What makes a 50-year-marriage work?

Kelly E.

Marriage takes more than love

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Couple married for 53 yearsPhoto by Renate Vanaga on Unsplash

They’re the only couple on the dance floor in front of the band, but from the smiles on their faces, it’s obvious they don’t mind.

They move together in perfect unison. He holds her hands and spins her around then pulls her back gently to his side. She follows his lead, her eyes lighting up under his loving gaze. You can tell by the way they moved they’ve been dancing together for years, but they act like newlyweds — giggling and flirting as if no-one else is in the room.

“They’re gorgeous!” I say to my friend sitting across the table from me.

“They’re family friends of ours, Derek and Kathy,” she replies. “They’ve been married 53 years.”

The song finishes and Derek and Kathy leave the dance floor. Spotting my friend, Derek makes his way over to our table and sits down for a chat while Kathy heads outside.

“Great dancing,” my friend says. Derek laughs. “We have a bit-a-fun. We’ve been out dancing every night this weekend!”

After a few minutes my friend gets up to get a drink and Derek turns to introduce himself.

“I hear you’ve been married 53 years!” I say.

“Yes, indeed. Kathy was only 16 when we met!” His eyes fill with warmth as he mentions his wife. “My friend thought I needed to settle down, so he invited us both over to dinner one night.”

“He match-made you!” I said, delighted to hear a successful love story. “It obviously worked out!”

Eventually the conversation turns to my partner, playing the drums. “We’re getting married in 6 weeks,” I say and he congratulates me. “What advice would you give us?” I ask, because heading into my second marriage I feel like I need all the advice I can get. A couple with 53 years behind them must have done something right.

Derek leans forward onto one elbow, looks me in the eyes, and smiles. He’s in his 70s but a youthful spark still radiates from him.

The rest of the night, in the quiet between musical sets, Derek and his wife, Kathy, give me marriage advice. Since my first marriage ended I’ve been on a mission, researching the best relationship advice I can find. I want to give my second marriage the best chance possible and I’ve learnt a lot. Most of what Derek and Kathy tell me, I already know. But what they give me, in the end, is better than advice. Watching them interact over the night, is like seeing all the advice I’ve read and heard in action. Dancing and chatting in the bar, they give me a real-life case study of what makes a good marriage.

Here’s what I learnt:

“You need to learn to compromise”

This was Derek’s first tip. “We are very different,” he said. “But we’ve learnt to compromise. We’ve learnt to say, ‘you think that, and that’s okay’.”

Compromise is important but sometimes it can feel one-sided, or like no-one really wins. What I saw when Derek interacted with his wife was more than compromise, it was complete acceptance and wonderful cooperative communication.

There wasn’t a hint of judgement or criticism. When Derek cracked out some crazy dance moves, Kathy just smiled. When Kathy wanted to keep dancing but Derek needed a break, neither tried to convince the other to change their minds. Kathy danced with a younger man and Derek happily sipped his wine. Throughout the night they modelled a cooperative partnership in action.

Susan Heitler Ph.D. says a cooperative partnership is far more important than a compatible one. We put way too much focus on compatibility. Your partner can be perfect and it still won’t work out unless you cooperate with them.

According to one study, a cooperative partnership is the key to a long-term relationship. Their long-term study showed interesting but common-sense results. One finding was couples who expressed negative communication early in their relationship, like anger, blame, and criticism were more likely to divorce.

“Their skills for sustaining cooperation were shakey,” sums up Heitler, discussing the research. “They too easily slipped into arguing, speaking harshly, listening dismissively or giving up when differences arose.”

That seems logical. If you’re not a cooperative team, it doesn’t work.

“Never go to bed angry”

Derek’s second piece of advice is one I’ve heard many times. “It’s not easy sometimes,” he said. “You can’t always get it completely sorted before bed, it gets too late, but if you try your best it’s a lot better the next day.”

Great couples don’t ignore issues. They take a break when they need to calm down, but they don’t shove problems under the rug or hold onto resentment.

But what about the problems that never seem to get solved?

These “perpetual problems” are problems couples can discuss for years but aren’t easily solved. They are problems that come from differences in your personalities, your needs, or lifestyle differences. All couples face perpetual problems.

The Gottman Institute, with over 30 years of research into relationships, says, “In our research, we concluded that instead of solving their perpetual problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about them.”

“Similar values help”

After Derek told me how different he and Kathy are, he quickly said, “but we’re both religious and that helps.”

“It’s like having a third person in our marriage,” he said. “It’s us and God. That gets us through a lot of things.”

Being able to discuss your spiritual beliefs with your partner can make a big difference in your relationship. If faith is an important part of your life, it helps to share those same values.

Values are often overlooked when we’re dating. Your life is impacted by where you stand on issues such as family, faith, morals, and what’s important. Your values make a big impact on the decisions you make in life. It’s certainly easier being with someone who prioritizes the same key things that you do.

“Prioritize time for each other”

In the second musical break, Kathy joined us at the table. “We were just discussing marriage advice,” Derek told her.

“Like what?” she said.

Derek spun in his seat to turn his full attention on Kathy and, excited, said, “I’m interested to hear what you’d say!” His actions indicated he was telling the truth — he really wanted to know her thoughts.

She laughed and gently touched his arm, looking far younger than her age. “Oh! I don’t know!”

Derek waited patiently, encouraging her with his silence.

“I guess, spend time together,” she said finally. “Life can get really busy but you need to prioritize time together.”

Kathy and Derek both loved to dance and follow two local bands. They carefully schedule every concert into their calendar. Sharing a love of music clearly keeps the spark alive in their marriage.

Great couples turn toward each other, rather than away, according to the Gottman Institute. It can be easy in the busy-ness of life to drift apart. Those little and big shared moments with your partner are crucial.

“Be grateful for everything”

Kathy’s second piece of advice is one of my favorites for life in general. Gratitude got me through a painful divorce. It helped me when my finances crumbled. It’s saved me from slipping into depression many, many times.

“I’m just very grateful for all the little things,” said Kathy. She placed a hand on my arm in a grandmotherly way. “It makes a big difference.”

Gratitude isn’t everything. There are situations where it doesn’t cut it to say, I’m grateful for what I have. There’s a time for grief and anger too. There’s a place for wanting change and for speaking up about what’s wrong. But gratitude is still one of the most powerful and simple ways to change your mindset and your life.

Amie M. Gordon in Greater Good Magazine confirms Kathy’s advice. She says, “in our research, we found that participants’ reported feelings of gratitude towards a romantic partner predicted who would stay in their relationships and who would break up nine months later.”

Kathy’s right. Gratitude does make a marriage last.

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