People often talk about “finding love.” But that's just the start. After that, the work begins — and the payoffs can last a lifetime.
Love isn’t dead. Neither is marriage. In fact, divorce rates have been falling steadily for two decades. The explanation, in part, is that people are waiting longer to get hitched. The average marrying age today hovers near 30, versus just north of 20 in the mid-1950s.
But all that waiting to tie the knot means it’s harder to reach your 40th or 50th wedding anniversary. And milestones like those come with lots of wisdom. Couples who withstand the test of time have advice that can help the rest of us keep our romantic priorities straight.
With that in mind, we gathered people who have been happily married for decades and asked them: What’s the secret?
Create Shared Rituals
Toni Harrington of Atlanta has been married for 54 years. She and her husband, Kent, still reconnect every night. “We’ve always had dinner together in the evening, at the table, often by candlelight,” she says. “It’s a very special part of the day. We share what happened to us and gain advice from each other.”
It hasn’t always been easy. For years they lived in Japan, where Toni worked as a nurse and Kent worked in government. He didn’t like hearing about the “gore of the hospital,” and he wasn’t allowed to get into details about his job. So they discussed their problems generally — like how to manage an employee. That way they could still connect and advise each other.
For Janis and Andy Fields of Greensboro, North Carolina, the bonding ritual involves pouring wine. Janis was just 18 when they decided to get married, and she recalls toasting their engagement with a small bottle at a pizza parlor. (At the time, the drinking age was 18.) “It must have been a sign that we were going to be wine drinkers,” she says with a laugh. Now, after 46 years of marriage, they still share a passion for learning about wine and visiting wineries.
Rituals will vary from one relationship to another, but there’s always something you can do for routine bonding — even if it’s just to get through a temporary situation.
Take Cathy and Robert Sinsheimer of Atlanta. They’ve been married for 44 years, but while they were dating, they spent two years living in different states while Robert completed business school. So what was their ritual? Weekly phone calls, one of which came right after Saturday Night Live.
“We’d watch it by ourselves and call each other right after [to talk about the episode],” says Cathy. The long-distance phone bills were huge — but very much worth it. The ritual helped keep the relationship strong until they could be in the same place again.
But Spend Time Apart Too
As important as it is to have scheduled time together, it’s also important to have some time alone, says Janis. This gives you time to pursue interests that are yours only, which can help you maintain a sense of identity during a long partnership.
“Having common interests is a good thing, but you can’t expect to have everything in common,” says Janis. “My husband is much more social than I am. He goes out, he golfs, he watches sports with his friends. That doesn’t interest me much.”
Janis gives Andy space to pursue what he enjoys, while she participates in her own hobbies, such as the folk dancing classes she started taking 25 years ago and continued over Zoom during the pandemic.
Similarly, Toni is an avid gardener, while her husband enjoys writing — and both activities are best done solo. “We go our separate ways during the process,” she says. “But when we come back together, I appreciate what he’s written, and he appreciates the garden.”
Try to Give Your Partner Some “Best Days”
Here’s something you should ask your spouse: What does your best day look like, emotionally? And then try to provide that for them when you can, says Cathy. She defines her best days as those with no anger, while Robert defines his as days without conflict.
“So I try to manage my disgruntlement, and I try to help him manage his anger,” she says. And he does the same. The relationship grows stronger not because you get it right every time, but because your partner sees you trying. “A best day isn’t always — or maybe ever — going to happen,” acknowledges Cathy. But if you and your partner are constantly working toward those best days, you’re bound to have a lot of good ones, even if you fall short.
Learn to Listen
Many people find it easier to talk than listen. But even people with busy minds can become better listeners, says Cathy. Often, it’s just about putting in the work. “I don’t think anybody really listens,” she says. “But try to listen — and not just to what your spouse is saying. It’s possible that your partner might not be as verbal [as you are], so you may have to be patient and drag some things out of them.”
Another thing to listen to, she says, is how you sound. “Listen also to what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it,” she says. Imagine how your words sound to your partner. Is that how you would want to be spoken to?
Be Prepared to Change
If you expect things to stay the same, you’re in trouble. So instead, embrace the change, say those lucky in love. That way you can grow together.
“One of the things my husband always says is ‘Predictions do not pan out,’” says Toni. “What you think [marriage] is going to be like is probably not what it’s actually going to be.” And that’s okay! Something unexpected can be a disappointment or a delightful surprise, depending on how you frame it.
During their sometimes-candlelit dinners, Toni and Kent have talked through issues around their careers and relationship. They’ve allowed each other to change with each new phase of life. Often, Toni has said to herself: “So [he’s] not exactly the same person, but this is what’s good about [him]. This is what I love about [him].” And, of course, she knows she’s not exactly the same person she used to be either.
The two have allowed each other to grow, and in exchange, they’ve had the freedom to grow themselves. And maybe that’s the secret to a long life of love. You don’t just fall in love once. It’s a new you, falling in love with a new partner, over and over throughout the years.
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