Of course, we all know that a marriage that lasts decades is just part of the equation. Many of us have known long-married couples who could barely tolerate each other or who divorced after many years together.
And I saw many couples during my years as a marriage/family therapist who were ready to bail out of their relationship at the first sign of trouble or serious disagreement. They had no tolerance of the occasional distance or discomfort that comes with any intimate relationship.
So who are the people who not only stay married for decades but who travel happily from youth to old age together?
I would love to hear the thoughts you have on the secrets of long-wedded happiness! For every couple, there is a unique story. But it seems that there are also some characteristics that enduring relationships share.
Based simply on my own observations as a therapist, as the resident of an over-55 community populated by many happy, long married couples and as a partner in a marriage that has reached the 34 year mark today, here are some of the characteristics I've seen and experienced that the long and happily married seem to share:
- They tolerate the small annoyances with a spirit of generosity. As a therapist, I heard many complaints about partners who didn't squeeze the toothpaste right, who told the same story twice, who have different standards of housekeeping and the level of outrage over this was intense in couples headed for trouble. The long-married, on the other hand, seem to accept, even come to enjoy each other's quirks. My husband Bob will listen to me tell the same story for the 200th time and, bless him, laugh just as heartily the 200th time as he did the first time. He says he is delighted by the consistency of my stories. (A friend and co-worker who used to travel on business with me, on the other hand, could be driven to the screaming point by the second repetition of a story.) When someone remarked to our next door neighbor Larry that sometimes his wife Louise will start a parallel conversation when he begins to speak, he smiled fondly. "But if she waited for me to finish what I had to say, she might forget what she had to say," he said. "I don't mind at all. I enjoy her spirit -- and hearing her talk!" And one has the feeling that their parallel conversations, in a very real sense, are like singing in harmony together.
- They team up in adversity. While a life crisis can drive a conflicted couple apart, bonded couples combine forces to deal with the crises and difficulties that come to all of us. Bob and I have survived many of these -- deaths in the family, career transitions, illness, depression, adversities. One of the greatest challenges to marital teamwork is when a crisis happens as the result of one of the partners making a mistake. Supporting and troubleshooting, rather than simply blaming, is a sign of true partnership. Early in my relationship with Bob, when we had big dreams and little money, a major celebrity approached me about ghostwriting a book for her, offering me a sum of money that seemed incredibly generous then. When it appeared that I had blown the deal by inadvertently offending the celebrity, Bob embraced me warmly. "We don't need that $10,000 from her," he said. "We were fine before she came to you and we'll be fine if she storms away. What matters is that we love each other and we're hard workers and we'll do just fine in our life together." And he was right. His loving support actually gave me the courage to walk away from the project when I realized that accepting the deal would have been a horrible mistake. And life went happily on with my true partner.
- They don't panic during rough times. I used to do therapy with a couple who, every time they were upset with each other, would threaten divorce. It hung between them as an ever-present threat, making their marriage seem tenuous and temporary. Happy couples know that the times of depression and distance and anger aren't lasting and, in many instances, are opportunities to learn more and grow closer in the process of weathering the storm. Having faith in each other and in the relationship they have built over time helps partners over the rough spots that are simply part of life. One of the greatest gifts I received before Bob and I were married was a letter from Barbe Schellhardt, who is married to Tim, one of my dearest friends from college. She told me that if we could realize that marriage did not make one immune from depression, loneliness and other states endemic to the human condition, Bob and I would have a chance at long-lasting happiness and, indeed, she was right. We feel depressed or lonely or sad for any number of reasons throughout our lives -- and if we see this as part of being human instead of automatically blaming our partners -- we do, indeed, have a chance to grow old together.
- They make each other smile. A sense of humor is a great asset in any marriage -- and so is the desire to please each other. I see so many acts of kindness, so many quietly thoughtful gestures in the long-married couples who live in our community. There is an innate graciousness between the partners and, at the same time, an ability to laugh about things younger people might find hard to take. At the pool, we laugh at ourselves and our inevitable signs of aging, with the knowledge that we're cherished by spouses who remember when we were young, slim and firm -- and who love who we were and who we are. The partners know when to tease and when to reassure -- and when to maintain a gentle silence.
- They're committed for life, no matter what. Growing together -- and growing old -- in a marriage doesn't mean gliding along in perfect harmony without missing a beat. When I was young, I used to see long married couples take to the dance floor, whirling around so easily, anticipating and flowing into each graceful step -- and imagine that I would do that quite automatically with my future husband. However, after 35 years together -- 34 married -- Bob and I have not yet managed to cut such a figure on the dance floor. Having learned to dance at a girls' school where I always had to dance the role of the guy, I can't follow to save my life. Bob hates wrestling me around the dance floor. While we have plans to take dance lessons and learn this gliding thing while we can still move, our inability to project grace and harmony on the dance floor in no way detracts from the grace and harmony of our relationship that has been built through love and hard work over the decades. Our roughest years of marriage were the early ones -- the ones people so often consider the blissful honeymoon years. We struggled with the baggage of past relationships, conflicts with my parents, fear, insecurity and immaturity. And as we struggled together through those rough early times, it became clear that while life wasn't always easy, we were going to be living it together. And the longer we lived and the more we learned through all of our life experiences, the more our happiness and our solid commitment grew. We both agree that these last ten years -- as we've faced the challenges and joys of growing old together -- have been our happiest ever.