Every couple goes into marriage thinking they’ll stay together forever. And while the oft-cited “50 percent of marriages end in divorce” stat has been disproven, it’s also true that not all marriages make it. So what sets shorter marriages apart from those that last 40 years or more?
Well, according to couples who have lived through it—and experts who have seen these partnerships thrive—a whole lot, apparently. From overarching life philosophies to small daily actions that grow in importance over the decades, here are all of the best ways to make your marriage go the distance.
To go the distance, it’s important to remember the past. “Keep close in your mind some poignant memories of the first rushes of love—when you knew that you never wanted to be far from this person, when your heart felt a physical jump at the sight of them,” say Lewis and Marsha McGehee, who have been married 42 years.
Whether that’s framing a postcard from the restaurant where you had your first date or you carrying around a photo in your wallet, you’d be wise to keep visual cues handy that can help you remember the bigger picture. “The daily obstacles will work out if the resolve to hold on to your love story is strong.”
“We have always tried to eat at least one meal together daily,” says Carol Gee, an author who has been married for almost 45 years. “As a working couple (before both retiring) with different work hours, it was typically dinner. Not only did we enjoy a meal together, but we also used this time to talk about our day. No cell phones or other distractions allowed during this time.”
It’s important that you both have a clear idea of who is number one. “When we were first married, there were many expectations placed on us by our parents,” says Dana Kichen, a realtor who has been married for over 40 years. “After 4 years of tug and pull, we moved out of state and learned to totally rely on each other. This has continued throughout our marriage.”
If you’re around each other literally 24/7, it’s a recipe for disaster. “We both did our own thing,” says Dr. Gayle Carson, a life coach who was married for 45 years before her husband passed away. “I had my own business and eventually my husband had his. We didn’t interfere with each other and when we came together, it was glorious. So much fun, lots of laughter, and holding hands.”
“Couples who have been together for 40-plus years are not successful because their marriages have lasted,” points out Dr. Ken Druck, a mental health expert, author, and speaker. “They are successful if and when they bring the same love, trust and understanding to their relationship that they get from their partner, don’t take things too personally or make everything about themselves.”
This little common courtesy is worth it in the long run. “Understand your partner’s point of view and let your partner know that. After that, you can express your point of view.” Beverly B. Palmer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, clinical psychologist and author who has been married for 50 years.
“We were friends for several years before we started officially dating,” explains Silvana Clark, an author and speaker who has been married for 40 years. “This gave us time to know each other and have a realistic understanding of our personalities, strengths and weaknesses.”
“We have always been able to spend a great deal of time together and a true friendship was easily formed,” says Barbara Adoff, who has been married to her husband Bill for 45 years. “Best friends are there for each other, support each other, and like to have fun together. I often tell my hubby I feel like we’re having one very long sleep over.”
“Never go into an argument thinking that it could be the end of the relationship,” the McGehees advise. “That means speaking your mind, but not saying or doing anything that is not recoverable. Healthy marriages are not always smooth, but should always be respectful.”
To make a marriage last, it’s crucial to be able to apologize without necessarily agreeing. “Saying I’m sorry does not have to mean ‘I was wrong,’” Kichen points out. “It can refer to being sorry for hurting feelings, shouting, etc. This allows you to put hurt feelings aside and go on without one person being right and the other wrong.”
Relationship longevity often comes down to mindset. “Sometimes it is a simple as choosing to stay together,” says Patricia M. Barbarito, a divorce lawyer and Managing Partner of Einhorn Harris in Denville, NJ. “Divorce is just not an option. Couples have to commit to the the commitment of marriage.”
“I plan trips where he only has to pack his bag,” Gee says. “He, on the other hand, will surprise me by bringing home dinner, or buying the lottery scratch-offs that I adore, and hiding them where I can find them. The unusual locations such as in the dishes in the cabinet, or hidden in our bed, show the thought he puts in just because it tickles me when I find them.”
