Marriage Gurus reveal their secrets.


The following is an interview i conducted with a couple that has been happily married for more than 6 decades. I asked them about how they met, how they lived, what works, and what does not work in a marriage. I masked their identity completely for anonymity, but left everything that a reader may find educational or informative. These are the experts in marriage, if you want your marriage to be happy and long, learn from them. For a marriage counselor Cincinnati, visit my website.

How they met?

The wife ( M ) has a very detailed and fond memory of how they met. So much so that she delighted in the opportunity to “tell the story”, and in as much detail as she could muster.

That was quite detailed!!

The husband (J) maintained a nonchalant – but visibly positive - attitude towards the story. It was clear in my mind that he remembers the story rather differently than his wife’s “version” but was both amused by how she remembers it, and happy that she sees it the way she does.

He rarely interjected his wife’s narrative (veteran move from an experienced husband I can only assume) , but did offer a few words of commentary here and there when I “ poked” him for a comment or his own account of the story.

According to M, she was at a skating ring with one of her friends. The friend knew the young man who would be her future husband. She very fondly describes how he walked across the skating ring to “say hello” to his friend, and this is when they got introduced for the first time.

She goes on to describe how he offered to walk her home, how she shared the story with her older sisters who suggested that he should be introduced to their father.

J seems to have caught an early lucky break, with M’s traditional and old fashioned Italian father having already known J and liking him socially ( they fished in the same spot ), and quickly gained a “ carte blanche” into the family home. M describes how J would come to the house every day and have dinner with the whole family ( 6 girls and 5 boys of whom M was the youngest ) with the blessing of the father.

A very animated M explains how J loved her homemade bread. I jokingly asked if she still makes it , to which she gives an emphatic affirmation. I turned to J and jokingly asked if he still likes it, everyone bursts into laughter. J doesn’t answer however!

In M’s words “and that was it, one and a half years later, we were married”

What stand out during the courtship period and early marriage? What was fun?

J instantly responds that M liked to dance. Before he can elaborate, M interjects by saying that J loved music, that he played the sax and had a band. She went to his gigs for a few times and suggests she stopped going when a “horrifying “episode happened. All he musicians would take their wives and girlfriends to the gigs and dance while they performed. She says she had enough sense not to dance with other men and she would just watch. One gentleman asked her to dance a few times, and she politely refused, but after taking a glance at her husband’s furious looks at the adamant gentleman, she decided not to go any more.

She goes on to describe that they liked going to the race tracks a lot, bbq, vacations to NY and long island and a road trip to Memphis. “We were always on the go” M said. I tried to rephrase by saying “ so you did a lot together and went out a lot”, which received an emphatic “ yes we did” from J.

M describes the trip to Memphis as “horrible” which receives a very big laugh from J. She goes on to explain It was the heat that made it so terrible, J smiles and doesn’t comment.

How did you make the decision to get married?

I asked this question with great curiosity about the answer. I added “ was that what was expected because of how your families were, or how did it go”?

M says “ My dad liked J, only thing he told me was it was going to be a little difficult at the beginning because your tongues are different”. Before I could ask what she meant she offered an explanation.

“ I was raised the old Italian way, but J was Slavic”. She goes on to add “but all through our marriage, I stayed at my pace. I raised my kids the way I was raised”.

I asked J about his decision process and he replied almost nostalgically by saying “Well I loved her, and I figured I should get her before someone else does”. We all giggled. M giggled shyly, I giggled in amusement at the man’s whit, and he giggled because he really did love his wife It seemed to me.

I asked “Was it a hard decision”

A very strong and firm “no” from both of them ensued almost instantly and simultaneously.

Tell me about the wedding and the honeymoon?

M takes lead again “It was a small church wedding, just family “ and goes on to explain about the honeymoon. “ them says people didn’t have a lot of money”, We went to J’s aunts place in long island for 2 weeks. She goes on to describe how she loved her husband’s aunt, then expands her statement “his people are wonderful”

M goes on to describe some of her memories about the honey moon, citing yet another “ horrible experience” when J took her on a raw boat and she doesn’t know how to swim. She explains an episode with an oil tanker in great detail, and how she never again would go on a row boat, and even as she describes the episode as horrible, there is an air of lightness to how she tells the story, J interrupts and teases her about how he said he d throw her into one of the bogeys.

