Happy 40th Valentine's Day

On a greeting-card rack filled with a sea of red hearts and flowers, one offbeat Valentine stands out. It features a lighthearted drawing of an older couple with the message, "They say married people start to look alike.... No wonder you're so cute. Happy Valentine's Day."

What a novelty - a Valentine for married couples, especially those of a certain age who remain largely ignored on this romantic occasion. Cards, long-stemmed roses, and candlelight dinners are typically regarded as the province of younger celebrants.

Yet they form a group that deserves to be honored, considering the decades of February 14ths they've spent together, and the stability many have brought to marriage and family relationships.

These long-married couples walked down the aisle in an era when brides and grooms were more likely to think of themselves as partners rather than as "soul mates," the currently fashionable and more elusive ideal. When they said "I do," the stigma of divorce still loomed large, and the vow "For better or worse" meant sticking it out, no matter what. Some spouses longed for freedom, of course. But they stayed and persevered.

No one celebrates 40 or 50 Valentine's Days without hitting rough patches along the way. Whatever their successes and triumphs, many of these couples know firsthand the vicissitudes of marriage: Bills mount. Children rebel. Jobs end. Parents die. Bosses complain. Romance wanes. Restlessness grows. These can be the wedges that drive husbands and wives apart, or the challenges that bind them together.

Couples who long ago settled for what they have, and accepted their state of the domestic union, could probably offer young romantics wisdom that goes beyond the clich├ęs about never going to bed angry. Did these couples ever consider divorce? What kept them together? Are they glad they stayed?

These questions could interest students at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., where the most popular course on campus is called "Theology of Marriage." It takes aim at American culture's obsession with romantic love and tries to teach students what it takes to weather a real-life marriage.

"Romance is wonderful," Robert Brancatelli tells his classes. "Don't run away from that." But he also makes a case for realism. "A lot of times they think they are going to marry somebody who is terrific looking, has a great career, comes from good stock, has straight teeth, and is good in bed."

When Professor Brancatelli mentions couples who have been married 30, 40, or 50 years, some in the class give a worried response. "A lot of these students think, 'How could I be married that long? I'd lose my freedom.' " He reassures them by saying, "No, you wouldn't. It's a very freeing thing."

As longevity increases, the current generation of "mature marrieds" - the term a California church uses to describe couples who are 55 and older - will continue to grow older and older together. As one mark of their longer unions, it's now possible to buy cards for a 70th wedding anniversary. Can 75th-anniversary greetings be far behind?

As remarkable as these achievements are, the prospect of so many decades together is raising questions. Long marriages can't always be romanticized. Erlene Rosowsky, a Boston psychiatrist who counsels older couples, finds that when people reach 60 or 65 and look ahead to the next 20 years or more together, some come to her and ask, "OK, now what?"

Although she finds some older couples "persistently miserable," she describes others as "wonderful." For them, the later years offer "a chance to reconnect and redress old wounds, and be good partners for the final phase."

It's an approach worth celebrating. It's also a reminder to romantics of all ages: Don't count the "mature marrieds" out on Valentine's Day.

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