lot of money, it was a stable income. Also, he had a master’s degree and was respected as a professional in the community. My mother was a college graduate, too, and a professional, as well. And so, while we had to be careful about money, we didn’t experience —”

“Your dad handled money extremely well,” Carl said.

“My dad handled money pretty well,” Lynn agreed. Money had not been a source of anxiety in her family of origin.

I asked Carl to tell me a little more about his own background.

“My family was very different from hers. There was much more of a working-class feel to it, and less of a professional feel. Both my parents grew up on farms and went through the difficult times of the Depression. My dad had this medium-size printing business in a small Oklahoma town, and it was our only source of income as my brother and I were growing up. So we didn’t have the gentilities that Lynn’s family had. Her dad was this Methodist minister, and her mom had grown up in Georgia — she was a sophisticated southern girl who knew the way the world worked .... My dad knew what you learn growing up on a farm .... His own parents were separated when he was a baby.”

“Did you say your grandparents separated when your dad was a baby?” I asked. That addendum seemed to have come out of nowhere.

“Right,” Carl said. His father had been fatherless; he’d been raised by his mother alone, and by various aunts and uncles as well. “He got bounced around a lot,” Carl said. I had the fleeting thought that his father might have been an illegitimate child.

“Your dad not only got bounced around, but it sounds as if he came from a desperately poor background,” I said. “So it’s possible that all that anxiety about money was something you inherited from the family’s past?” My sentence ended as a question.

“Oh yes,” Carl said. Then he frowned and said that the problem often wasn’t his father’s inability to show a profit in his printing business; it was also his way of making very, very bad decisions about money. “He would hire questionable people and give them a lot of responsibility. The rest of us could see immediately that that was a bad judgment, and eventually, he would lose a lot of money. Or later, he would invest in mutual funds and be taken in by some fast talker.”

In short, I thought, unlike Lynn’s father, Carl’s father had handled money badly.

Is money a source of tension now?
When it came to handling money and interacting with his wife about the ways she was spending it, Carl’s level of anxiety had clearly been very high. It was not the only source of tension between them, he said, but it had surely been one of the more dramatic ones — “a real sore spot” — for many, many years.

“Does money continue to be a source of tension now?” I asked them.

Lynn shook her head. “Not so much, no.”

“Somewhat?” I was responding to a note of uncertainty in her voice.

“It’s not for me,” Carl said. And Lynn followed by saying that it was not a source of tension between the two of them. “The reason I might have sounded equivocal,” she told me, “is that we’re still paying off tuition loans for our kids’ education. Because we couldn’t afford it as they went through.”

“Well, we’ve paid some off, but we borrowed a lot,” Carl said. “And we’re dealing with that debt right now. But I don’t think we have much tension about money, for a number of reasons. Both of us have grown a lot, emotionally. And it doesn’t hurt to be teaching at a first-rate university and making a pretty good salary,” he added, with a smile.

“And fortunately, what I’m making at my new job is going to help pay off the tuition,” Lynn said. “So that’s a good feeling for me.”

I looked from one to the other. “Then I gather that you’re both on the same page about handling money, at this point. Money is not a source of quarrels — is that right?”

Lynn and Carl turned to each other, exchanged a questioning glance, then turned back and nodded confidently to me.

A time of despair
There are some questions that I usually reserve for the latter part of the interview. Questions such as How have you been able to forgive each other’s failings and betrayals (if there have been any)? can on occasion elicit a flood of highly sensitive, emotional material. I had expected nothing of the sort to happen when I asked the McBrides about their relations with their adult children. Their earlier reports about their children had sounded as if things were going well.

But Carl said, “The critical thing — the question about the kids brings it up — ” He stopped.

I shook my head as if to say I didn’t understand.

Then he explained that in the months preceding their move from North Carolina he had been unable to decide whether he wanted to remain where he was or take the new, more prestigious and better-paying job in the North. “I went back and forth, back and forth, in making that decision, and it was a terribly tense time for all of us. Lynn and I were fighting a lot; she and the kids wanted to go ... and eventually we did leave North Carolina. But as soon as we arrived, I had a huge reaction, and I got severely depressed.”