“He wanted to go fishing and he wanted to take me with him, he should have never done that” she jokingly says.

Tell me about your first year of marriage. What do you remember about that?

M starts us off as usual “it wasn’t hard at all for me. Na ha”. She adamantly tries to make the point that it was not hard at all. I turn to J and ask what he thinks, when M jumps in again and says that it wasn’t at all hard. I jokingly say “is he going to get in trouble if he said it was hard?” Everyone bursts into laughter.

I may have aroused M’s curiosity, that she paused the question to her husband herself.

J says “ naaaah, I d say it was as it is now”. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that !!

M picks up the thread again and affectionately reminds J of how he liked to sleep back then. She reminds him how the bus would throw pueblos at their window to wake them up ( I assume it was J’s work bus).

J describes how he worked for a lumber company back then, and jokingly says how he didn’t want to wake up in the morning.

M quickly interjects again and explains how she is not sorry, and that she has had a wonderful 62 years of marriage with J.

J answers playfully “M, it is too late to be sorry “… instant classic for my books!!

Half serious, M says “it’s not too late” and ventures to tell both of us the story of the Italian family she knows where the parents got divorced after 55 years of marriage

. She adds “J, don’t say its too late”

About parenthood, can you tell me what you remember about that period in your life when you had your first baby?

“It was 4 years into our marriage when we had our first baby, it was a big change in my life” She goes on to explain that she had to adjust to J coming back home (because he had spent 2 years in the service in Korea), and then the baby.

“At first I couldn’t function” she explained. Then her eldest sister came to visit, M cried as she explained to her sister that she couldn’t handle things and how she didn’t have time to “wash her face in the morning”

Her sister wrote her a schedule and put it on the fridge, and according to M, after following the schedule; it was a piece of cake!

Utterly curious, I asked if she remembered what was on the schedule.

She remembered one bit of it “ if your baby was sleeping, then you take care of yourself, when the baby wakes up, you take care of him, that worked for me, like it worked for my mother”.

I directed my questioning to J, about how he felt. “Did you feel neglected?”

He ventured to answer “no, I had my mind on her and the baby…”

Before he could finish his sentence, M was back on “He was working and studying, he was very busy as it is”.

“So would you ask him to help with the baby or anything like that?” I asked.

“No “she said firmly. I was home all day…

She then added “even when I did work on Sundays, I taught him how to make sauce, he would do that and then come pick me up, and I would cook dinner”. Almost as an after though she adds “So yes, he did help me”

After I cracked a quick joke on whether J’s sauce was any good, M gets back to being serious “Whenever I corrected our children, he d stick by me, and whenever he corrected them, I stood by him”

Intrigued I asked “How is that even possible when as you described you both grew up in very different houses?”

Equally intriguing answer from M “Well you see, he was young when he got married, so he came my way”!!!

She then proceeds to explain by using a proverb that I took to mean that a house hold always leans towards the mother’s way of doing things. Not a peep from J.

Not particularly sure why she mentions that but she proceeds to say “My dad always told me that his sons are his sons until they take a wife, but you are my daughter forever”

I inquired “So you felt supported by your father and family?” M answers affirmatively then adds, My dad was great with J, and his dad was great too.

I inquire again “So your dad was good to your husband and his dad was good to you? Say you had a problem between you two, who would you go to? His dad?”

M surprises me yet again “I wouldn’t go to anyone with a problem between us “she answers with authority and conviction.

Utterly surprised I re question her “Not even your sisters? A friend? Your mother?”

“Not to anyone, I’d keep it to myself” she says, “and then we’d work it out”

J chuckles in the background as I ask “how?”

We’d get into an argument, talk it over, but I never ever involved my family. M explains.

She adds “and that’s why my family treated him like Gold.”

A very rare comment from J ensues as he affirms “I treated them like Gold as well”

As M enthusiastically describes the intricacies of what it means to be welcomed into a Italian family, J nudges me and playfully says, “You see, she is a mafia queen, that’s why I was always afraid to do anything”

When you look back at your relationship, what was the best time(s)?

SEX SEX hollers J.

I couldn’t contain my laughter as I said “That works, but even in that regards, there must have been times when it was more enjoyable”

J takes the lead for the first time and says “when our kids grew up a little, like when they were in high school”

M jumps back on the horse “I always enjoyed our marriage, can’t say which was the best period”

Persistent I inquired “So at no time did you ever feel so angry or bitter that you wanted to have a break or something”

An adamant M responds “Never”

I probed deeper “So you feel the best time was when you didn’t have to hustle with the kids”

“No, I enjoyed it most when the kids were little” M replies.

