A few golden secrets from the true marriage experts

Halfway through Clare Boothe Luce's classic play, "The Women," a young society matron complains to her mother about the challenges of marriage and the errant ways of her husband.

But rather than advising her daughter to leave him, the mother urges her to stay, saying, "Remember, dear, it's being together at the end that matters."

When the Charlotte Players presented Luce's drama last week at the Port Charlotte Cultural Center, many retired couples in the audience might have nodded in silent agreement at that line. They belong to a generation where marriages of 50 and even 60 years are increasingly common. Couples celebrating their golden anniversary this year, for example, had less than a 20 percent chance of divorcing when they married in 1952. For those exchanging vows today, that figure has soared to nearly 50 percent.

At a time when public discussions about divorce often center on the pros and cons of staying together "for the sake of the children," the effects of divorce on people'slater years – and the long-term advantages of "being together at the end" – are often ignored. Older couples tend to be invisible.

Even when people do ask them the perfunctory question, "What's the secret of a long marriage?" their answers can be predictable: "Never go to bed angry." "Laugh every day." "Be best friends."

Those responses are good, as far as they go. But they make 50 years of togetherness sound so easy! As Diane Sollee, president of Smart Marriages in Washington, observes, "The thing about old couples that amazes me is that they'll say, 'I was just lucky that I found Mabel.' They forget how hard their marriages were. They forget that maybe they didn't always think they were lucky to have found Mabel."

No one knows how many of these long-married couples might have considered divorce at one low point or another. Some may still wish they had parted. Others are undoubtedly glad they stuck it out. Their experiences might be helpful to younger couples struggling to make marriage work.

Watching long-married couples can be heartwarming. Florida, home to legions of retirees, is prime couple-watching territory. In their words (or silences) and in their small, unconscious gestures – the way he absently pats her shoulder, the way she straightens his tie, even when it doesn't look crooked – these veterans of domesticity signal their caring and connectedness.

Notice the retired couple at McDonald's, eating Egg McMuffins in friendly silence as morning sunlight spills across their table. And don't miss the flicker of impatience in another husband's eyes that melts into bemused resignation as his wife asks for "just a little more time" at the mall.

Take note, too, of the caregiving role reversals. There's the wife who, after decades of being a passenger in the car, now drives when they go out. There's also the husband who, after a married lifetime of enjoying his wife's meals, now does the cooking for them.

These are unions forged and strengthened as much by sorrows and disappointments as by successes and joys. In their autumnal appreciation for each other – foibles and quirks and all – perhaps many of these couples count as the true experts on marriage.

The retirees leaving the Cultural Center at the end of Luce's play might not remember her line about "being together at the end." But many would agree with Judith Viorst when she writes, "One advantage of marriage, it seems to me, is that when you fall out of love with each other, it keeps you together until maybe you fall in again."

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