At a recent luncheon with my women friends, the conversation turned to marriage, divorce, and singlehood. Right off the bat, the question to the single women was almost accusatory, “Don’t you want companionship?”
This was based on the assumption that single women do not have “companionship”. These judgmental statements, however well-meaning, are designed to point out that without marriage one’s life is incomplete. To be fair, we also discussed divorce, moving on from abusive and/or unfulfilling relationships, and finding potential partners on the online matchmaking service Second Shaadi, and more. But the companionship question particularly stayed on my mind.
As I pondered over the discussions of the day, I got a text informing me that one of my ex-colleagues had lost her husband to a heart attack. He had been in his forties. I was reminded that life is too short and there are many circumstances that can change one’s relationship status, including death.
I realised that we are constantly thinking about the future and our life as we age, and are afraid of facing the world alone. The uncertainty of future events, of which there are many combinations, makes us feel insecure and vulnerable. We wish to protect ourselves from perceived harm, and so cling to what feels familiar and safe.
But what if we allowed ourselves to be open to what life has to offer us in terms of options, not get weighed down by societal expectations, and find inspiration in the unusual choices that others might make to deal with companionship, loneliness and ageing? Would it motivate us to think differently about the options we have?
The movie, Our Souls at Night, 2017, is set in a fictitious small town in Colorado, US, where everyone knows everything about everyone. It explores the lives of Addie Moore (Jane Fonda) and Louis Waters (Robert Redford), who are both widowed. Though they are neighbours, they don’t really know each other. Both of them are lonely and are shown going about their daily routine.
Everything changes when Addie makes a bold suggestion to Louis, which she describes as a proposal, a marriage-like proposal. She asks him if he would like to go over to her house and sleep with her in her bed. She says she is lonely and believes he is too. They both feel that it is at night that they are the loneliest. She says she feels she might be able to sleep soundly again if there is someone next to her, to help her get through the night. And so, she invites him to come over, lay down in bed with her, and talk through the night till they fall asleep.
Louis’ first reaction is one of surprise but he eventually takes her up on the offer. The first night is awkward for both of them as they are not sure if this arrangement will work. They have to learn new behaviour and understand each other’s preferences of food, drink, and sleep patterns. Addie falls asleep immediately as her head touches the pillow. In fact, she gently snores indicating she is comfortable. Louis is still trying to figure out the new arrangement but he returns the next night to Addie’s surprise. She was not sure he would return. Louis asks her why she picked him, and she says she always thought of him as a good man.
Every night, he sneaks into her house through the back door with a change of clothes in a paper bag just so that people do not gossip. It appears that Addie is the stronger of the two in her ability to withstand societal criticism. She says she has spent her whole life worrying about what people would think of her and indicates she is ready to move on. She encourages Louis to use the front door. His friends ridicule him and make disparaging remarks but he learns to ignore them. As time passes, he starts going over a bit earlier to have dinner with Addie and later musters up the courage to walk through her front door and even take her out to town for lunch and dinner.
Over a period of time, they develop a sexual as well as an emotional relationship and grow to enjoy each other’s company. They find a renewed enthusiasm for life. In the dark of the night, they share their past momentous life experiences, baring their souls to one another. Louis talks about his brief affair with another woman and how he regretted hurting her more than his wife. Addie tells him about the time that her daughter had died in an accident and her son, Gene, felt shut out when Addie was grieving. This resulted in their relationship being strained.
Gene, is not in favour of Addie and Louis’ relationship and makes his disapproval clear. He is going through his own problems – his wife has left him and their seven-year-old son Jamie, he has an alcohol addiction and has lost his job. Owing to these circumstances, Gene leaves Jamie at Addie’s. Louis continues to come over at night and together they care for Jamie, engaging him in play with a train set and a camping trip. Louis also gives Jamie a dog, Bonny, as a companion. Jamie’s acceptance of their relationship also sets them at ease and they fall into a comfortable daily routine.
Louis’ daughter Holly is more accepting of the relationship. Initially, she wondered about her father’s change in behaviour and didn’t know or understand what to attribute it to. So she made a trip to visit him, spend time with him and Addie, and is happy for him.
Soon Addie and Louis are not the talk of the town anymore.
Later, Addie has a fall and gets hurt. Gene convinces her to move in with him so that he can keep an eye on her health as he believes she is alone. Even though she informs him that she is not on her own, Gene is not accepting of her relationship with Louis. She is reluctant to move in with Gene, but decides to do so for Jamie’s sake as Gene is incapable of taking care of his son because of his alcoholism.
Louis offers to move in with her but she knows it would not be acceptable to her son. So she and Louis spend one last night together which reminds him of the previous love he had to give up earlier in his life. He decides that it cannot end there and he gives Addie a phone to communicate with him while she stays with Gene and Jamie.
Addie and Louis talk to each other every night over the phone. They may be physically separated, but they remain deeply emotionally connected.
This movie highlights that one can choose to pursue options that are not the norm. Like some of the women in my lunch group mentioned, their mothers found new partners on websites such as Second Shaadi. They probably had to overcome the criticism of friends and family who felt that they were not conforming to socio-cultural norms by finding love and having sex in their ‘old age’. They also had to learn new social behaviours like dating, as they had never dated before or had not been on a date in decades. But they were making an attempt to find someone to live out the rest of their days with. In a different and creative way of doing this, in Japan, two women in their sixties decided to live together in a beautifully designed retirement home in the Shizuoka Prefecture, running a food-delivery service for elders.
As we age, we may fear being lonely and socially isolated. But rushing into marriage or a relationship because we are afraid of being lonely in the future is not the answer. However, we can prepare for what lies ahead by creating a network of support and investing in a wide variety of relationships that can satisfy our various needs: physical and emotional. Like Addie, we can take risks and think out-of-the-box to find what works best for each one of us.
Cover Image: IMDB