There was a silence, which I ended by asking quietly, “A kind of buyer’s remorse?”

He nodded. “A buyer’s remorse for this house, which was in terrible shape when we moved in.” Carl paused, looked contentedly around the sunny, pretty living room, with its white-painted walls and carved ceiling moldings. “But remorse mostly for the job. I spent three years dying to go back — so much so that I got three offers in a row to go back to essentially the same job.”

It was clear that he’d been desperately homesick. But Lynn and the children were staunchly opposed to going back.

“So somehow I was able to hold on and stay here,” Carl continued.

“Which in retrospect was the better thing to do. It was right. We’re all in much better shape than we would have been if I’d either stayed in North Carolina in the first place or especially if we had gone back.

There was no way of going backward ... we couldn’t ...”

Something in his tone made me ask: “So you people were on the edge of separating ... or divorcing ... ?”

“Yes,” Lynn said, shortly.

“Yes,” Carl echoed.

“And this went on over a three-year period?” I asked.

Carl shook his head, said that it had actually been a five-year period, during which his depression became so severe that he spent a month in the university’s inpatient psychiatric unit. This suggested to me that he must have been actively suicidal for a period of time. When I asked him if that had been the case, he nodded. “Before the hospital time I was — that’s why I went in.”

I put my pencil down on my sketchbook, looked from Carl to Lynn and then back to Carl. He had a calm expression on his face, and looked well-muscled — as if he were physically fit and in no way drained of vigor. “You seem to be in great shape now,” I said. “It’s amazing to hear of this.”

“I am in great shape,” Carl said. “But back then, the torment — my own personal torment — was unbearable. Somehow I managed to do my job — to teach well — but it was a struggle to even gather the energy and momentum to even drive back and forth to my classes.

Later, after I got out of the hospital, I didn’t feel suicidal anymore. But I was so worn down, so depleted.”

Had any of the medications that are now available been of any help to him? I asked.

“He is very resistant to medications,” Lynn said evenly.

Carl nodded, but said he suspected that his current antidepressant — one of the older ones called nortriptyline — might be helping him somewhat. He wasn’t sure. “Still, the upshot of all this was that one day, about three years ago come November, I woke up and — just like that — I felt like myself. And I haven’t felt depressed since that time.” He smiled at me, looking almost jubilant, an expression that brought a look of pleasure to his wife’s face.

I smiled back, reminded him that this whole discussion had arisen when I’d asked them about the children. “So tell me about the kids,” I prompted.

“Okay, you’re right,” Carl said. “And the reason that your question about the kids brought this up was that through all of this, they have been absolutely wonderful. I think we have basically no complaints. We feel very fortunate that they are as happy as they are, and that they’re doing so well, and things are working out so well for them .... Because obviously, as they were growing up, there were a lot of tensions in the family around various things.”

Money had been one of them, that was clear to me. Where the family lived had also been an issue. I wondered what the other concerns had been, and what had cast this husband, father and respected professional into so profound and prolonged a depressive state.

Her anger
When I asked the McBrides how each of them had disappointed and surprised the other, over time, Lynn reared back in her seat. It was almost as if I’d been playing catch with Carl and had suddenly thrown the ball in her direction.

“I know,” I said sympathetically, “that question’s a dog, isn’t it?”

“Boy, that is a loaded question,” she said. “Whew! Well, do you want to go first?” she asked her husband. Then she said, “You go first.”

Carl paused momentarily, as if to gather his thoughts. “Over time, the way in which Lynn disappointed me — going way back, and early in the marriage — was that she just seemed to have a lot of anger. So that I would feel that our relationship was going along quite well, and then something would happen — it was like some sort of spark — and she would jump all over me. And this went on for years and years, and it was really always iffy. Not that we didn’t have a lot of good times — we did — but there were a lot of things that weren’t working.”

“So you felt you had to tiptoe around her?” I asked.

He nodded. “Right. And the thing was ...” He hesitated before continuing. “I think that our relationship was really affected by things we brought to the marriage from our families of origin. And I don’t want to dwell on it, but I think there’s something that affected our marriage in a very significant way, and was at the root of the depression ... which was that I was sexually abused for six years while I was growing up.”

