Only Human with Joan Axelrod-Contrada: Marching to a ‘Different Drum’: Is Living Apart Together the future of relationships?

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For the Gazette

Published: 06-20-2024 2:39 PM

Linda Ronstadt’s 1967 song “Different Drum” came out during a time of changing gender roles in our country.

While the commitment-phobic Peter Pan had long garnered praise as a ladies’ man, the woman who bucked expectations of domesticity got saddled with pejorative terms like “old maid.” In “Different Drum,” though, the narrator proudly chooses freedom over marriage.

Kudos to her, I thought. No way did I want to end up a housewife like my mother. Mom wore a perpetual tight smile that reflected a sense of something missing. Certainly, Linda Ronstadt never would have sacrificed her dreams to cook and clean for some guy!

I fully expected to stay single like her. Surprisingly, though, the right guy came along in the form of a vagabond writer named Fred who had grown up in a working-class, as opposed to a middle-class, family, with a mom who worked outside the home. Unlike my mom, she didn’t have the luxury of staying home with the kids.

Although neither Fred nor I considered ourselves conventional people, we chose marriage and child-rearing after some of our hippest friends and relatives gushed about the seemingly square practice of settling down and raising kids. Then, disaster struck, and Fred died at the untimely age of 66.

Although I envied my friends who still had their husbands, I had two new magic weapons at my disposal as a widow: a strong support system and a well-developed sense of self. Together, they helped me look toward the future.

As “Different Drum” played in my head, I wondered if I, too, might send a lover packing so I could go on my own merry way. A tug of war pulled me between wanting a significant other (of course, one who could take care of himself) and relishing the new life I’d built for myself as a single woman.

Just as my sense of inner conflict threatened to tip me off balance, a volunteer dog-sitter from Northampton Neighbors told me something that changed my life. Other single people, she said, had grappled with this same dilemma of wanting both intimacy and autonomy. Like them, she had found a way to have a special person in her life — but not in her house.

“We’re part of the fastest growing demographic trend for seniors,” she said. “It’s called Living Apart Together (LAT).”

That sounded perfect! You get the advantages of a relationship without all the hassles that come from living with someone. With illness an inevitable part of the aging process, I knew better than to set myself up to ever be a full-time caregiver again. Nor would I expect a romantic partner to play nurse to me. Besides, I wanted the final chapter of my life to require less compromise than is involved in even the best of marriages. The idea of putting up with someone else’s quirks 24/7 gave me the heebiejeebies. Been there, done that; never again.

Of course, any relationship involves some degree of compromise. But, like the narrator in “Different Drum,” I’d rather be alone than let some romantic partner pull the reins in on me. While still dipping my toes into the dating pool, I asked other single women over 50 for advice.

Widow Number One had struck gold at a Baby Boomer’s Social Club in Portland, Oregon. She found her guy by looking for someone physically and emotionally healthy. Aha: criteria I could use, too!

Widows Numbers Two and Three, on the other hand, had both failed to hit pay dirt. After meeting a string of Mr. Wrongs, they’d stopped dating altogether. Both decided to focus on their friends and family, particularly their grandchildren.

Maybe if I had grandchildren I would have made the same decision. However, since I didn’t, I decided to give dating a try. Listening to “Different Drum” for inspiration, I came away with mixed feelings.

Yes, it’s a song about female empowerment. But, no, the female narrator doesn’t find a way to keep both her man and her autonomy. Instead, the lyrics tell a tale of all or nothing. It’s either Big Love or Break-Up. Instead of trying to work things out, she gives her guy the heave-ho. Maybe, if she lived in the future, she’d have chosen a LAT relationship.

Time will tell whether or not I can make the complicated dance of a LAT relationship work for me. Da-da-da-DUM. Da-da-da-DUM. That’s the sound of a different drum calling us all to march to our own beat.

Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a writer who lives in Florence and is working on a collection of essays, “Rock On: A Baby Boomer’s Playlist for Life after Loss.” Reach her at