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Partnership Forged in Love, Respect

November 25, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE

Many retired couples have difficulty adjusting to the dreaded spouse-underfoot-every-day scenario.

"We had the same problem," Jimmy Carter says. "Rosalynn and I are strong-willed people, particularly she." But, he adds, "we've learned how to respect each other's privacy and individuality."

They created physical space by converting the garage and a bedroom of their home in Plains, Ga., into offices for each other. They lunch together daily and in the afternoon have "a pretty rigorous athletic event. We have a tennis court, and we play tennis--Rosalynn had never played before we left the White House; now she's a really good tennis player--we ride bikes, we run, we take long walks on our farm. At night, we relax with each other.

"We still have very difficult arguments, and sometimes the arguments will go on for weeks. . . . That became particularly burdensome when we were in the house together all the time, because you can't pout on a sustained basis."

One day a few years ago, Carter retreated to his home wood shop and, on a sheet of walnut about the size of a bank check, he carved: "Each evening, forever, this is good for an apology--or forgiveness--as you desire." He signed it and gave it to his wife. When they argue, she brings it out, and, he says, "It kind of breaks the ice. And so far I've been able to apologize."

He smiled and added, "So far she hasn't asked me for forgiveness because she hasn't admitted yet that one of the disagreements was her fault."

When Carter talks of aging, it is as a man relishing each new challenge.

"We've become expert fly fishers. We've climbed a number of mountains. We've become very avid bird watchers. We have taken on all these new ways of living after we reached a point where we thought for months that we had really reached the end of our productive and enjoyable life."

While pursuing independent interests (Rosalynn Carter's is mental health), they are full partners in others.

"When I go to mediate a dispute, to try to resolve a war, Rosalynn goes with me. She's in the same room, and as I discuss difficulties with adversaries, Rosalynn takes meticulous notes. And then she has no hesitancy about giving me very strong advice.

"When we go to villages in Africa to immunize children, or to eradicate a disease, or to teach farmers how to grow more corn or wheat or rice, Rosalynn is side by side with me."

After 52 years of marriage, some of them strained, he says they are closer than ever, emotionally and physically.

"We've been blessed with a very good intimate relationship as far as sex is concerned. Life in that respect has not deteriorated. I think it's improved with passing years. We now know, for instance, what is especially pleasing to the other person, and that has added to the enjoyment of our intimate life."

He cited a Duke University study concluding that men and women 85 and older can have sex lives as satisfying as when they were much younger.

"And that was before Viagra came out."

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