At this time of year when we celebrate all loving relationships, we asked couples who have been together for decades to share the secrets to their happy married life. As different as the couples were, their insights fell into a few clear categories: practicing steady and open communication; understanding what goals and values you share; prioritizing and enjoy time together as well as separately; and valuing your role as a friend as well as a partner. And their stories that supported their points were as varied as the couples themselves.
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On Valentine’s Day, you can’t beat the perfect card for saying how you feel. (What did you expect us to suggest?) But communication is much more than an annual message—it’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s saying what you mean, listening as well as speaking, and sharing how you feel about the big things as well as the small ones.
Keep emotion out of it
“Part of us both being educators means there’s an ability to talk about how something makes me feel, but then we can turn that part off and talk about it rationally. We can deal with an issue without getting emotionally invested in the outcome any more so than necessary.” —Leslie C. (with Maggie C. for 37 years and married for two years)
More than words can say
“Listen before you talk. After 40 years, I’m still working on this one.” —Bill G. (with Carolyn G. for 41 years and married for 40 years)
Know how someone communicates
“Communication isn’t always necessarily a verbal thing. It’s knowing what the other person appreciates and doing those things. Everybody communicates their love style a certain way.” —Jodi W. (with David W. for 39 years and married for 33 years)
Know how to go
“‘Don’t go to bed mad’ is a good rule of thumb, but it’s not always going to happen that way. It’s not so much don’t go to bed mad, but don’t go to work mad. Don’t leave the house mad. I would never want the last conversation we ever had to be an argument.” —Dayton W. (with Michi W. for 36 years and married for 30 years)
Don’t give up
“Apart from any other part of the relationship, she’s my best friend. I don’t want to lose my best friend. If we’ve got an issue, we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to deal with it together, we’re going to be honest about it, and we’re going to figure it out the best way we can.” —Maggie C. (with Leslie C. for 37 years and married for two years)
Learn better ways
“Our level of communication increased dramatically when we took a self-awareness program that gave us a shared communication. I think there are a lot of programs out there that allow people to communicate more efficiently and be true to themselves.” —Jennifer J. (with Tim J. for 27 years and married for 25 years)
Understanding is key
“I was constantly on him to tell me what you were feeling, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t end up arguing over stupid stuff all the time. I didn’t want to end up like that. I wanted us to end up on the same page. As I got older, I realized that you don’t have to end up on the same page; you just have to understand where the other person is coming from.” —Tami S. (with Jay S. for 39 years and married for 37 years)
Family plays a role
“When we first were married, he once asked, ‘Do we have any ice cream?’ I replied yes and left the room. We later discovered that in his world, that meant ‘Do we have any ice cream and go get me some.’ In my family, if you want something, you go and get it yourself. We really had to start looking not just at us but how are families communicate, and what are you really saying when you’re speaking.” —Sandy W. (with Kurt W. for 40 years and married for 35 years)
When it comes to foundational beliefs and behaviors, some relationships thrive on great minds thinking alike while others maintain an attraction to each other’s differences. Each path leads to success—say couples who’ve been together for a long time—as long as each person stays fully aware of just where the other stands.
Take a look at family origins
“Our backgrounds are very similar. Both of our parents were very family-oriented people. We have similar values on both sides of the family. Things we viewed as important to us were very much the same.” —Jodi W.
Commit to being together
“People think I’m kidding when I say, ‘The secret to staying together is to never break up.’ I’m not kidding. If you truly commit to each other and the relationship, then working out the ‘for worse’ stuff makes the ‘for better’ stuff way better. —Bill G.
See the goal you share
“Between the two of us, if one was lacking, the other always has picked up the slack. When he wanted to change careers, I had to remind him that we were stable enough to try things and give it a shot. Even though it was a dramatic cut in pay, it was worth it knowing he was not going to be sad and angry and unfulfilled.” —Michi W. (with Dayton W. for 36 years and married for 30 years)
Acknowledge family influences
“Something that was different was how we defined family. Generations of his whole family lived within the county. I was raised in a family with our extended family living states away, and seeing aunts and uncles was an event. It took three years for us to get on the same page on how that defined us.” —Sandy W.
