Although the marriage rate has been trending down since the 1970s, the majority of Americans are married at some point in their lives. While only about 51% of the population is currently married, 72% have been married at least once. Despite a discouraging divorce rate of almost 50%, despite the many reasonable reasons why marriage isn’t really necessary, people still marry and remarry and, sometimes, remarry again.
Why? Regardless of lots of good and many not-so-good reasons, getting married is a reflection of hope. On some level, those who marry hope for a long and happy partnership with someone they love who loves them back.
That hope isn’t misplaced. There are couples who stay happily married (at least most of the time) for decades. Such couples readily admit that it isn’t always smooth sailing. Life generally isn’t. Life that involves two people means twice as many opportunities for changes, challenges and growth taking them in unexpected directions. But with love, understanding and the willingness to work at it, the individuals and the couple grow from working through the vicissitudes of life. There is wisdom to be learned from them.
I interviewed 5 long-married couples I know well. Each has been married for at least 35 years, some much longer. All have raised children. In these couples, both people have had long careers. And all of them have had to deal with the challenges of life. Yet, despite terrifying illnesses, serious problems with troubled kids, financial set-backs, or significant losses and pressures from extended family members, they have not only stayed together but thrived in the process. In respect to their requests for privacy, I am not including their names. Assurance of anonymity let them respond to my interviews with openness and honesty and humor.
Corinna, married to her husband of 40 years, offered this piece of advice. “I knew very early that I needed to accept Brad just as he is; that I couldn’t expect to change him.” “Really?” I asked. “Aren’t there things you’d like him to change?” “Sure,” she replied. “But I realized that I married him because I liked him as well as loved him. That needed to be enough –and it has been.” She added that she thinks people make a lot of trouble for themselves by trying to change someone after marriage. “If they won’t change something before they get married, chances are they won’t later. Marry someone for who he or she is, not for who you think he or she will become.” Good advice.
Simone has a great sense of humor. When asked why her marriage of 55 years has lasted, she replied, “Dumb luck.” She and her husband met when they were only 18. “What did I know about choosing a good partner at 18?” she asked. “I just thought he was hot! – That and we would talk about almost anything and everything for hours.” Pressed, she admits that it was the talking as much as the sexual attraction that mattered. “We’ve always been good friends,” said her husband, Jay. “We’re good at communicating and we like doing a lot of the same things.” During our interview, I was struck by how often they reached out to touch each other with a pat on the arm or an affectionate tap on the other’s hand. Happily, graying hair and aging bodies haven’t changed their assessment of each other as “hot”!
In contrast, Patrice and Gerry married in their late-thirties. They have now been married 35 years. When asked how they have stayed together, Gerry offered an interesting point of view. “I think we both understood that we were marrying a whole, self-sufficient person. We didn’t need each other. We wanted each other. We built our marriage on mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s habits.”
His wife added another dimension. “So many people seem to think marriage is 50-50. It’s not. It needs to be 100 – 100% or even more. When you can each count on the other to do more than their share, neither of you needs to worry that the other isn’t doing enough.”
Michael and Ronnie will soon celebrate their 50th anniversary. On the surface, they are as different as you can imagine. Their opinions about politics, religion, how to spend time, house-cleaning — you name it — tend to be opposites. Is this a case of “opposites attract”?
“Not at all,” they told me. For these two, all those matters are just details. They agree on essential values like loyalty and honesty.
“Neither of us has ever wanted to give the other any reason to not trust,” says Ronnie. “Trust is the glue. Everything else is small stuff.”
Michael adds, “In spite of our many differences, we have enormous respect for the integrity of the other’s point of view. Our life has been enriched by intellectual debate and passionate, but differing, beliefs.” Talk to these two for more than five minutes about almost anything and those differences become obvious. But what’s also clear is that they are each other’s best fan.
Will and Amy have been married for 65 years. Despite an initial strong connection and enormous mutual attraction, they almost didn’t get married due to important religious differences. “We broke our engagement for several months while we worked that out,” said Will. “I think the fact that we struggled with such a fundamental issue before getting married was crucial. We learned a lot about each other and we learned how to solve a very important problem in the process. We’ve used those lessons ever since. We don’t ignore big issues. We work at them.”
Amy added with a smile as she reached for Will’s hand, “You do have to find the right person.” When asked to be more specific, she said, “You know. Someone who is faithful and honest and loving and sexy and who is a real partner.” That sums it up pretty well, I think.
Related article: How To Beat the Odds: Tips from the Very Married
Senior couple photo available from Shutterstock