How many people do you know who have stayed together 20 years? Not so long ago, quite a few names may have sprung to mind. "I do" really did mean "till death do us part."

In recent years, however, skyrocketing divorce statistics have made staying married for a long time seem all too rare.

But I have two friends who recently tipped a glass at their 20th wedding anniversary. These two talented lawyers were early pioneers: blacks who attended Ivy League colleges in the late 1950s.

I decided to ask the masculine half of this duo to divulge his formula for staying married.

What he offered was less a handy prescription for success than a process of maturing. Staying married for 20 years took realistic expectations, fair-mindedness, good fortune, loyalty and independence.

Buoyed by his parents' successful marriage and the example of a mother who made him want to treat a woman well, my friend said, he always expected to have a wife one day.

But in his early- and mid-twenties, he was the typical young hunter, prowling about for beautiful bombshells the way some mustachioed Englishmen sought African lions in another era, as trophies to display to friends.

During this stage, good sense -- or, more likely, good fortune -- kept him from the altar. But finally he matured enough to deal with a challenging woman and chose one of the best and brightest: a fast-lane woman on her way up.

"Men have to grow to a point where they will engage a woman as a real person, as opposed to a fantasy," he says.

My friend married when he was 27, and the course of his relationship with his wife developed in three distinct phases.

Their early relationship, like most, was fueled by sheer mutual attraction, and Phase I consisted of the exploration and discovery of each other and responding to those discoveries in a million intimate ways.

In the midst of this romantic period, my friend made a discovery -- and a decision -- that may have profoundly affected the future course of staying married.

At dinner one night with friends, his new wife was making a spirited defense of a position that he considered quite idealistic, even naive. He lashed out at her for lacking knowledge of the real world.

Later, he was embarrassed by his conduct and resolved to change his ways. They were two people with different perspectives and he did not have the right to try to change her.

He should not expect them to be forever locked into some intellectual-emotional tangle.

In changing his attitude about his marriage, he had acknowledged, "There's me, there's you, and then there's us."

In Phase II, the novelty of marriage began to wear off and the emphasis shifted to how the couple responded to each other. Now each of them had to look at the pace and quality of their development and progress.

While some couples making this assessment find that they have grown apart, my friends found themselves developing in a compatible direction with which both were comfortable.

This compatibility eased another barrier to staying married: the difficult question of personal space.

Unlike some men, who get abusive at this stage and insist on commanding center stage with their wives playing bit roles, my friends discovered that they liked each other enough to compromise and accommodate, thereby increasing their capacity to share.

Staying married often is helped along as well by the birth of children, and my friends produced a son and daughter. But children do not put the issue of couple compatibility on automatic, so they had to weather the stresses of children, jobs, money and mutual ambition.

According to my friend, Phase III in staying married is meeting the challenge that men face at about age 40 or so. He calls it "having an urge to have a rerun on your life."

This was his private terror, unrelated to his partner, and he came face to face with the classic question of whether he should go back to being "young" and in love as a way of avoiding becoming old and fearful.

Fate laid another crisis on his doorstep just as he was in the middle of Phase III. He did not get a major job promotion that he had worked hard for and expected.

While his wife's compassion and understanding helped ease the pain, he weathered this storm with a basic sense of realism, an awareness of what is possible to achieve but a determination not to carry the extra baggage of fantasy.

"My peculiarity was that I had to get through this thing alone," he said. "If you rely too much on another person, they're going to disappoint you. One of the artful things in life is to be able to ask of other people what they can give."

Being a sensible man, my friend will not give advice to anybody else about staying married. But being forever alone is perhaps our biggest dread, and finding a true love relationship our deepest wish.

My friends demonstrate that, while it isn't easy, it certainly is possible.