A former first lady, a rock star who's been in and out of rehab more times than he can remember, and a professional poker player can all offer considerable insight into the mysterious workings of marriage. After all, their wisdom is gleaned from decades of conjugal bliss.
OK, maybe it wasn't always bliss. But each of them has stayed married -- to the same person -- for a very long time. And each considers his or her marriage to be happy, strong and mutually supportive.
In other words, they beat the odds.
It is often possible to understand why a marriage fails, as so many do. It is much more difficult, though, to elucidate why one succeeds. Why do some couples thrive, while others fizzle or flame out, despite their best intentions?
When I recently met former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who has been married to Jimmy Carter for 63 years. I couldn't resist asking how they made such a perfect union.
Mrs. Carter replied that she and her husband had gone through two periods that were tough. "First, well, let me just say: Don't ever write a book with your husband," she said.
She went on to explain that the period after she and Mr. Carter left the White House and returned to their hometown of Plains, Ga., also put a strain on their relationship. Her husband felt adrift after failing to win re-election, she said. He would often interrupt her while she was at work in her home office, asking her to have a cup of coffee with him and chat.
"We learned that it was important to our marriage for each of us to always have our own work, our own projects," said Mrs. Carter, 82.
I asked my parents, who just celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary, why their marriage lasted so long. My dad said he had no idea. "Your mother did all the hard work," he admitted. Mom agreed, and divulged her marital secret: "forgiveness."
Happily married people believe they married their soul mates, and for good reason. Even marrying the right person gets you only part way. Ask the couples themselves, and they'll likely credit some combination of hard work and sheer blind luck. No one says that every day, or even every year, was rosy. And there are plenty of long marriages that are unhappy. But there are some strategies that happily married couples say work:
-- Find the middle ground. "It's all give and take," says Marlene Critch, a retired hospital director in Tucson. She met her husband Bill on a blind date in 1959. He took her on a picnic with a thermos of gin and tonics; they married two months later.
Flash ahead 50 years. The Critches have raised two daughters in Seattle and weathered his severe heart condition. They swim together each morning, and he reads her children's books when she has trouble falling asleep at night.
Compromise, they say, got them through the good and bad times. Mr. Critch, 75, says he compromised by quitting the Air Force early in their marriage, because it bothered her that he was away from home so much. (Press him for more concessions, and he says, "Miso soup.")
Ms. Critch, 74, says she made her own compromise by agreeing to retire to Arizona, where her husband preferred the climate. (She wanted to stay in Seattle to be close to their daughters.)
"If each person can give 75 percent, you've got 150 percent," says Ms. Critch. Her husband agrees. "Many men would call that wussy," he says. "But I don't because I value her more than anything else in the world."
Similarly, Jan and Len Konkel, who have been married for 62 years, long ago made a pact to never argue over anything that wasn't very important, saving their battles for things like how to raise their three children. "Everything else is minor and can be settled in a discussion," says Ms. Konkel, 84.
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