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After 25 years of marriage should friendship come before passion?

I've been married to my husband for 25 years and our children have left home. We've started to live pretty much separate lives -- I know he has the odd girlfriend, but I don't mind.

We don't have a lot in common any more and though I like him as a friend, there's no passion left. I want to separate properly, and start having a life of my own, but my husband says there's no point, and it would just be expensive. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Patricia

Virginia says . . .

There is a point in a marriage when it can seem sensible to separate if you're not getting on in the way you describe. In other words, no dramas, no violence, drinking or affairs that upset you, just a general drifting apart.

I'd say that, depending on how old you both are, that point might be after somewhere between 15 and 20 years of marriage. You both have time possibly to meet someone new or certainly establish a new and fulfilling life for yourself if you want to stay single.

After that, I'm not so sure. I suppose it just seems such a shame, if that doesn't sound too wet. What I mean is: you've lasted this long, which is quite an achievement. Why break it up now, when clearly you're able to lead reasonably separate lives without disturbing each other?

Breaking up would mean so many dramas. The children would be upset, however old they are. Your husband's right -- it would be extremely expensive. You'd both have to downsize. You would almost certainly lose a friend, because single older women are quite voracious when it comes to single divorced men.

I fear that instead of having a creative and exciting life, you might well find yourself doing nothing but going to art galleries with girlfriends and having lunch with more old girlfriends and wondering what on earth you thought you were doing when you broke up with what you admit is a thoroughly amiable companion. People whose partners have died say that it's not the lack of someone to do things with that upsets them -- there are plenty of those -- but the lack of someone to do nothing with.

What about that moment when you fall downstairs? What if a beloved friend or relative died? It would be nice to have someone around, wouldn't it?

And who's to know whether this rather fallow period in your marriage might not develop into, well, not passion, obviously, but a kind of deep understanding and a different kind of love?

You see, at this stage you can't ever have a really, really long-term relationship with anyone again. Life's simply not long enough.

I think you see your marriage at present as some grisly old dishcloth that's been stuck behind the sink for years. Wouldn't it be possible to see it, instead, as a rather intricate and fascinating piece of embroidery which, although moth-eaten, still has charm, in a faded way?

If you can bear it, I'd stick around for a couple more years before you throw in the towel. Eventually, the girlfriends will drift away or your husband's sex-drive will fizzle out. Meanwhile, you can still develop a fulfilling single life while still being married. But eventually, you might find you've got a rather scrummy wine on your hands, instead of the bottle of sour old plonk you think is lying in your cellar at the moment.

Readers say . . .

Look before you leap

I think the most important question is: how do you see yourself living in the "autumn" of your life? Do you want companionship, someone who is a friend, reliable and safe, and do you want security during your retirement years? How will you cope if you become ill, or unable to manage on your own? There are thousands of couples who live very amicably and happily without "passion". They keep each other company and enjoy independent lives within the framework of a safe environment.

L Brennan, Dalkey

Break free now

Your husband suffers from the same syndrome as my ex: wanting to both have his cake and eat it. Of course he doesn't want a divorce, as it would mean losing all his home comforts, the excitement of illicit relationships, and it would make people aware of how he has been treating you all these years.

What do you have to gain? Pain, sadness, difficult times and lots of other negative feelings at first, I admit. But now my feeling of freedom just grows. No more pretending, no more hidden humiliations and I feel I've dropped 20 years. It is expensive but not as much as I thought -- or my ex made me believe -- and you can't let the thought of the cost keep you in this situation forever.

And while you may try to stay friends with him, you'll probably realise in the end that if he can dismiss your obvious unhappiness so easily, he's not worthy of being your friend.

D Kelly, by email

You can make it work

You sound tired and depressed about your current situation. It's difficult when our children leave home -- our busy lives, with them at the centre, seem emptier and less fulfilling. Suddenly it's the two of you and you have to summon up the energy to restructure your lives together (or not!).

At first I found this difficult after our daughters left. My husband was still my best friend but maybe I felt my daughters were the ones having the fun, passion and a future. I felt tired and listless and went on a rare visit to my doctor. I had an under-active thyroid and with treatment feel so much better.

Fortunately he stuck around (without girlfriends) while I reassessed my future and with time I put more effort into our life together. We have refound passion and an immense closeness that our shared history reinforces.

Please get help -- check your physical and mental health -- and do talk to him about your feelings. Otherwise 25 years of friendship may be thrown away too easily.

C Power, Co Wicklow

Don't let it get worse

Make the break as soon as you can. Things will get worse in your marriage from a situation like this.

If you stay, you will begin to "mind" his girlfriends, have less in common and be trapped with someone who may be handy for, say, checking the tyre pressures, while you keep him in a comfortable existence in the home. You will become angry and resentful.

You are young enough to overcome the financial downside to this split and enjoy your liberation as a free woman. Separate fully and legally, or you are likely to find that you will be seeking that divorce in very nasty circumstances before too long.

N Doherty, by email