“We never badmouth each other to each other or to others,” says Beverly Solomon, a creative director who has been married for 42 years. “When we have disagreements—as all couples do—we do not lose our tempers and we do not say things to each other that are insulting. We stick to the issue at hand. If one or both of us feels that we are too upset to discuss an issue in a sane and respectful way, we give ourselves some time to cool down.”
“Accept your partner just for who they are. Don’t try to change them,” Dr. Palmer recommends. After all, people can only change if they want to.”Just accept their strengths and weaknesses that make them unique and that you love them for that.” You’ll both be a lot happier that way.
It doesn’t matter if you have a little or a lot; what matters is that you’re on the same page. “The biggest problem long-term couples have is finances,” says Bill Adoff. “Get on the same page right away. Don’t let money get in the way.”
“We did have common interests for entertainment,” Dr. Carson says. “Most of our activities with the kids were water-based. Every weekend was spent water skiing, swimming and out in the boat. We loved going to movies, eating out and watching TV.” While you don’t have to have exactly the same hobbies, it’s helpful to have at least a few activities you both genuinely enjoy doing together.
It’s pretty tough to make it 40 plus years without a decent dose of honesty. “Be transparent, and don’t assume your partner knows everything you want or feel,” Dr. Druck says. “Communicate from a place of caring, even if it is difficult. And don’t make guessing how you feel or what you need a test of their love. Expecting them to be a mind-reader is a formula for disaster.”
Life is always unpredictable, but having a rough idea of where you’re going and the rules you’ll live by—and agreeing on them with your spouse—is a recipe for success. “Having the same values about life and goals with regard to family, children, traveling and lifestyle is something that keeps people together for a long time,” Barbarito says.
You know that phrase: The grass is always greener where you water it? “This same thought holds true for marriages,” says Justin Lavelle, relationship expert and Chief Communications Officer at BeenVerified. “Successful couples resist the myth that someone different is going to make them happy. Instead, they place their time and energy into making themselves and their marriage better.”
No one is perfect, but there are also things no one should have to put up with in a marriage.”You may think you can ‘fix’ the other person, but it’s better to marry someone that has their act together,” says Clark. “Of course we all have problems, but if you are thinking of marrying someone who drinks heavily when upset, is moody and has fits of rage, stay away! Those traits won’t disappear when you get married. Even marrying someone who is a homebody while you love to travel can be a factor in causing stress in a marriage.”
After all, life is full of them. “Simply stopping at Wawa for a coffee on our way to run errands makes it special,” Barbara Adoff says. “We often take time to make things fun, or enjoy the moment. If a good song comes on at home we’ll stop and dance, we go to the movies and for walks. We manage to get in to our hot tub most days and this relaxing down time is a treat that relaxes and is especially rewarding after an hour at the gym. I guess treats are being good to yourself and to each other.”
“We share a belief in God and give thanks everyday for the blessings we have and for the blessings to come,” Solomon says. While being religious certainly isn’t required for a long-lasting marriage, a sense of faith or purpose definitely doesn’t hurt. “We do not see challenges in our life as happening to us, but rather for us.”
“Happy, successfully married couples focus on the positive aspects of their relationships,” Lavelle says. “They tend to value and respect their partner above all else. This increases a couple’s ability to deal with the negative issues in their relationship. The difference between couples who stay married versus couples who may divorce comes from how they handle the negatives.”
Anyone who’s been to couples therapy can tell you this one, but it’s common advice because it actually works. “This allows discussion without putting the other person on the defensive, and therefore avoids the escalation of an argument,” Kichen says.
“Laugh at yourself and at each other,” Barbara Adoff says. “Laugh with each other. Humor is the way to enjoy a marriage and to raise children.”
