Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Secret to Staying Married for Sixty Years

My Grandpa Don was an alcoholic.  When he died last fall, he had been sober for 55 years and five months.  At the time, he had been sober longer than any other alcoholic in the state of Minnesota.  The Gopher State Roundup is an annual state-wide Alcoholics Anonymous conference in Minnesota.  The last time I went to the roundup, for the 50th anniversary of Grandpa’s last drink, his wife, my Grandma Shirley, was just months away from succumbing to liver failure.  The cause of my Grandma Shirley’s death was ironic because, as a good Mormon girl, she never drank.  My Grandpa Don used to joke that she took co-dependence a bit too far...after all, he was the alcoholic.  This is them:

At the count-down meeting at the Gopher State Roundup they asked all of the alcoholics to stand up.  Then, starting at just a day, and then a week, and then months, and years, and decades, they asked those who had been sober for longer than that amount of time to stay standing.  When it was time to stand up, my Grandpa asked my Grandma Shirley to stand with him.  She stood up from her wheel chair, depending on him to hold her up, beside him until, out of the thousands of alcoholics, there was only a one other person still standing.  Tears filled their eyes and mine as they stood together, him recognizing and displaying how integral she had been in his sobriety.   Beneath the thunderous applause, he leaned over to my Grandma and whispered, "I'm going to out live that son of a bitch."  He did.  Some of the young guys in his AA group used to ask him what the secret was for lasting so long in the program.  His answer was simple: “Don’t drink and don’t die.” 

Craig’s grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Terrill have been married for 62 years and 3 days.   This is them:

This year, Craig and I were in Indiana with them for their anniversary.  It got me thinking about what it takes to stay married for that long.  I suppose that the secret to a long marriage is a bit like sobriety -- don’t get divorced and don’t die.  

Sixty-two years probably seems like forever for those who are in unhappy marriages...or at unhappy times within their marriages.  Right now, sixty-two years doesn’t seem like long enough to spend with Craig.  Sometimes I wish that I would’ve met him sooner...or that we would’ve married sooner.  We’ve only been married for five years.  Those years flew by.  It’s hard to think that after just 11 more five-year segments we will have been married for sixty years and we will both be almost ninety-years-old.  Our daughters will likely have had children and those children will have had their own children.  I want to have a long marriage like his grandparents and I want our children and our grandchildren to be inspired by our love, by our dedication to each other, and by our dedication to the sanctity of marriage. 
But marriage, like sobriety, isn’t always easy.  If it was, then we wouldn’t need divorce lawyers (or a program like AA).  Sometimes marriages feel like they are surviving one day at a time.  Life happens, and life can be painful.  Inevitably, if we live long enough, we will experience loss -- a lot of loss.  We will lose our youth, opportunities, jobs, and loved ones.  Each loss will take a bit of our selves with it.  Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, loss is tough.  Each time we experience loss, we are forced to re-evaluate who we are, what is important, and how we will move forward.  Recovering from a loss can also be detrimental to relationships...and loss is only one thing in life that can make marriages that start happy move to a place of unhappiness.
In fact, statistics show that the happiest moment in most marriages is the wedding day.  A week or so after we are married (when the honeymoon is over) we start a steady decline into unhappiness that peaks at around seven years (commonly called the seven-year-itch).  It’s not surprising, is it?  By about seven years, couples typically have a couple of kids and their careers are into full swing.  Instead of turning toward each other, couples typically neglect their relationship and they begin to grow apart.  
In love, we have a great potential to hurt others and to be hurt.  Yet still, we choose love.  In the movie Shadow Lands, C.S. Lewis asked "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."
And so, like C.S. Lewis we have to ask ourselves, is loving worth it?   Is sticking it out in a marriage that seems unhappy worth it? 
My answer is YES.  Love is worth it and marriage is worth the investment.  Here’s the good news.  After the seven year peak of unhappiness in most American marriages, happiness levels start to increase again.  At about twenty years of marriage, a typical couple will finally get back to the level of happiness that they felt the day they got married*.  I understand that twenty years seems like a long time to wait for the happiness to return.  It doesn’t have to be a love-less time!  But, even if we wait twenty years (until our kiddos are typically out of the house and on their own) for our happiness to return, if we live long lives like Grandpa and Grandma Terrill, then we have forty-two or more years to live in love together.  
Craig and I may only be five years into our marriage, but we have high hopes for the future:  We hope that we stand up together like my Grandpa Don and Grandma Shirley did at the Gopher State Roundup, not for fifty years of sobriety, but for fifty years of a marriage spent helping each other through the ups and downs of life...and we hope in sixty years, that we, like Grandpa and Grandma Terrill, sit with our grandchildren on our anniversary, inspiring them to love each other for a lifetime.
*A note to those of you who may be contemplating aren’t moving yourself closer to a happy marriage.  If you end your marriage, you start over from day one of a marriage.  Sure, the first week will be great but, after that, you have twenty more years before you get there again.  Unless you are dealing with abuse or you and your children are in danger, Stick it out.  Choose to stay married.  And, if you’re going to stay together, then choose to see the best in each other.  You’ll be on your way to twenty-years in no time. 


  1. Thankyou for this is beautiful. I was with you all that night at gopher state and cried tears of love and joy for Don and Shirley.and they are so proud of you!

    1. Thank you, Kathleen. It was a special night. :)

  2. What a wonderful article! I had the pleasure of knowing Don & Shirley- truly great people!