Robert Winer, M.D.

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Marriage at Midlife


(The following text is excerpted and modified from a marriage ceremony I wrote in 2006; the occasion was the marriage of two friends.)

Marriage at midlife is rather a different proposition than marriage of the young. Our sense of time becomes more acute, we may have had more past than we will have future. And thus our choices become more critical, more urgent – we don’t have time for mistakes. By midlife we are more formed as people, more organized around our own needs and preferences, more clear about who we are and who we are not. And so marriage at midlife raises the threat of unwanted surrender. It poses the question: can I both be whom I have made of myself, and yet yield myself to this new partner. In a letter to a friend, the great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed these concerns:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of their solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side by side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

“That is why this too must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else's solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness.”

And yet, at the same time that we have these concerns about our continuity, about protecting the shape we’ve taken, we are only alive in the now, the present moment. The ancient Greeks made a distinction between “chronos,” chronological time, the time of our days, the time that passes, and “kairos,” the right time, the propitious moment. Kairos is the eternal time present in every moment. Love captures the present moment. In the moment of love we believe in each other, that is love’s truth. As Hamlet told Ophelia: “Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.” Marriage at midlife is the triumph of kairos over chronos.

And wedding at midlife is distinctive in yet another way. When young couples marry, they are often planning to start a family. For those couples who are already living together, the decision to marry may express a wish to legitimate their children’s births. Having children may then become an expression of a long-term vouchsafing. And in that sense, the choice to marry at midlife represents a freer and more focused commitment, a commitment that is more fully about the other: I simply want to spend the rest of my life with you.

By the same token, at midlife we have a fuller experience of life’s limitations, and we are less inclined to expect miracles. Knowing something more of our own frailties, we don’t expect partnership to be uncomplicated. We aren’t blindly idealizing of each other in the way we could be when we were younger; both for better and for worse, we are no longer capable of such headstrong naïveté. Hopefully, we have a better sense of ourselves, including our own difficult ways, and we grant that also to our partners, we don’t expect more from them than we expect from ourselves. It’s not so much that we’ve changed, or that we’ve chosen so much more wisely. That’s a fool’s paradise. It’s more that we’re willing to live within the frame of what life can offer, what two complicated people can offer each other.

There is so much more to be said about this.