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The secret to a lasting marriage

Two plaques adorned the wall to the right of the front entry, indicating national and state historical landmark status. We stepped through the screen door at the B&B whose walls were built 250 years ago. Everything everywhere looked antique. Immediately, the floors creaked and I wished the walls could talk. Out of nowhere, they did.

“Hello! Rebekah said she was expecting you.” To the left of the foyer was a front parlor room, where we ended up when we followed the sound of the voice. A little old couple was sitting there, perched on an antique settee. The oval, wooden coffee table held two vodka martinis plus a spread of water crackers, cream cheese and caviar among the piles of heavy books. The couple seemed eager to exchange pleasantries with us. After dropping off our bags in our room, we made our way back downstairs to kill some more time before dinner. That's when Herb and Brenda introduced themselves and said it was their sixty-first wedding anniversary.

Wow. Before arriving at Welbourne Inn, I had thought through how impressive our own milestone 20th anniversary seemed to me. I mulled over our twenty-three years of togetherness, the highs and lows, the good and bad, the health and sickness, the cherishing and fighting. And there we were, still standing, able to celebrate both by the grace of God and through the graciousness of friends who stayed with the kids.

But 61 years? That’s a lifetime. I looked at these two small-framed people, whose stature didn’t seem to match the feat they had achieved. We settled into that parlor with them, thirsty for their wisdom. I asked them what the secret was to being married 61 years.

Brenda answered first. She took in a deep breath, sighed, and on her exhale, said, “Oh I don’t know.” Herb, however, had his answer cued up. I got the sense that maybe he was waiting for someone to ask him. He said, “Two things," quite matter-of-factly. "The first is we always had an intense physical relationship.”

(Insert the pause where I choked a little on my saliva as I attempted not to laugh.)

“And the second is intelligence. I couldn’t have done it with someone who I couldn’t have conversations with. We disagreed a LOT, but the making up was always fun.”

Brenda mentioned something about all that slowing down, but I decided not to explore any more details about their, um, love life. Herb offered one more key to their longevity.

“We also have very different interests, which is a good thing.” He likes boxing, while she does pilates and yoga, for example. It made me think of how Greg loves sailing and I love driving. But we both love to ski, and our ski trips together over the years are some of our fondest memories. Indeed, it became clear that this couple really enjoyed traveling and meeting new people together. A balance of time together and time apart seemed to be part of the magic recipe.

Herb and Brenda insisted that after we all returned from dinner, we should share a cocktail. We ended up reconvening on the majestic front porch, along with the proprietors of this incredible, historic estate. We chatted until around 11 p.m., only to pick back up at breakfast before heading home.

I guess I had hoped that Herb and Brenda might have shared some actual secret. I figured they must have key information most of the rest of us lack. I wanted to take their class, but I realized they weren't teaching one. They didn’t know "the secret" because there isn’t a secret. There isn’t one way to make marriage last. Sure, there are common threads in many long-lasting marriages. According to studies, communication, commitment, respect, love, and kindness all matter. As I've pondered over the past few days what I would say to someone who asked me what the keys to marriage are (not the secret), I would say the following:

1. Learn to laugh at yourself and each other.

2. When your spouse makes you happy, it is a blessing, not a right. Our culture seems to be full of people looking for someone who will constantly and perpetually make them happy. I don't think that exists.

3. Be quick to forgive. When I was growing up, and angry about something, my mom asked me whether what was causing the anger would matter in a day, a week, a month or a year. So many things don't matter even a day or two later. Let them go.

4. Believe the best about your spouse. Sometimes when I'm hurt, I assume the worst about Greg's actions and motives. When I am able to believe his intentions are good, it changes everything.

5. Let agreeing to disagree be okay. (Cue the Anchorman car scene.)

Watching Herb and Brenda, it was funny to see them have some “shaking their heads” moments at each other. They talked over each other sometimes, but didn't seem annoyed by it. What became obvious over the hours was that they loved each other, looked out for one another, and seemed to let go of the small stuff.

What a gift it would be to follow in their footsteps, able to adorn our lives with our very own historical landmark plaque on the “walls” of our marriage. As we move into the next twenty years of this life, Lord willing, I guess I’ll try to have more … intellectual conversations.

What are the keys to your marriage? Share in the comments!


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