My husband and I have now been a couple for longer than we have been separate entities. I wouldn’t say that we’ve always been "in love" during the 30 years we’ve been together, but we have always loved each other, we have always been kind to each other, and we have always, above all else, been friends.
Marriage is good for your health, according to a recent study by the Duke University Medical Center. Research drawn from more than 4,800 participants born in the 1940s found that those who had never married were twice as likely to die in midlife as people who had a long-term partner.
But what does it take to sustain a strong, long-lasting connection? Here's some of what we've learned:
1. Keep the Lines Open
It’s not necessarily quantity but quality that counts most when it comes to communication. Lois Hjelmstand’s husband of 65 years, Les, worked the night shift for 25 years, but they always made time to connect. “We’d grab a half hour here and there when we could,” she recalls Lois. “We’d sit in our chairs in the bedroom and put our feet in the other’s lap before he went to bed. The kids knew this was our quiet time.”
Every couple has a communication pattern—whether conscious or not. “Look at how you greet your mate when they come home,” suggests couples mediator Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship without Blowing Up or Giving In. “Do you ask how their day was, or whether they remembered to pick up the dry cleaning? These little comments add up—one way or another."
And sometimes, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Bob Bloch has been writing poetry to wife Janice for 65 years. “My straw man says the things that I want to express but can’t,” he admits. “Sometimes I’ll smooth over a disagreement with a poem, or I’ll just tell my wife how much I love her.”
2. Meet in the Middle
“The more you practice negotiation skills, the easier it will be to use them when making difficult decisions,” explains Puhn, who says it’s important to make sure nobody wins or loses. Instead, whenever possible, try to find middle ground.
“Just remember that you're not always right, and give in a little,” advises Maxine Griffith, age 94, married to husband Pershing for 70 years.
Providing children with good role models for communication is key to developing the trust that keeps a family strong, Puhn says. David and Audrey Knotts, married for 70 years, can testify to this. “Our three kids have always known that they can come to us with anything,” he says. “I think that’s partly because they grew up seeing us talking, working things out."
3. Put Family First
"Everything in our marriage has always revolved around family and togetherness," says Herman Solomon, 102, of his 80-year union with his wife, Bertie. The couple worked together at a family business, and has planned all of their holidays and vacations around their children, grandchildren, and now, great-grandchildren.
Sharing experiences does strengthens a marriage and a family, according to Tina Tessina, Ph.D., author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “Filling up the well of goodwill is what we draw on in the tough times,” she says. To cope with a job that required frequent moves around the country, John Merrill, married to wife Bev for 62 years, says his family made a conscious effort to find home and comfort in each other. “Everybody pulled together and got closer," he recalls, "because we needed to."
4. Maintain a Strong Partnership
According to Tessina, the most powerful thing you can do to keep a marriage strong is to form a partnership. That entails respect, trust, and intimacy. “There’s an art to making your partner feel understood and accepted,” she says. “Gentle touch, eye contact, a sense of humor, and the right words all create the right atmosphere.”
Lois Hjelmstand’s top priority has always been nurturing that intimacy, which she admits can be hard work. “There are times when we’ve lost our desire for each other, but we just make a date and make it happen,” she says. “We’ve been together for so long that we know how to rekindle the flame.”
The bottom line, according to Ruth Palitz, is enjoying each other in bad and good times and, through it all, being kind to each other. “My husband Lou and I have always trusted each other,” she says. “We’ve looked out for each other for 70 years.”
And they’re still going strong.
Jennifer Haupt contributes stories and book reviews to a wide variety of magazines. Haupt’s new e-book Will you be my Mother? The quest to answer yes, includes three stories from her journey to love better and connect more deeply with her children, her mother, and the world. Author profits from this mini-memoir through May 2014 will be donated to mothers2mothers, which trains, employs, and empowers mothers living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. For more information about Jennifer, visit her website or Facebook page.