What makes love last

Next Tuesday, four little words will echo across the land as legions of nervous Valentine's Day suitors pop a life-changing question: "Will you marry me?" If the answer is yes, couples will begin a journey they hope will last a lifetime.

Not all will succeed. But those who want a view from the trenches as to what it takes to hold a union together might find perspectives in an unusual photo essay by photographer Robert Fass, called "As Long As We Both Shall Live: Long- Married Couples in America." Photographs are on exhibit at the 92nd Street Y Art Center in New York until Feb. 23. They're also featured on www.longmarriedcouples.com.

Mr. Fass's project began in 1997 with portraits of his parents, who were married 47 years. Since then he has traveled the nation, documenting what many people believe is a vanishing segment of the population: couples who have been married for 40 years or more. His youngest subjects are in their late 50s, the oldest nearly 100.

"A lot of people want to know what the secret is," Fass says. "What I've learned is that there isn't one, particularly. More than anything, it's a generational attitude. They're the last generation to look at marriage as this indissoluble bond. It's just what you did. There wasn't a lot of planning involved in terms of goals for life. They went into it assuming they would stay at it."

Marriage, he notes, was once the only socially acceptable option. "There was a lot of stigma attached to both premarital sex and divorce. Now those things are totally commonplace. They're kind of accepted bookends to the experience."

Most of Fass's subjects expressed contentment with one another. Although some were unhappy, or one spouse was dissatisfied, they constituted a minority.

Not surprisingly, many couples talked about going through periods of discontent, difficulty, or tragedy. Yet as they look at young people today, some question whether the same sense of commitment exists.

"If there is difficulty, or discontent, or if someone finds someone they like better, younger couples will say, 'See ya,' and go," older couples said. Fass adds, "They feel that's an unfortunate shift in the dynamic."

When he asked, "Is marriage still necessary?" the answers ranged widely. Some took the attitude that it is an institution that has always accommodated redefinition. Others felt marriage is under siege and needs to be protected and strengthened.

Some have redefined marriage as they go. Others have stuck to a bedrock definition of their roles within the marriage. Either way, Fass sees "a certain unselfishness" in many long-married people that sustains them.

These couples said "I do" before it became essential to find a "soul mate." Before it was necessary to spend a year planning a wedding. Before the average wedding cost $25,000. Yet the glue of their unions holds firm.

After eight years of interviews, Fass remains optimistic. "Marriage may not be for everyone, but it's a great institution, a great option," he says. "If these couples are any indication, marriage provides a foundation for a deeper sense of contentment and achievement."

One of his subjects, Sally, said "yes" in 1948 when her husband, Marcus, uttered those four little words, "Will you marry me?" Now, with the benefit of 57 years of experience, she offers this advice to Valentine's Day lovers - and everyone else.

"There are three words that save a marriage," she says. "And it's not 'I love you.' It's 'Maybe you're right.' "

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