Marriage's Distance Runners

EVERY April, two friends celebrate their wedding anniversary by beginning with a charming little ritual: They take out their wedding album, sit side by side on the sofa, and look at pictures of a long-ago day when, as a very young bride and groom, they pledged a lifetime commitment to each other.

This month marks their 37th annual stroll through the album, and the routine still produces delight and new insights. "A wedding day is such a flash in the pan - it's all over so quickly," the wife says. "I look at the pictures and see details I never saw before.

"It's a centering sort of thing," she adds. "The years for everyone have brought their share of hopes unfulfilled, of disappointment. And yet the central agreement to walk side by side through life has not changed, whether it's through fields or fires. It's reaffirming."

After the album has been put away for another year, they head off on another anniversary routine. However busy their schedules, however tight their budget, they never fail to go out for a small celebration.

In the early, student years of their marriage, they explain, the event was often nothing more than hamburgers and fries. Even now, when time is in shorter supply than money, their outing might be as simple as dessert at a favorite restaurant - anything that sets the day apart as special and pays quiet tribute to their enduring relationship.

When couples like these walked down the aisle in the 1950s - or earlier - marriage was more likely to be a union bound together, for better or worse, with the matrimonial equivalent of Superglue. Today the marital tie often seems more like a Velcro connection, with couples pulling apart and reattaching themselves to other partners in a pattern Margaret Mead once called "serial monogamy."

One cartoonist has captured the shifting social patterns by showing a bride and groom exchanging vows that include the line, "I promise to stay with you as long as we both think it's a good idea."

It is an attitude confirmed by recent divorce statistics. During the 1980s, 5 out of 10 marriages ended in divorce, although the Census Bureau projects that eventually the rate will drop to 4 out of 10.

In the midst of rampant divorce, long-term marriages like that of the 37-year veterans attract too little attention. Although 25th and 50th anniversaries provide occasions for more visible celebrations, the years in between represent a period when sentiment and ceremony can be easily forgotten. For the most part, mid-life marriages often appear to have all the worn charm of a pair of old slippers - comfortable, taken for granted, and hardly worthy of special attention.

Yet the quarter-century span between a couple's silver and golden anniversaries remains a time of great change, testing not only flexibility but sometimes staying power as well. These are the years when the last college tuition bill will be paid - oh happy day! - when the nest may or may not empty out, and when grandchildren may expand and extend the family.

But this is also a period when couples who have been preoccupied with juggling multiple roles and building careers will find their jobs winding down and ending, sometimes voluntarily, other times not. And after years when a couple's primary role has been mother and father, not husband and wife, they will find themselves coming full circle: The duet will return to being a duet. As retirement looms, the moment comes for taking stock and asking, What next?

Making a case for staying power and the extended run, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Marriage is one long conversation.... The whole material of life is turned over and over, ideas are struck out and shared, the two persons more and more adapt their notions one to suit the other, and in process of time, without sound of trumpet, they conduct each other into new worlds of thought."

For the radiant brides and grooms smiling out of society pages today - couples who will be more likely to pull out a wedding video than a wedding album as they celebrate anniversaries tomorrow - let the conversation of marriage begin. And, in the best Stevenson tradition, let it be long.

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