Recommit every day
“You decide you want a relationship, that’s the biggie. You make the decision that this is an important thing in my life. I made that promise, and I meant it when I said it. And you have to decide to make a commitment every day. It’s that day-to-day choice of this being a part of my life I want to maintain, and I’ll do what I need to do to make that happen.” —Leslie C.
Don’t make decisions alone
“I knew I never wanted to have fights about money, because that’s all I heard growing up. The one thing that has saved us several times over is that we’ve never overextended ourselves. We’re very practical people. We choose together on what we spend our money on.” —Tami S.
Work separately toward shared goals
“We’ve never had an issue of chores around the house. That’s dividing and conquering, and we’ve always been a team on that. Early on when we both were working outside the house, the first one home started dinner prep and cooked, and the other would clean and do dishes. Stuff like laundry and housekeeping, one of us sees it and does it. I was raised to be independent and look after myself just like she was.” —Dayton W.
Be clear on how your partner feels
“Anything to do with purchases, we make that decision together. I know some couples where one of them says ‘I’m gonna go get that boat,’ and then buys it. I just don’t feel like that’s the way you run a marriage. Sometimes you might think you’re doing something like that for the other person. But unless you talk about it, how do you know what that person wants?” —David W. (with Jodi W. for 39 years and married for 33 years)
People with happy married lives agree they are happiest when they can strike a fair balance between pursuits they share and activities they enjoy on their own. (Note: But maybe don’t do that on Valentine’s Day.)
Share why you like what you like
“We love traveling together and seeing as much theater as we can. She enjoys it at a different level than I because she has all of the expertise and background in it. I just know what I like, and I usually know why I like it or why I don’t like it, so I can talk about that. Our exchange of ideas is really fun.” – Maggie C.
Preserve what makes each of you you
“I think that sometimes when people get married, they think, ‘Now we are this new entity; you can’t go do these things and I can’t go do these things.’ Tim was a musician before we ever met. Us getting married didn’t change that as something he still wanted to do. When you marry somebody, you don’t want to kill off the thing that made them who they were. You want to embrace it.” —Jennifer J.
Avoid fusing your worlds
“In the beginning, I was way more social than he was. I’m fine with that but a lot of people aren’t. I don’t care whether he goes to some social stuff with me because I know he’ll be miserable and I don’t want that for him. Marriage doesn’t create a ‘uni-life.’” —Tami S.
Give each other space
“I take a trip a year with the boys. They are on their phone checking in constantly, and I’ll text on Friday to say I made it safely and I might not talk to her again until Sunday. She’s not angry that I didn’t call her, but if those guys aren’t texting, they’re in the doghouse. We have an extremely high comfort level of doing our own thing.” —Jay S. (with Tami S. for 39 years and married for 37 years)
Stay open to new things
“Michi has gone to conventions and trade shows with me, and she says she has a lot of fun. She signed us up for pickleball lessons, and I didn’t think I’d like it but it’s just my speed. She wants to learn how to do dancing, and…maybe. I don’t know, but we’ll get there.” —Dayton W.
Enjoy being separate and being together
“I don’t ever remember a moment when we weren’t ever ‘us.’ Our overlap happened at the start of our marriage. Obviously, there are some places it doesn’t. I like to hunt and fish, and that’s not for her. But I actually don’t mind watching Downton Abbey with everyone.” —Kurt W. (with Sandy W. for 40 years and married for 35 years)
If Valentine’s Day celebrates anything, it’s the joy and appreciation of a loving bond forged by two people. Those in long-lasting relationships use their words and their actions to underscore to each other how valuable that bond is.
