In a culture of broken relationships, it is rare to meet couples celebrating wedding anniversaries beyond, say, their 25th.
Many people gaze wistfully at elderly couples still obviously in love, honoring and respecting one another. We find it endearing—Aren’t they cute?—and wonder if their relationship is really all that great, or if these two people just decided to settle for what they had.
I have an extraordinary long-term relationship. My husband and I are now in our 70s and have been together for 32 years. Every day is new, with the promise of joy and continued discovery.
Our relationship has survived many events and circumstances that could easily have derailed it. We face whatever life sends our way, supporting one another—sink or swim, we’re in this together.
How have we managed to make it work?
What have we done—and what can others do—right now that will help build a foundation for a “’til death do us part” kind of relationship?
1. Trust. I know what makes my day, and what makes his day.
“The difference between emotionalism and catharsis is generosity.” ~ Waylon Lewis
I used to wonder will this look silly, will he appreciate it? Will he look back and think, “What a nutjob I married?” Now I trust my intuition and my experience—who I know he is for me. I also trust his intuition and experience, and he knows who I am for him.
Sometimes, we start the day with a question: what can I do that would make your day? Whatever the answer, we make every effort to do it. An example is a pet peeve of his, my cluttered desk, so I set aside a part of my day to address it.
When he brings home something I really like and don’t often buy (gingersnaps!) I am moved, warmed by his love, his gesture of knowing who I am and remembering. I hug him and thank him (and eat some gingersnaps), then leave a note on the wall by the coffeepot: “You are the most thoughtful husband.” That note has been by the coffeepot for years. It has always been true. I try not to just say “I love you,” but what I love about him.
Trust fosters loyalty. I recognize that whatever I say about him in public is true in the eyes of those listening, because I said so. So what do I say? How do I demonstrate the truth about who we are for each other? First, I don’t gossip. Unless we have agreed in private that something concerning him, me, or us is okay to make public, I do not speak of it with others. No complaining, no demeaning him. Such words would rip into our relationship in the eyes of the world and assault who we are in private.
If there’s something that annoys me or enrages me or causes me to question my love, we talk about it, I write privately about it, or when I notice my anger has been triggered, I sing a song about it. These feelings usually disappear quickly, or become less of a trigger. And they never become personal.
Even so, there are times when he says something that seems out of character for him. I let him know, not to shame him, but to express what I’m hearing, what my reaction is, and to suggest a possible remedy. What would be a better statement or solution, what’s the impact on me of what he’s said? Of course, my anger jumps up and down and wants me to make a lot of noise. But over the years, we have learned how to express feelings effectively, without starting a war of words or of silence.
2. Touch. Appreciate and acknowledge his physical presence in my space.
“I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug or just a friendly pat on the back.” ~ Maya Angelou
We are hug collectors. At home, I am always open to sharing a hug, no matter what I’m doing. When he wanders into my office, I get out of my chair and collect a hug. If he comes in to share something specific—news about a friend, or a funny or moving or ridiculous Facebook post—I take a minute to listen.
Then I let him know I’m working on something. “Come back in another hour—I’ll take a break with you.” And I do it.
We make love in the kitchen, in the laundry room—wherever we are in the house. We live in a rural area, on 20 acres of woods, so we have no fear of Peeping Toms, no reason to avoid being naked, regardless of what room we’re in.
I once asked a therapist how long into our senior years we could expect to have an active sex life. The answer: “As long as you want. You decide.” So, we did. We don’t ever want to be without sex—and we won’t be.
Is this too personal? Too much information? I don’t think so. Too often we avoid topics that we feel embarrassed discussing with strangers. But I want couples, especially in our age group, to know that the nature of any relationship can be created deliberately.
I can hear my son now: “Mom! Please!” Well, he can be embarrassed. He’s 48—he’ll get over it.
3. Think. Take time to breathe, to build space between us before we say or do anything.
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
There is nothing in my life more important to me than my relationship with my husband. It is the core of my day, the foundation for my life, my successes, my joys, my fears, my sadness, my health. I cannot imagine life without him. With that thought in mind, what I say or do is bound to build rather than tear apart what we have together.
I must think about how he hears what I say, how I hear what he says. Sometimes what is heard is not what was said or intended, and misunderstandings are inevitable.
After so many years together, it is tempting to complete each other’s sentences, assuming we know what’s coming next. We do not! We have each changed in our thinking, in our likes and dislikes. We acquire new talents, new information. We always have new things to learn about one another. So, no matter how tempting, we listen rather than assume.
As we have aged, our communication with one another has shifted based on memory, vision, and hearing difficulties. To compensate, we have developed some reminders for each other. When I sense that he’s talking to me, and I can’t understand what he’s saying, I remind him where my ears are—they are not where he is talking. I move closer to him, so I can see him, read his lips, let him know I hear what he’s saying rather than practice selective hearing from afar. Too often we assume we’ve been heard when we have not.
We have made it clear that when we ask questions that have recently been answered, either the previous answer wasn’t heard or was forgotten. Age-related infirmities don’t define who we are for each other; we shift our communication habits to accommodate them.
Trusting, touching, and thinking: these three legs of the tripod strengthen our relationship. They have for over 30 years. By keeping what works, we intend to be together, in love, ‘til death do us part.