Mary Kenny: The platonic remarriage
When sex goes out of a relationship, so does toxicity
Published 28/08/2016 | 02:30
'Yes," he says, "I am married, but sort of re-married, in a manner of speaking." He was a man in his 60s and he explained that he and his wife had been married, first, in their 20s. They'd had two children, but the marriage was turbulent and became hopelessly adversarial. So, in their middle 40s, they separated. They didn't get divorced because neither of them was looking to marry anyone else. Also, the husband had religious feelings and didn't want to embark on a divorce unless his wife demanded it, which she didn't.
"So, for over 18 years, we lived apart. Lived in different parts of the country. Exchanged Christmas cards and the odd phone call. Reasonably amicable about the children." And then, in their 60s, they met up again, found they weren't quarrelling anymore. His wife said she'd be glad to come back to share his life again. But on one condition: the relationship would be platonic. They would live together as friends. No sexual dimension.
He agreed. And so they settled down together again in domestic harmony, if not bliss. "It's astonishing," he observes. "When sex goes out of a relationship, it is just so much more peaceful. So much less toxic." The battles and turbulence of yesteryear were all spent and they were now in the calmer waters of platonic companionship, doing lots of bridge and gardening.
It wouldn't suit everyone. Plenty of surveys show that people in their 60s, 70s and 80s still want to enjoy a sexual relationship. The main complaint of older women, as far as I can gauge it, is that there aren't enough men to go around: and even when there are, either the old gals are fighting over the chaps, or else the men, the swine, are looking for younger women. So this 60-something couple - if they feel their lives are harmonious in their friendly, but asexual, companionship - are fortunate to have found what suits them. And to have avoided another risk of the senior years: loneliness.
It's interesting that he believes that when the sexual element goes out of a relationship, so does the toxicity. Not that conjugal love is always necessarily toxic: but when passion flows in one direction, it can as easily flow in all directions, and ardent hearts may be accompanied by fiery heads. There is an established link between high testosterone levels and high aggression, and maybe that can be manifest as toxicity in a relationship. That is, the sex and the anger may go together. I don't know if there has ever been a reliable study about the link between domestic violence, domestic abuse and hot sex; if not, there could be a useful PhD awaiting some sociologist.
There's another aspect of asexual old age which can be pleasing. Some women dislike the experience of becoming "invisible" as they grow older, but invisibility is refreshingly benign. You're not fancied by anybody, so you're not threatening to anybody, either.
The asexual older person can strike up a conversation with a stranger any time, any place, without being suspected of angling for a hook-up. I actually do know a woman in her 70s who can still "pull" - she's a bit of a phenomenon - but I wouldn't want to have that gift. Sex appeal in your 70s takes energy and maintenance. Flirting can be hard work and you always have to be on top form. I'd prefer Planet Plato, and its unruffled serenity.
There's another reward, too, in this realm. Women should treasure their female friends, who remain so loyal and stalwart all their lives: but once you're in the platonic category, you grow closer, even more intimate, with male friends too. Once you're old and harmless, there's no jealousy involved if you're good pals with somebody's husband or partner. I'm sad to say that I've long lost both my brothers, but men I've known for years have now become more like brother substitutes.
When strong feelings about sex are replaced by this semi-detached aplomb, some of the controversial issues around sexuality seem to have less resonance. You begin to identify with the splendid Victorian thespian known as Mrs Patrick Campbell, who said, concerning other people's sexuality, that she didn't mind what they did "so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses." Or even more disdainfully, Lord Chesterfield, who advised his son, regarding erotic concourse, "the pleasure is momentary, and the position ridiculous," - a thought that now occurs to me whenever I see elaborate grunting and gasping on screen.
One mustn't become sour or crabby, but one may become more lofty. All that fuss, in America, about trans-gender bathrooms. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn who shares my toilet facilities: every time I have to queue outside the female lavatory at a theatre or public event, I'm within an ace of slipping into the more vacant gents'. Trans-gender bathrooms may free us all from loo queues.
But if sex - its pleasures as well as its toxicity - recedes, babies do not. Age often brings an enhanced sense of wonder, awe and affection for babies, toddlers and kiddiwinks. Virginia Ironside, veteran agony aunt in her 70s who does a one-woman show about being old, confessed recently that reading about Daljunder Kaur, the Indian woman who gave birth at 72, really made her feel quite tempted to do likewise. Crazy, but alluring.
As life moves towards its ebb, its beginning seems ever more miraculous, and Mr and Mrs Platonically Wed are united in adoring the grandchildren.