Be present to one another
“Appreciate each other. Anyone is lucky to be able to share life with someone. The big moments, the small moments, the good times, the hard times. It’s all about being there to share in life’s moments, whatever those might be.” —Virginia
Demonstrate your partner’s value
“Try to treat your partner as well as you treat your friends or family. Think of your partner as a life-long friend. How many breaks would you give that friend? How generous are you with your friends? How interested are you in what they have to say? Show your partner at least that much courtesy, engagement and support. Be intentional about it. Don’t take your partner for granted any more than you’d take a close friend for granted.” —Dan T. (with Lana T. for 38 years and married for 37 years)
Take meaningful actions
“It took us a long time to decide to get married. We knew it wouldn’t happen until it was legal everywhere. Once that changed, we talked about ‘Why should we do this?’ It’s not really any different than how we are now.”
“But it is. And it was a good thing to do.”
—Leslie C. and Maggie C.
Show your affection
“Never underestimate the power of a kiss. One in the morning, one at night. And all of a sudden, you’ll realize you’ve done that for 60 years.” —Patricia
Be friends—and be more
“A friend and the person I’m marrying are different things. For all intents and purposes, you are my best friend. But I didn’t marry you with the idea that you were going to be my best friend. I married you because you were going to be my soulmate.”
“I married him because he made me laugh every day.”
“She still laughs at me but it’s for different reasons.”
—Dayton and Michi W.
What are some of the quirkier truths discovered along the way by people in with happy married lives? While your mileage may vary, here are some they shared.
Mind your manners
“I’ll tell you the secret to a long-term relationship: Don’t ever get married. I’ve been dating the same woman for almost 30 years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you’re dating, you’re always on your best behavior.” —John M. (with Janice M. for 29 years)
No pop quizzes
“A thing to avoid for every relationship is setting tests that your partner doesn’t know about. ‘If she really cares, she’ll notice that I edged the lawn as well as mowed it.’ Nobody wins this kind of test. I’ve wasted a lot of time waiting for my wife to notice I swept the garage.” —Dan T.
Respect your food boundaries
“Snack-making is serious business and an exacting science, and one usually makes only the precise amount just for themselves. Unless they’ve taken the extra step of including you in their calculations, don’t horn in on the snack they just made. That goes double if the snack involves chocolate or cheese. It’s okay to make your own snack.” —Dayton W.
Respect divisions of labor
“I do the grocery shopping. I kind of like going to the store, and I like to find bargains. And I like to cook, so I don’t like to send anybody else to get my ingredients. But I hate making beds, so she does all that.” —Leslie C.
Know your roles
“People have said it sounds like we’re always arguing. That’s how we communicate. We’re not arguing, we’re flipping each other crap because we’re both super-sarcastic and we both have fun doing it from time to time. Our relationship started with that at work. He couldn’t be with some wilting flower, and I couldn’t be with some pushover.” —Tami S.
Seeking some ideas on how to celebrate this Valentine’s Day? People in long-lasting relationships have a few ideas.
Try a tiny escape
“On a weekend before or after the actual day, we’ve gone for a night in a nearby hotel just to get out of the house where there’s laundry to do and dust to dust and other non-couple distractions. It works best in really bad winters where there’s lots of snow and you’re not going anywhere outside anyway. It’s just this little get-away together. And whether we do that or not, of course there are cards.”—Dan T.
Know your audience
“We actually don’t pay much attention to Valentine’s Day since it comes just a week before our anniversary. We go out to dinner, and we each pick out our own gift or we get a joint gift. Usually it’s something for the house. Last year, I wrote Carolyn a song, though. It’s about how we’ve become a boring old couple whose idea of a big night is watching TV together on the couch. It references three of her favorite things we’ve watched together: Downton Abbey, Justified, and Longmire.”—Bill G.
Find the right words
“There’s usually flowers and a bottle of wine. And each year, Tim has a poem by Rumi that he writes out to me.
Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.