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Longtime Unmarried Vermont Couples Talk About Finally Tying the Knot — or Not 

click to enlarge Syndi Zook and Stanford "Bones" Blankinship
  • Syndi Zook and Stanford "Bones" Blankinship

Faced with the question of whether to tie the knot, some long-lasting Vermont couples have answered, “Not!”

Bobbie Lanahan and John Douglas, for example, are enjoying their 22nd year of unwedded bliss. Lanahan, a 65-year-old artist and writer whose mother was the only child of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, was married previously and says she feels no compulsion to do that again. Douglas, a 74-year-old filmmaker and photographer, has never heard wedding bells ringing for him. He has two children from earlier relationships with two women — neither of whom he married.

But it isn’t as though Lanahan and Douglas have never felt tempted to certify their union with a marriage license. “We’ve talked about it, even gotten engaged and made a prenuptial agreement, but somehow can’t seem to do it,” Lanahan says.

An unusual living arrangement, which was highlighted in a 2011 New York Times story, may help account for the longevity of the couple’s unsanctioned alliance.

They commuted for 18 years between Douglas’ lakeside home in Charlotte and Lanahan’s spacious house in Burlington. But a few years ago, when Douglas was no longer able to pay what he says was nearly $30,000 a year in property taxes, they decided to cohabit at Lanahan’s place. To accommodate the needs of two older adults deeply set in their ways, they built a sizable wing onto the house, where Douglas hangs out much of the time. He crosses an enclosed bridge to his partner’s part of the home, where they eat and sleep.

Other local couples have taken a different path, deciding to wed after living together for more than a decade. They tell Seven Days they eventually came to accept that love and marriage do go together like a horse and carriage. Financial factors, parental expectations and evolving views on romance and commitment have played various roles in these highly personal decisions.

(So personal, indeed, that a few Vermont twosomes declined to be interviewed. Former Burlington mayor Bob Kiss and his longtime partner, Jackie Majoros, are among the unmarrieds who just said no.)

Syndi Zook, director of Lyric Theatre Company, says that attending the funeral of her grandfather in 1988 helped her decide it was time, after 10 years, to get engaged to her partner, Stanford “Bones” Blankinship, a mechanic and musician. “Seeing the family together then, I thought, Hey, a wedding — and a party — would make everyone happy. Let’s do it! Plus, we needed stuff for the house,” she says.

Zook and Blankinship, now both 56, got hitched in 1990.

Tim Jennings, 65, of Montpelier had an epiphany while writing his will seven years ago. A box at the top of the form required a check beside “married” or “single,” and somehow, Jennings relates, that “pushed me to propose” to Leanne Ponder. They weren’t rushing into the decision, having lived together for 20 years. And Ponder, who works professionally with Jennings as a musical and storytelling duo, says she never worried about the sort of financial matters that arose as her partner studied his will. “Tim’s a totally trustworthy and honorable man,” Ponder says. “I’ve always had the sense that he’d do right by me.”

Erin Hanley, a 53-year-old fine-furniture maker in Burlington, says she did feel she would have more legal protections as a married woman. That wasn’t the main reason she and David Weinstein, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, got married last September after 20 years of swaying along to what Hanley calls “the rhythms of a long love affair.”

She notes, however, that formally exchanging vows did save “a pile of money on health insurance.”

Bottom-line advantages aside, Hanley says she didn’t arrive easily or unambiguously at the choice to marry. She liked living with Weinstein out of wedlock. “It felt to me like we were inventing this relationship while we were unmarried,” Hanley explains. “I felt like we were still in a state of becoming.” At the same time, though, “the relationship felt sort of contingent,” Hanley adds. “Being married meant, I thought, that we were affirming it.”

Despite the debate she had with herself and with Weinstein, Hanley says she’s satisfied with the outcome. “I was actually surprised at how happy getting married made me feel,” she says.

Concerns about durability helped nudge Zook toward the marital option. Recalling that she met Blankinship while she was a student at Emerson College in Boston, Zook says it was a matter of “love — or lust — at first sight.” Waving her arms, Zook declaims, “It was like the cartoon when the birdie hits your head with a hammer and your tongue pops out and it’s ‘Aiii-oooga! Aiii-oooga!’

“We were so young, we kept thinking, This is great, but no way it’s going to last,” Zook confides.

The pair proved enduringly compatible, but, Blankinship observes, “Whenever any two people get together, there has to be a degree of luck for it to work out.”

Jennings and Ponder worried that uniting professionally might wreck their relationship romantically. “I’d been in a musical group where there were confrontations over things in the group’s dynamics,” Ponder notes. “We were really reluctant about getting together as an act.”

But that partnership has also lasted for a long time — about 25 years so far.

Like Hanley, Jennings says he didn’t see how marriage would strengthen his romance. After many years of happiness as a devoted couple, Jennings says he told Ponder, “If we’re not as good as married, nobody is married.” The couple hadn’t gotten the blessings of the church or papers from the state, but “we had said all the important things to one another and made all the promises,” Jennings says.

Politics wasn’t a major consideration for any of the couples in their decisions to live together or marry. Douglas does say, though, “I never wanted to bring the state into my personal relationships.” And, asked whether feminism influenced her choice, Lanahan replies, “I suppose, insofar as I don’t trust myself not to play the traditional role of a wife.”

But politics did drive the decision of one Vermonter — me — not to marry, and to remain unmarried for 25 years with a single partner. When the relationship was in its formative stage, we were living together in London in the early 1980s — a time of ascendant feminism and a place where two pairs of good friends lived unmarried with the children they had respectively produced. It seemed right to transplant that circumstance to Vermont.

The deal didn’t stay sealed, however, and I did marry another woman a few years after the unwedded relationship fell apart. Looking back, it still seems cool to have had kids together outside the bounds of bourgeois propriety.

Hanley, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, knows the feeling of boho self-satisfaction. “Yes,” she agrees, “that did feel cool.”

The print version of this article was headlined "To Wed, or Not to Wed"

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Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

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Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.

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