Taken aback, I murmured, “By whom?” My own thought was that six years, in the life of a growing child, is a very long time. And was it his anger, or his wife’s anger, that we’d been discussing?

Carl said shortly, “It was a neighbor,” and his tone of voice suggested that we’d better leave it there. I sat still, saying nothing.

After a few moments, Carl went on to say that he had held this secret to himself all the way through high school and beyond. “I’d told Lynn about it, and I thought that I had dealt with it, but I hadn’t. And that’s what ultimately made me so vulnerable when we moved here. And so early on, especially in the North Carolina years, one of the ways Lynn disappointed me was that I thought everything in my life was wonderful — that we had great kids and a terrific family and that she and I had a wonderful relationship — but it was clear that Lynn didn’t believe that. She kept seeing real problems and feeling a lot of dissatisfaction with me.”

Carl went on to say that he had re-created a situation that existed in his high school days: one in which he was seen as a kind of golden boy — talented, smart, much admired. “I hadn’t realized that that situation was actually very destructive. To me.”

I asked him in what ways the situation had been destructive, and he turned to Lynn and asked her to answer. “It was destructive for me in the sense that Carl was really married to his career and an image of himself that he had in his head .... I mean, officially we did have a good life, and a lot of it was solid, but a lot of it was not very real.”

“You mean it was a fictional good life?” Both of them laughed and nodded.

Then I said, “But if I could stop you for a moment, I’m puzzled by the fact that you, Lynn, are the angry one and you, Carl” — I turned to him — “had a lot to be angry about, as an abused child ... ?”

“Oh yeah,” Lynn said, in a wry tone of voice. “It’s called Projective Identification.” And she gave me a knowing smile, which I returned.

In my first book on marriage — a book about couples ranging in age from late adolescence to their late forties — I had popularized the concept of Projective Identification. Despite its alarmingly complicated sounding name, this concept refers to a rather simple and quite prevalent psychological device in which one member of a pair pawns off on the other member whatever traits or feelings he or she can’t admit to — in Carl’s case, anger. He saw Lynn as all too prone to anger, while he was conscious of no anger within himself.

To put it differently, Lynn “carried the anger” for both of them, while Carl saw himself as completely devoid of angry feelings. Lynn was the “voice of anger” in their troubled relationship, and Carl felt critical of her even as he identified with her expression of his own disavowed, deeply buried rage.

Carl nodded, said, “Right.”

“Is that what was going on?” I asked the pair of them.

“Yes,” Lynn said. “Oh yes. Because Carl’s family do not do anger at all.”

A second-class citizen I turned to Carl, who nodded in agreement. He said that he was now able to feel his anger — and assert himself, if necessary — but that getting to this point had been a long, hard process.

“I could never have owned up to this a number of years ago, but having this whole ‘perfect family’ thing blasted to bits when we moved north was ultimately good in the long run. Because it revealed all the bad stuff that I was contributing to the marriage, and it ultimately uncovered all this bad stuff that was inside me .... And this gave us the opportunity to work it through.”

Lynn was leaning forward in her seat, as though impatient for a chance to speak. “And I guess your disappointment was his marriage to his career? Is that right?” I asked her.

“Yes, the marriage to the career and the fact that I never felt that I was at the top of Carl’s priority list. I felt like I was down a ways .... And then, when the kids came along, I felt that I was even under them.” There was indignation in her voice at this moment.

Carl said that when they first moved into their new home in New England, they’d started having horrible fights, and Lynn kept saying that she felt like a second-class citizen. “I think that somehow moving up here made her realize that for many years, while we were in North Carolina, she’d felt like a second-class citizen and been treated like one. But when we were living there, she hadn’t been able to articulate it —”

“Because the culture, when we were in the South, supported the myth,” Lynn interrupted him. “Carl had people all over that community eating out of his hand, and that culture did not allow me to have equal status with him. And so by definition I was a few steps down, so anytime I tried to assert myself I just got smashed. Because I was being non-feminine or too ballsy or whatever.” She smiled and shrugged.