Sensing a rift between opinions on this one, I decided I want to explore this more.

“Do you feel you enjoyed this period more as a mother or as a wife?”

Sure enough, J actively wants to be heard for the 1st time “I thought the best time was when the kids were at school”

“You thought that ha” M says. Curious she asks “When, when they were in college?”

“More around the time when they were in high school I though” J maintained.

Unconvinced M goes on undeterred “I think we always had a nice time, we’d have friends come over, it was always nice”

What made that time special for you do you think, I asked J inquiring about his fondness to the period when the kids were at school.

“I didn’t have to worry about them so much”. He explained they were almost adults, and although they still required guidance, it wasn’t as grueling as when they were younger, giving him and his wife “time “he explained.

M describes another fond moment of hers, when they threw a wedding for their daughter. “500 people were there “she said very proudly. She added “I think J liked that too.

What do you think the worst “down “you had?

“My mother in law didn’t like Italian people” M went on to explain. “I guess that’s how her family was, and she kept reminding me of that. My father in law wasn’t like that but she was”

I inquired how specifically that translates into a low in their marriage. Was there a specific incident or event?

No, she said. She wouldn’t offer more on the topic but she volunteered “it is easy to leave when things go bad, but that’s not going to solve anything”

J offers “ The government should offer 10 000 dollars or something to those who make it through 50 years of marriage, then you ll see how many people stay together”

Everyone chuckles.

I asked with genuine interest “what makes you stay then?”

“I still love him”, said M without a flinch.

“She couldn’t find anyone one better “said J jokingly.

How do you fight/argue?

“I think when most couples argue, they don’t mean what they say. It is just a natural reaction “said J.

I asked what they thought they did different than other couples arguing. M offered ‘ well if he is being grumpy , I’d just tell him I don’t like what he is doing or saying, and just walk away, that’s it”

J continued “I think it depends on what time of the day its happening too, like say in the morning, everyone is grumpy”

M comments “He is always grumpy in the morning until he gets his coffee and cigarette, as soon as he has them, he s fine”. She goes on to explain that they’d may be “ get at it” if he s being too grumpy, but they both realize its going to go away as soon as he gets his coffee and cigarette.

I asked, “How is your interaction different than couples that you have seen who you though won’t make it?”

M responds “it takes a lot of patience on the wife’s part”

I interrupt “Only on the wife’s part?”

Marry continues “yes, on the wife‘s part. Because the wife is raising the children, she needs so much more patience with both the kids and the husband.”

“And you don’t feel like the husband should have as much patience? Do you that’s the way it should be that a wife is more patient”

“No, it’s not the way it should be, but most of the time they just don’t, and you have to overlook that”

“Which chapter is that from?” Interjects a sarcastic J.

How do you feel your marriage is different now than it was in the beginning?

“You slow down on everything, you are more calm, you take things in stride” says M.

“As you get older, your brain says go, and your body says no” J says sarcastically. Him and myself laugh, M doesn’t.

I asked “ so how is the conversation while he is grumpy in the morning different now than it was 40 years ago for example” I asked

“When he was younger he wasn’t grumpy. He worked. Now we are both idle, but I have the grandchildren, it keeps me going. He wasn’t grumpy when he was younger” said M.

How do you feel your marriage is different than unsuccessful couples?

Tricky question they both said almost simultaneously.

M went on to say “ one thing I can say is that I never kept anything from him during all our time together, even with banking and stuff like that”

“And he never complained about how you spent money for example or your shopping or any of that?” I asked curiously.

“He’d tell me to cool it” she laughed and replied. She then added “ But I also knew my limits”

When I asked her how she knew those limits, by fighting or arguing about them, she said it was just common sense, and knowing what she could afford and what she couldn’t.

I asked J inquisitively “Were you never disappointed you couldn’t buy that stereo you wanted it or that new car you liked so much?”

“ I wanted to live within my budget is what I knew. I bought new cars, used cars, but always within my budget” Said J.

M continued “ I also never hid anything, if I bought something very expensive, I wouldn’t hide it. I d may be hold on a little, gradually introduce it, but then it would be too late, I had it. But I never hid anything”

I looked at J and said “that must have pissed you off at one point or another” jokingly.

