One of my favorite spectator sports involves watching long-married couples interact. Their gestures and mannerisms, comments and silences, form a private language, spoken and unspoken, that each pair has honed during their 50 or 60 years together.
Consider the way a husband absently pats his wife's shoulder as they walk, or the way she straightens his collar or brushes off a piece of lint, real or imagined, on his coat.
Watch the way he says, "Ready to go, Mother?" when they finish their meal in a restaurant. The way she smiles patiently as he tells a favorite story or joke for the thousandth time. And the way he opens her car door – a vestige of gallantry from an earlier age.
With their easy familiarity and quiet solicitude, these couples serve as unsuspecting examples of patience and enduring affection.
There can be moments of impatience, too, of course. You might see it in the "What's taking her so long?" look on a retired husband's face as he waits – and waits – on a shopping-mall bench for his wife. And you might hear it in a wife's voice as she chides her husband for forgetting something.
Sometimes there are late-life role reversals as well. Perhaps a wife does the driving now, while her husband plays an unaccustomed role as passenger. Or he takes on domestic duties by helping with the shopping and cooking.
Such are the accommodations of long-term marriage.
In this month of hearts and flowers, Valentine's Day may be regarded as a celebration largely for young lovers. But those who have celebrated 50 or 60 Valentine's Days, even if not always with cards and roses, offer persuasive evidence that this can also be an occasion to celebrate old love and the lessons it can teach.
These are couples who typically met the old-fashioned way – in person, perhaps at a party or at church or through friends or relatives.
What a contrast to their counterparts today, hoping to find romance and love on the Internet. In the process, they're turning online matchmaking into a booming industry.
The website eHarmony.com gives interested singles a 258-question personality test and then selects potential partners for them. Numbers attest to its popularity: More than 19 million people have filled out the eHarmony questionnaire, according to the company.
Yet many online hopefuls, looking for their own perfect Romeo or Juliet in cyberspace, "make up impossible shopping lists for what they want in a partner," Eli Finkel, a psychologist who studies dating at Northwestern University, told The New York Times.
Those unrealistic lists of qualifications probably weren't part of the search when today's golden-anniversary couples were courting long ago.
They are also the couples who married decades before weddings became a multibillion-dollar industry, when a wedding was still primarily about exchanging solemn vows and marking the beginning of a new life together, rather than serving as an extravaganza.
Who could have imagined then that 21st-century brides would order wedding dresses a size or two smaller than their current weight, determined to shed up to 20 pounds before the big day? In a study at Cornell University, 91 percent of engaged women wanted to lose weight or avoid gaining before saying "I do."
Most important of all, these long-married couples tied the knot when society on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that marriage mattered.
Now the latest survey of British Social Attitudes reports that a majority of people regard marriage as fairly irrelevant. What is important, they say, is a stable relationship. The vast majority of respondents see little difference between being married and cohabiting, even when children are involved.
Tell that to many of today's longest-wed couples, and the responses might be different.
It's easy to romanticize such couples, bound together with marital superglue for half a century or more, and to assume that marriage was easier for them than it is now. Perhaps for some it has been.
But ask others if they ever wished, long ago, that they could go their separate ways, and some would probably answer yes. Had divorce been easier then, some might have been happier alone or with a different partner. They might agree with the two-thirds of respondents to the British survey who believe that divorce can be a positive step.
Still, they weathered the storms and stayed, accommodating differences and imperfections. The question for them now would be: "Are you glad you stayed together?"
On Valentine's Day, and every other day, for that matter, those of us who find their example inspiring hope that their answer would be "yes," offering a quiet vote of confidence to all the generations behind them that marriage still matters – a lot.