“I think that maintaining physical attractiveness is also important,” Lewis McGehee says. “I don’t mean just in a superficial way. Being attractive to your spouse means multiple things like trying to stay in shape by working out. This has the added benefit of keeping one’s mental attitude strong and positive. Being attractive also means doing little things for each other and feeling needed and desired. I want my spouse to be engaged in a productive life and care about herself and me. I want my spouse to want me.”
Of course, you have to put yourself first occasionally, but a long-lasting marriage doesn’t come without a little sacrifice. “Let your partner know you are thinking about them and putting them first in your mind,” Dr. Palmer suggests.
Really listening is a learned skill. “Successful couples actively listen to each other and keep their partners’ well-being at heart—even when they’re going through a transition period or a rough patch,” Dr. Druck says. “Dealing with conflict in a constructive and respectful way can deepen and strengthen your relationship into one that will stand the test of time.”
“There is an old quote from a movie in which the wife says to her adult daughter, ‘Do you know how many times I’ve had to fall in love with your father again?”‘ Barbarito says. “In my opinion, sometimes it’s a matter of rediscovering love; remembering why people fell in love and realizing that it is an ever moving and fluid situation.”
You don’t have to be exactly the same to make things work. “Although I was the extrovert and he the introvert, it worked because we didn’t push each other in either direction,” Dr. Carson says.
Who you surround yourself with matters when it comes to your relationship outlook, real couples say. “We avoid negative people and negative situations,” Solomon notes. “Being around negative people with negative outlooks can poison your life.”
Some secrets to marriage aren’t so “secret” at all. “I don’t mean to oversimplify it, but I think people simply being kind to each other and caring about each other and nurturing each other is a secret to a long life together,” Barbarito says.
As they say, self care is never selfish; it ends up benefiting those around you in ways you’d never expect. “Couples who have been together for 40 plus years know that it is important to take the time to rebalance, replenish, and renew their own energy and take good care of themselves as individuals,” Dr. Druck says. “By doing this, they have the time, energy and motivation for quality time with their partner.”
It may seem like common sense, but lots of couples let s*x fall by the wayside later in their marriages, when actually it could just be getting better and better. “We have learned how to excite each other and how to please each other,” Solomon says. “Part of having a great s*x life is staying healthy. We eat correctly, exercise, rest enough and stay positive. And as your love grows, so does the quality of your s*xual intimacy. As you age, you really appreciate the shared pleasures of true love.”
No one is perfect, and that must be acknowledged. “Since we all screw up somewhere in our relationships, forgiveness, humility, and empathy are crucial ingredients when it comes to healing and moving on,” Dr. Druck explains. “Couples who get stuck or stalled in anger put their relationships at risk by growing increasingly distant and resentful.” Sometimes, it’s okay to agree to disagree and move on.
“One day I asked my husband what he thought the secret to our marriage was,” Gee says. “A quiet man of little words, he said, ‘I never know what you are going to do from one minute to the next, and I find I like that.’”
There’s nothing wrong with some PDA every now and then. “We have always been extremely affectionate, and it gives me the greatest joy to see both of my sons outwardly loving towards their wives,” Barbara Adoff says.
“Marry someone who is fun to be with. Then throughout your marriage, say yes to each other,” Clark suggests. “Yes we can paint be dining room red if you want. Yes, we can go to a musical, even though I don’t like singing and tap dancing. Yes let’s get a sheep to mow the yard because it takes too long to use a lawn mower. We’ve found by saying ‘yes!’ to each other, our lives have been filled with new experiences and amazing times together.”
Even the small stuff. “Just going to the grocery store together should be treated like a date,” Bill Adoff says. “If there is no one you would rather be with, then enjoy being with each other.”
When you’re feeling frustrated with each other, it can help to remember that your time together is limited, so you might as well make the most of it.
“Sometimes, when I have a couple in counseling who are either antagonistic toward one another or apathetic, I tell them: ‘Think about that you may not have tomorrow with the one you love,’” Dr. Palmer says. “What would you wish you had said or done today that would have made a difference?’”