For the millions of baby boomers who decide to stick it out,
survival depends on ‘flexibility, humor and affection.’
Feb. 20, 2006 issue – Cheryl Jernigan still talks excitedly about the night she met her husband, Jeff. It was Friday, the 13th of August, 1971—the summer of the Pentagon Papers—and the “lust,” says Cheryl, “was immediate.” Within two years, Cheryl and Jeff, then 21, were married. Over the years they worked hard—she in health care, he in banking—and played hard, taking biking vacations around the country and entertaining their 12 nieces and nephews. Then the double whammy hit: first, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, and last year Jeff learned he had prostate cancer. The diagnoses rocked their lives, but the couple, now both 54, has soldiered through. “We’re soulmates,” says Cheryl. “This has only deepened our relationship.”
Baby boomers, it turns out, are not invincible. Now that their youthful rock-and- roll romances are over and the kids have grown up and taken the SAT, it’s time for Marriage, Act II—and it’s not always a pretty picture. The stressors that strike, from health crises to layoffs to infidelity, are emotionally and financially painful, and plenty of relationships have crumbled because of them. Boomers grew up as divorce rates surged, making the exit door more of a right than a taboo. Today, 43 percent of first marriages will break up within 15 years, according to the CDC. For those couples who do stay together, the rough times will test every ounce of commitment. Some will make peace with a new kind of relationship, where a spouse is no longer expected to be everything—best friend, lover, financial partner—and where friends and interests outside marriage provide sustenance. Others will forgive even the most egregious flaws. The key to those who succeed? “They have flexibility and humor and affection,” says marriage researcher John Gottman, cofounder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle.
They also have remarkable optimism. Seventy-nine percent of boomers surveyed by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago said they didn’t expect to experience serious health limitations until at least the age of 70. But illness can strike at any age, and it strains even the healthiest relationship. Sharon Manne, director of the psycho-oncology program at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center, says communication is critical—sharing concerns (“Will he stand by me?”) and fears (“Am I going to die?”) instead of stifling them to avoid upsetting a partner.
It’s never easy. In November 2004, a year and a half after Kathleen Neal and Jim Lutz got married (both for the second time), Jim was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Kathleen, 60, has nursed Jim, 53, through two surgeries, chemo and radiation. For a while, the steroids Jim took made him testy. “We went through a period where he kept saying, ‘You don’t love me anymore—we’re going to get a divorce’,” says Kathleen. The other day, Jim got lost on his way to buy a cup of coffee. “Sometimes it’s so hard I want to run screaming in the opposite direction,” she says. Their saving grace: a network of family and church friends. “This is the most wonderful man in the world,” says Kathleen. “I won’t let brain cancer take him down.”
That determination is helping boomer couples move on after a pink slip, too. A layoff at middle age, even in a two-income family, can throw health insurance, college tuition and retirement plans into turmoil. “If you lose your job at 30, with no kids, that’s terrible,” says psychologist Stephen Goldbart, of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, in Kentfield, Calif., “but it’s nothing like losing it at 50.” The ego takes a big hit, too—especially among men—and can destroy intimacy. He loses his sense of manliness, she loses interest and “their sexual relationship goes down the hill,” says Goldbart. Outside the bedroom, spouses often blame and resent their partners when what’s really needed is a plan for moving forward. Carolyn and Clyde Lowstuter, who run an executive-career-development firm in Bannockburn, Ill., reach out to spouses, encouraging them to release their anger so they can be more supportive at home. “They really do need to vent,” says Carolyn.
Some boomers are turning bad news into new lives. Ray Szpakowski, a comptroller in the steel industry, was laid off just days before he and his wife, Kathy, set sail on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. It was Ray’s second layoff in 16 years. He felt useless, and Kathy worried that their marriage would crumble. “He talked less and ate less,” says Kathy, 52. “I got depressed, slept more and gained 20 pounds.” But the couple talked out their dreams and their finances, and Ray, now 54, decided to open his own tax practice. Today his business is booming. “I wish I’d done this a long time ago,” he says.
Of all the assaults on a marriage, infidelity can be the hardest to accept. How many boomers stray? Nobody really knows. In a recent AARP study, less than 10 percent of married men and women older than 45 admitted to an affair, but in other surveys, infidelity stats soar into the double digits. Not so long ago, marriage was a practical arrangement intended to produce offspring, and couples stuck it out even if they weren’t happy. Boomers have set the bar much higher. “They want partners without flaws, bodies without flaws, children without flaws,” says Dr. Frank Pittman, a family therapist in Atlanta, where more than half of his clients have had an affair. “When people start looking for a perfect life, they end up being miserable.”
The imperfections of life—a stressful job, the angst of teenagers—led Brian Bercht, 47, to hook up with a co-worker in his 18th year of marriage. The night Brian finally told his wife, Anne, she sat in the same spot in the living room until dawn, nursing a single cup of coffee. Initially, Anne directed her anger at the other woman. “I fantasized about wanting to kill her,” she says. But ultimately, she decided her marriage was worth saving. She released her rage by taking fast runs and writing in her journal. And through counseling, she and Brian began to work at accepting each other’s flaws. Some couples won’t make it, but for others, the agony will pay off. “Couples find that they can develop a degree of honesty and trust that they never had before,” says Peggy Vaughan, founder of the Beyond Affairs Network, which hosts infidelity-support groups worldwide. The experience was so profound for the Berchts, they went public, and this summer, Anne becomes the new director of Vaughan’s network.
In general, marriage is good for you: married people tend to be healthier and live longer. Marital strain, however, isn’t. In one intriguing study, researchers found that skin blisters took two days longer to heal in couples who showed high amounts of hostility compared with couples who exhibited low levels. With the right skills, spouses can work through the challenges, says Howard Markman, of the University of Denver, who leads “Love Your Relationship” marital workshops. Markman’s mantra: “Ask not what your relationship can do for you, but what you can do for your relationship.” Echoes of the ’60s, guidance for all time.
With Vanessa Juarez
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