4 Most Important Ways To Prevent Divorce (From Couples Married A LONG Time)

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4 Hot Tips For Newlyweds From Long-time Married Couples

What people who've been married for 25 years or more want young couples to know.

I’ve been married for 36 years. Wow. When I write that or say it out loud, I have the same visceral reaction — shaking my head in wonder and saying, "Really? How did that happen?!"

It’s not just because the time has flown by, though that’s some of it. It’s also an acknowledgment of all of the beautiful, painful, heart-expanding, rage-producing, vulnerable, silly (the list is endless) experiences, and conversations I’ve had with my husband Peter over all those years, and the fact that we’re still in it and going strong.  

And then there are the very real, though somewhat slippery, statistics about the current divorce rate that are hard to ignore. Depending on what study you read, it’s now somewhere between 40-50 percent, though it’s not really clear whether it’s rising or falling.

Psychology Today published a great article in February 2017 looking at the nuances of determining the divorce rate, but the bottom line is, there’s an uncomfortably high chance that you won’t be celebrating your 20th anniversary with the same person you were madly in love with when you walked down the aisle.

It does make me a little sad that we’re always shocked and awed when we run into couples who have been married 25+ years. And as a Relationship Coach, I admit that I consider my 36+ years of marriage as one of my prouder "credentials".

But does that mean I have the secret sauce for a successful marriage? Absolutely not.

In fact, I think it propels me further to read and study with the experts and to question other long-timers so I can offer a multi-layered perspective to my couples.

RELATED: Do NOT Marry Someone Until You Can Honestly Answer These 20 Qs

So, in the spirit of sharing a little bit of that accumulated wisdom, I can tell you that some of my favorite relationship gurus are John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, and Patricia Love (yes, that’s really her name), and that my go-to book on the qualities of long-term marriages is Maggie Scarf’s September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years.

But where I’ve really had fun, is reaching out to a small sample of friends and family to get their pearls of wisdom and that’s what I want to pass on to you here.

Let me be clear this is by no means a scientific study. I heard back from one man and 7 women, 2 of whom were married for many years before their husbands died. Several have been together for 45+ years, which made me feel like a newlywed!

Not surprisingly, there are some clear, common themes. I’ve zeroed in on four of them and have woven in the quotes and impressions from my "long-timers", along with my own, with a little bit of their "stories" as well. I think you’ll find them as fascinating to read as I did.

So here are 4 most important relationship tips for newlyweds from long-time married couples:

1. Communication, communication, communication.

I actually laughed when I read this from my friend, Donna, because it was the same triple-pronged answer my parents always gave when asked.

Donna is celebrating her 45th anniversary next month and met her husband in Miami Beach during college break. Here’s what she said: "We all lead very busy lives, but it's important that you make time every day to share what's going on in your life, to talk, to laugh, to voice what's happening both the good and the bad."

And speaking of my mom…she and my dad were married 44 years before he died. They met in college, and dated 3 years before getting married, breaking up and getting back together at least 3 times (unlike my friend Guy who proposed to his wife after a week! More about them later).

In her words, "Somehow, we were absolutely honest with each other which often led to disagreements which we always managed to resolve, though not without sometimes prolonged discussion... it's called 'agreeing to disagree'. Communication was constant and necessary."

My friend Minx, married 49 years this year, also had classic advice from her mom: "My mother's best advice has stood the test of time: ‘Don't go to bed angry even if that means you have to stay up all night!’ Develop good listening and sharing skills so that you can express your thoughts and feelings calmly and clearly."

While I’ve always heard that advice as well, I have to say that there have been times when Peter and I were just too exhausted to hash it out and ended up falling asleep on opposite sides of the bed (usually we’re big "spooners"). In the morning, we’ve been able to see things more clearly and finally work it out.

The important thing is to agree that you will always come back together to resolve the issue at some point (even it’s to "agree to disagree") and not let it fester.

Probably our oldest couples-friends are Jack and Leslie. They met in high school and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this year.

Leslie’s advice was: "Never say anything you will regret. I always believe you have control over what you say when you're angry. Lashing out with 'I hate you' or any other destructive language is never forgotten. We are sensitive beings who have long memories. I do not remember Jack ever saying anything to me that made me feel bad about the essence or core of who I am."

2. Don’t expect perfection. 

This was the first thing my wise husband Peter offered when I asked him and he went on to say, "Stay as adaptable, flexible, and open-minded as possible. Know there will always be personality differences that will be annoying, but not as important as the loving bond that makes it all worthwhile."

Of course, I want to know immediately how I’m "annoying", but after all these years, I have a pretty good idea of the ways we can still trigger each other. (We’ll talk more about the importance of self-knowledge within a relationship a little later.)

My daughter-in-law’s mom, Kathy, and her husband were actually high school sweethearts. They met at a St. Patrick’s Day party when they were 15 and 16, dated for 6 years, and were married 32 years before he died.

She describes it simply and beautifully: "We grew up together learning a lot about life…we went through good times and bad but always stayed committed to each other. Always remember it's a 50/50 partnership!"

My friend, Guy, also emphasized the theme of give-and-take: "It isn't about being right, it's all about compromise and being willing to listen, I mean really listen. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus  one of the greatest gifts you can give each other is to read that book by John Gray and really understand how each is programmed so you can deal with each other on your own terms."

Remember, Guy is the one who knew he wanted to marry his wife a week after he met her, 40 years ago. They met in San Diego at a bar when they were 23, he called her father to ‘ask for her hand’ within a week, immediately proposed, and they were married one year later, to the day.

