This article was originally published on VICE Belgium.
A life-long partnership is not for everybody: in my native Belgium, 52 percent of marriages end in divorce, while in Portugal that figure grows to 64 percent. But there are plenty of older couples still at it – the main characters in a love story twice the length of your life.
But how does love – and its physical manifestation – change as our bodies soften and sag, as our lives slow down? I spoke to three elderly couples about love and sex over the decades.
Clémence (96) and Lambert (96)
VICE: You’ve been married for 76 years. What was flirting like when you met?
Lambert: I fell in love with her immediately, I couldn’t control it. I was close friends with her brothers, so we’d see each other often. When I went to their house I would sit in one corner [of the room] and she in the other. That’s how we courted each other. And one day, I made the first move.
Clémence: When we got married we didn’t have a party or anything. It was during the war and there was a 6PM curfew. We wouldn’t have been able to do much anyway.
How has your love evolved over the years?
Lambert: When we were younger I would come home every evening from work at midnight and leave again at 7AM. We had five children to feed. Time in bed was just about all we shared.
Clémence: We didn't see each other that often. But now we’re older, we can enjoy our time together more. It’s allowed us to rediscover ourselves. When we got married, we never imagined we would stay together for so many years. In fact, 76 years is very short. People congratulate us on it, but it’s natural for us. Since we got married, we have never been apart, so we can't imagine ever separating.
Over the years, our bodies change. How do you deal with it?
Clémence: When I see other people on television who are the same age as Lambert, I think he looks a hundred times better than them. All the memories we share give him extra beauty.
Marguerite-Marie (74) and José (77)
VICE: You’ve been together 58 years and married 54 – how do you stave off boredom?
José: By being reasonable and analysing what’s gone wrong when we have outbursts or slip-ups. Between us, there have been a few. Afterwards, it strengthens our bond. We also give each other moments without one another – then we rediscover each other every time. Nowadays, I can feel when he is going to explode. Our arguments have become a form of communication between us.
Did you think you'd be together for so long when you first met?Marguerite-Marie: I didn’t get married telling myself that it was only going to last ten years. Maybe we were a little luckier than the others. We’ve evolved because of each other. Before, I was a little conservative. Now I'm more of an anarchist – that’s something I got from him.
José: There are lots of little things that make our relationship stronger: reminders of the past, our children, our grandchildren and our continued life together. And all this obviously fluctuates. As the years go by, we face different problems.
What about the way you look at each other physically – how has that changed?
Marguerite-Marie: When we met, I was 17 and we were immediately attracted to each other. I don’t know what love at first sight is, but when I saw him, my heart started beating faster. When we met he was not as fat as he is today, but you end up liking the little love handles. I must say that getting old isn’t that bad after all. It’s not like one day he was a young, handsome and athletic man and then he suddenly changed overnight.
How do you deal with the idea of death in your relationship?
José: I do think about it, but I put it into perspective – I see life as a succession of links that form a chain. We know we’re going to leave. I hope it will be as late as possible, and in the best way.
Marguerite-Marie: We know we’re not immortal, and we’re entering the years in which one of us can leave at any time. I don't want to be alone. If José left before me, I wouldn't have anyone to argue with! I think I would put his picture somewhere and yell at it.
Michèle (71) and Jean-Marie (75)
VICE: You’ve been married 43 years – how did you two meet?
Jean-Marie: We met through the Jehovah's Witnesses. Michèle had just come back from Italy, pregnant, with nothing but bruises after running away from her ex. I was married. When her daughter was born, we became neighbours. Her daughter called me “Papa Jean-Jean”, although Michèle and I weren’t together.
Michèle: My daughter needed a father. I even published classified ads to find someone, although that was forbidden for Jehovah’s Witnesses. One evening, Jean-Marie put his hand on mine and asked me if it was someone like him that I was looking for. That is when we felt that spark, and our feelings only grew from there. Since he was married, we risked being ex-communicated if the organisation found out that we were dating. We decided to stop seeing each other, time went by and he started divorce proceedings.
Jean-Marie: Several years later, she sent me a letter saying she was expecting me. When I received it, I cried. We went for a coffee in a hotel and decided to be together. It was done like a commercial contract; we controlled our impulses. We got married two months later so we wouldn't have any problems with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and only slept together after the wedding. Today, we have been married for 43 years, and left the organisation 25 years ago.
How would you describe your relationship after so long together?
Michèle: We move at the same pace, on the same path, even if there are rocky moments along the way. When one of us gets weak, the other one picks up the pieces. No one else can understand me like he does. Sometimes just a sigh or a certain breath or movement alerts one of us to the fact there’s something wrong with the other. If we have an argument, we might discuss it over and over, even into the next day. It’s very important to talk, straighten things out and, sometimes, apologise.
In terms of sexuality, what has changed?
Michèle: There is sharing and a search for pleasure, but there comes a time when we understand that the other person has less desire or need for that. That’s love. Sexually, we’ve had our ups and downs, but today our relationship is about more than sex. Neither of us can do acrobatics anymore. There’s a lot of arthritis.
Jean-Marie: We may have had 25 beautiful years of physical love. Later, that passes – that’s all. Breasts have shrunk and willies are longer and everything is sagging. But we accept it. Either way, the cement has set and our relationship is as strong as it could be.