Then she explained that while she and her husband were both classical pianists, she was a much stronger performer and he was a much stronger intellectual. But when they lived in North Carolina, neither of them was ever asked to do major performances in the university’s concert hall. Regardless of this fact, Carl enjoyed widespread respect and had the reputation of being a fabulous performer. “I didn’t get recognized at all for what I could do in music. It was subtle but it was a really macho atmosphere, so people in our social circle simply couldn’t accept the fact that I was good.”

I asked the McBrides about the ways they had surprised each other, over time.

“Maybe this is a terrible thing to say,” responded Lynn, “but my biggest surprise has been the way that Carl has turned himself around. Since the depression. Not just in terms of his mood, but the way he is in our relationship. Because, frankly, to be perfectly honest” — she paused and addressed Carl directly — “I don’t think this is any news to you” — then turned back to me — “by the time the kids were teenagers, I thought this was going to be over. I was prepared for that, because I thought, ‘Nothing is ever going to change.’ And I was not content to live in a one-, two- or three-down position for the rest of my life.

“So when we came here and Carl got depressed and wanted to go right back to North Carolina, knowing that I had been aching to get out of there for the past fourteen or fifteen years . . .”

“That’s kind of a low estimate.” Carl laughed.

“So when the first thing he says to me, almost literally, is that he wants to go back there, I could not believe my ears. So I thought, ‘This is over. This is just over.’ ”

Lynn’s big surprise, she reiterated, was her husband’s capacity to surmount what had happened to him, and where he had come from. But he has, she said, with a smile.

What had surprised Carl was far less sweeping, and it had happened slowly as he began to feel better and the relationship was improving. “I would say some trivial thing that in the past Lynn would have jumped at me for, and she wouldn’t jump at me. And that’s happened any number of times, and it’s been a pleasant surprise.

“I didn’t really register this early on, but I’ve felt for many years that she was incredibly dissatisfied. That somehow things weren’t working right for her ... that she was capable of a far more intimate relationship than I was. Part of it was her own personality, part of it was that I was just so frightened and terrified after the six years of abuse that I just couldn’t give, emotionally. In that way, the depression was a good thing, because I have learned how to do that. I mean, I don’t want to speak for her, but I do think we have an excellent relationship now.”

I turned, met Lynn’s gaze. “Well, would you agree?”

“Yes,” she answered, without hesitation.

This time of life
I asked the McBrides what name they would give this particular phase of their lives.

When neither of them responded, I prompted them by saying, “Adolescence has a certain mood-tone associated with it. A time of some turmoil, and of changes — in bodies, in outlook, in a variety of external circumstances — and this time of life is similar in certain ways. So if you think of it in terms of a movie or a book, what would you call it?”

Lynn said, “The New Beginning.” I nodded, thinking that for her, at age sixty-one, this was true in many ways.

Carl said, “Peace, I think.”

“So for both of you, it’s in the positive range?” I asked him.

“Yes, very strongly so.” He smiled, and his wife nodded her agreement.

The bonus years
As I sat there, I reflected that before the remarkable shift in health and longevity that this past century has witnessed, a couple such as the McBrides were likely to have been in their elderly/ill/dying years.

After all, Carl was now in his late fifties and Lynn in her early sixties; but here they were before me, looking healthy and content. It was clear that Carl had benefited greatly from the extended therapy he’d received in the course of his depression, for he had exorcised the demons of childhood sexual abuse that had haunted him throughout his life. Although early on he’d believed that he had “dealt with those events” by repressing them, they had prevented him from being a real, authentic human being, capable of being truly intimate with his wife.

And Lynn had sensed this but had been unable to reach him. She’d had “my own problems with mild depression,” she admitted in the course of the interview. These problems had been due to a chilly, disapproving mother and an emotionally distant, frustrating husband; in short, to an inability to make real human contact with those who should have been closest to her.

At the outset of the twentieth century, it occurred to me, this pair would have been unlikely to outlive their mutual dissatisfaction — not only with the course their individual lives had taken but with the lives they had lived together. So, despite the pain the McBrides had endured as they underwent so many major life upheavals—his job change, their move north, his depression — these extra decades of health and well-being had become a “bonus,” in every possible sense of that word. For it was time that had allowed for this profound transformation in the couple’s relationship.

Excerpted from “September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Maggie Scarf. Reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books.