The message for me in that wonderful, though highly rare, "cute-meet" story is that, by some stroke of luck or intuition or fate, some couples just know this is it when they lay eyes on each other.

But, unless they continue to consciously work on their relationship, they’ll just end up as another one of those divorce statistics.

3. Honor your differences, for better or worse. 

As an Interfaith Minister, I love creating special ceremonies with my couples and one of the questions I always ask is what they love about each other.

In addition to all their favorite quirks, shared values, and common interests, easily half of them also include some version of "We complement each other so well", then proceed to list all the ways they’re different.

I always respond with, "That’s great. And on your good days, those differences will stretch and grow you, but on your bad days you’ll want to strangle each other!"

Once again, it’s a mutual willingness to slog through those bad days that will determine how successful your marriage is.

Minx says it eloquently: 

"They say that opposites attract and that may be true but understanding and appreciating the ways we are different rather than trying to change each other is probably one of the most important keys to staying married for the long haul. According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), Mel is an ESTP and I am an INFJ. Understanding how completely different our preferences are was a real eye-opener and allowed us to learn to accommodate one another and (sometimes) even enjoy and appreciate our different ways of being and doing."

Which brings us to my own number 1 favorite piece of marriage advice: that you and your partner make the life-long commitment to do your own, individual, personal growth and self-discovery work.

I outline in detail some of the ways you can do that in my recent article on Your Tango, so I won’t go into detail here, but the basic message is that if each of you knows yourself and the other really well and truly honor all those ways you "complement" each other, you won’t be as likely to fall into the painful spiral of blaming and shaming that can be the death of a loving partnership.

You can remind yourself, "Oh, right…that’s just who he/she is", and maybe respond with a little more compassion.  

My sister-in-law, Lynne, spoke very directly about how to get through those tough times when it seems like you can’t find any common ground at all. She should know...she and my brother actually separated for a year, about 4 years into their marriage, but made their way back to each other and celebrated their 41st anniversary this year.

She said simply:

"Don’t give up. And if you think you need to, then wait. Give yourselves time to keep working on it, maybe with a time limit of 6 months to a year. One of the big things that helped us is that we each saw the same therapist separately, not necessarily to get back together, but to be sure we didn’t the same mistakes again. As we learned more about ourselves through therapy, there was a point when we thought it might be safe to start dating again, and then we continued seeing the same therapist together. Marriage is a verb…it’s all about action and working through it together."

RELATED: 5 Ways To Be Happy Together, Even If You Come From VERY Different Worlds

4. Create space for yourselves

In addition to "communicate, communicate, communicate", my parents' other big piece of marriage wisdom was: "Marriage is not about being dependent on another person; it’s a partnership based on mutual interdependence."

That means that you and your partner should be as committed to nurturing your own individual growth and needs as you are to supporting the others’.

Mutual love and respect for each other is a priority, but so is maintaining your own strong sense of self. Be sure to maintain your own friends and special interests, separate from your spouse — your marriage will be the richer for it.

Relationship expert Iris Krasnow demonstrates this brilliantly in her 2011 book, The Secret Lives of Wives. She interviewed over 200 women who had been married over 15 years and found that one of the key components to a happy marriage is that both partners had fulfilling lives outside of their relationship. Definitely a fascinating read!

And once again, my friend Minx nailed it: "Kahlil Gibran [author of The Prophet] was right. ‘Let there be (BIG) spaces in your togetherness.’ Give each other room to grow. In a long marriage, there are lots of changes as we each reach up and out into fuller versions of ourselves and seek ways to thrive. Be spacious and accommodating."

Donna echoed that sentiment as well: "It’s very important to remember that you're both still individuals. Don't expect to do everything together, and don't give up on doing things you love because your spouse doesn't join you."

I’ve only touched on four of the main themes that this handful of seasoned partners shared with me, but there are so many others they mentioned as well. Here are a few bonus quotes:

  • "Make your partner a priority even while raising kids." — Donna
  • "Remember how you fell in love and let that be where you return when things get challenging. It's the little things we forget (cards, flowers, etc.) when we get into the routine of what we call life." — Guy
  • "After all these years, Jack can still make me laugh." — Leslie
  • "Don’t take yourself [and] your opinions too seriously. Laugh often with each other. — Minx

And two final nuggets to leave you with:

First, from Minx: "Someone wise once said that it's easy to be peaceful and pleasant on a mountaintop. If you really want to hone those skills then the true test is being able to do so within the confines of a marriage where so much more is it stake and there are so many more daily confrontations and challenges to throw you off center. Let kindness be your compass."

Then, from my friend Bobette (going strong after 45 years of marriage) who met her husband when he knocked on her apartment door looking for someone else: "In my experience, there is a small flame (like a pilot light on a gas stove) which is always burning 'undercover'. That is true deep love. If you are fortunate enough to have that, you can call upon it whenever you need it."

Let some of the wisdom offered here be your own special "gas" to keep that pilot light burning steady and strong throughout your marriage.

RELATED: 5 Things Nobody EVER Tells Newlyweds — But Really Should

Deborah Roth is an Interfaith Minister and Relationship Coach, who has been married 36+ years to the same complex, wonderful guy and loves supporting couples in navigating the ebbs and flows of maintaining and nurturing successful, long-term relationships. To learn more about her work, you can visit Spirited Living or email her at Deborah@SpiritedLiving.com to schedule an introductory couples coaching session or to get a list of her favorite relationship books.

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