When you spend time with people who’ve been happily coupled for most of their lives, it’s the little things you notice. The way she lights up — all these years later! — when she recounts the day they first met. The ring of admiration in his voice as he describes her successes. The shared smiles. The deference. “Don’t you think? Isn’t that right?” Maybe they don’t finish each other’s sentences, but you get the sense they could.
They’ve accomplished a feat almost everyone who ties the knot aspires to: to reach old age together, glad they picked each other. They’ve shared life’s happiest moments but also weathered its biggest challenges.
They have beaten the odds of death and divorce: Of all current U.S. marriages, only 7 percent have reached the 50-year mark, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
How’d they do it? A happy long-term union, the experts seem to agree, hinges in part on pairing up wisely and in part on mastering the skills that foster a healthy marriage.
Almost always, though, it begins with love, says Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University and author of the book “30 Lessons for Loving,” based on interviews with 700 seniors. “Essentially everyone, and people in long marriages in particular, described a tangible, often overwhelming feeling, a sense of extraordinary rightness,” says Pillemer. Many described feeling that they’d found not only a person they could live with, but perhaps couldn’t live without.
Equally important is choosing (and, of course, being) a solid life partner: Reliable, responsible and honest are a good start. It helps, too, to pick a mate who is resilient in the face of life’s curveballs, says Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist and AARP’s relationships expert. “Someone who will go, ‘Okay, this is the new normal; let’s figure it out.’ Or ‘This is exciting; let’s have an adventure.’ That flexibility, that lack of entitlement to a predictable future, is just a wonderful characteristic.”
While the old saw may be that opposites attract, the experts advise pairing with someone who is a close match on core values: religion, sex, parenting, money and family.
It’s worth noting that couples who are college-educated and married in their late 20s to early 30s have a much lower divorce rate than the overall rate, which Pillemer puts at about 40 percent for first-time marriages, based on couples married in the 1980s.
But what are the specific behaviors that get couples through the decades? For starters, long-lasting couples adopt a commitment to “marital permanency,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. “They don’t see divorce as an option.” That’s vital given that even the happiest marriages aren’t always happy.
They also work hard to master effective communication — not just talking, but listening. And such couples make generosity and kindness habitual, committing small acts of service, like cleaning up without being asked. They’re willing to forgive their spouse’s faults and failings. They treat each other with respect.
There’s one other thing long-married couples devote effort to: keeping their marriage interesting. Even after decades together they carve out time as a couple, take an interest in each other’s passions and take steps to foster intimacy.
What results is a relationship that is always changing, always growing. “Even at 50 years these relationships are not static, they’re not pictures in a frame,” says Schwartz. “They’re alive and organic and fulfilling at every stage. That’s the exciting part of living.” And, we might add, of loving.
On the following pages, four couples share their stories and their advice on making a marriage that endures.
Harold and Ann Thomas
Married 50 years
“When I first saw her, I said, ‘That woman right there is after me,’ ” says 77-year-old Harold Thomas , exploding into laughter before admitting that when the two met, while he was in law school and she was studying for a master’s at Howard University, “I suspect I was looking at her, too.”
He can’t resist a little ribbing, though, and neither can Ann, 76, as they talk about their union, which started with those first looks but solidified over similar upbringings and life goals.
“You’ve got to have a great sense of humor,” says Ann. “And you have to be sure that you’re in love and that that love grows stronger and that you respect one another.”
Love, respect, humor — they all came into play as the two faced their biggest challenge: raising two children while building demanding careers (he was a political appointee in the Carter and Barry administrations; she was a school principal). Success came down to “working it out, sticking it out, learning when and where to find common ground or just leave it alone,” says Harold.
They’ve also learned to support each other’s divergent interests: She’s a huge sports buff with a years-long commitment to the Ms. Senior D.C. competition (she won the title in 2006 ); he likes singing, the outdoors and theater. “I support him but sort of stay in my lane,” says Ann, adding with an impish grin, “I can tell him how to do it, though.”
John and Nancy Oliphant
Married 55 years
At 5 p.m. 83-year-old John Oliphant winds up an elephant-themed music box and pours a glass of wine for himself and one for his wife, 80-year-old Nancy. Next they’ll hug and raise a toast, a ritual they’ve repeated daily since the early 1980s.
“It’s the way that we are very, very close,” says John, who met Nancy in 1958 when both were students at Pennsylvania State University. “Everyone has disagreements,” but with the daily ritual, “you close out the day on a high note and everything that happened that day is now behind you.”
That there is a physical element to the ritual is no accident. The two, who make it their habit to hold hands on their daily walks, start each day with a hug, as well. “Or she’ll be making cookies, and I’ll walk by and say, ‘I need a hug,’ ” says John. Nancy is nodding as he says this. “ ‘I need a hug,’ that’s something we’ve always said.”
Of course hugs alone didn’t get them through raising two children and negotiating the frequent moves that came with John’s career as an Air Force pilot and meteorologist. That took cooperation, flexibility and a sense of adventure. It’s telling that both describe moving every two years not as a burden but as an opportunity to meet new people, to explore new places. That when they retired, both leapt into a quest to visit as many national parks as possible. “We pretty much agree on a lot of things,” says Nancy.
Still, it had to take some work, right? “It doesn’t feel like work,” says Ann, resting a hand on her husband’s arm. “No, it sure doesn’t,” says John.
Bill and Anne McDonald
Potomac Falls, Va.
Married 68 years
When Anne met Bill on a blind date in 1944, both were students at Duke University and were, at least on the surface, “exact opposites,” says Anne McDonald, now 91. “Whenever he said, ‘Let’s dance,’ I said, ‘Not now.’ If he said, ‘Would you like punch?’ I said, ‘No, thank you. Let’s dance.’ ”
Still, Anne thought he was devilishly handsome. Bill, who’d been dating a few women, “immediately dropped them.” They spent their first five years of marriage far from family. Two sons would come later, but those early years forced them to rely on each other, working as a team, “to make the foundation for our marriage a success through thick and thin,” says Anne.
“We discussed almost everything,” says Bill, also 91. “One of us would propose something and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ ” When they couldn’t discuss things — Bill’s 32 years in the Navy required regular stints at sea in the days before cellphones and the Internet — they had to rely on trust. “I think that’s the most important thing,” Bill says. “We have to trust each other in daily living, when we’re apart. When we’re together, we trust each other for our expertise.”
Leslie and Allan Slan
North Bethesda, Md.
Married 47 years
As a parent educator for Montgomery County Public Schools, Leslie Slan, 68, used to urge parents to make time for themselves. “Because your kids grow up and go off, and if you don’t have that relationship you have nothing.”
She wasn’t just paying lip service to the notion. When their children were young, “we had a babysitter on retainer every Saturday night,” says Leslie. “That was date night. It was important to us.”
So, too, was a commitment to growing together — as parents and people. Long before she taught others to parent, she and Allan, now 69, took parenting effectiveness classes themselves. And since they wanted to raise their children in the Jewish faith but hadn’t been especially religious growing up, they took Judaism classes together. They volunteered together. And spent 37 years in a couples book club.
Always intensely interested in the happenings of each other’s career and life, they agree they are lifelong best friends. “If I have a problem he’s the first person I’d turn to, and vice versa,” says Leslie. “I think it’s important for couples to really nurture that friendship. That’s what keeps you together over the years.”
Christina Breda Antoniades is the Date Lab matchmaker and a freelance writer.
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