He said with a tone of seriousness in his voice “well I’d say this is too damn much that is it”

M went on “but I never exceeded …I knew what I could afford”

I asked how they managed their finances, and how they agreed what to spend on. I asked if she was getting an allowance from him for the house or how it worked.

An emphatic no from both of them ensued as M went on to explain “we’d put both our salaries in a bank account and spend from that, then we had a list of things for every month, groceries, utilities etc...)

J adds “We balanced the budget like the government does”

Do you think you marriage is like that of your parents?

J felt like his marriage may be different than his parents on account of the fact that both his parents were working, and because his dad worked a lot of hours and he doesn’t feel like he worked as hard as his old man.

M felt her marriage was a lot like her parent’s marriage. Like her parents, she feels like what she and her husband got, they got on their own, and it is something that makes her feel proud of her partnership with J.

What would you say the major turning points in your marriage?

The biggest turn around in my life was when my first grandchild was born, that was a huge turning point, said M.

Unsure she understood what I meant, I asked, “well how about the birth of your own first child?”.

M, answers that that was a big turning point, as well as her quitting her job to stay home with her children.

I asked J what his biggest turning point was, M answers, When he retired. I looked at J waiting for him to answer, his wife prompted him on, “ That was the biggest changing point for you wasn’t it?”

J answers, “yeah, I had struggled and worked very hard, so when that time came it was important”.

Again unsure they understood what I meant by the question, I asked “what else? How about the time when you returned from your 2 years of service in Korea?”

J answered “ Well sure that was a turning point. It was a turning point because I was fortunate enough to come back at all having joined the marine band. I was a draftee, I could have gone anywhere, and I scored very high on their tests, but I was very lucky to join the band”

M picks up the thread and very affectionately adds “But I ‘ll tell you what, he was the best clarinet player they had, he was very good”

J goes on to describe his special ability to pick up on how to play a song or a tune just by hearing it once rather proudly. He goes on to describe how he was still playing in a band until 2 years ago, and they broke up. He goes on to joke “Marriage is easier than keeping a band together”.

M adds “I was always very proud of him and how good he was with the clarinet, I liked his music”

Do you know what the hopes/dreams/aspirations of your partner?

M starts “he s worried that he is getting older”

I asked J if that were true, he confirms with a head nod. He then jokes “My brain says go, my body says no”

So what do you think his hopes are I asked? She pauses and they look at each other and crack up laughing as she says “That it stops being that way”

I directed the question to J. He answered “her hope is to live longer”, to which M agrees by saying “naturally”.

Commentary:

It is virtually impossible for me to pin point exactly why this marriage has stayed strong and lasted as long as it has. It is not for lack of skills or adaptations that this couple has gone through that are visible and understandable, but rather because of how seemingly common sense they are that one would expect that all couples do that ( or should do that ).

It might also be because of how easy and matter of fact they portrayed certain skills and adaptations that are truly much more difficult and challenging in practice.

An overall glance at the interview left me with a distinct impression that the most notable aspects of how this particular couple maintained their marriage, and maintained it well were

  1. A very clear role for both the husband and the wife in their relationship. That line was exceeded at times because of life circumstances that necessitated that, but the line was never blurred nor taken lightly by either spouse. In other words, the husband was allowed to be “ the man “ and the wife was allowed to be “ the woman “ in a very classical sense, but with flexibility that allowed for exceptions to the specific expectations and demands of the gender roles , allowing them to stay flexible and adopt to changing life circumstances.

  2. There was a clear appreciation from both spouses to the role of the other. It was not taken for granted or “played down “. They both seem to have an understanding, a division of labor of sorts, with the recognition that neither role was more or less important than the other, and neither role carried more or less weight than the other. The wife was clearly fond of her husband for his “hard work “, for his “talents” even when they were nothing specifically spectacular (like playing the clarinet). The husband was clearly appreciative of his wife’s social talents, and domestic talents. I would imagine it can be very easy for a wife to minimize the importance of her husband’s role in a war if his role was to play music, but instead she makes a hero out of him for doing it so well. It would equally be easy for the husband to take his wife’s initiative to leave work and stay home to raise her children “because they needed her “as a given, but he was clearly admired and appreciated that very much.

  3. A statement that stood out for me during the interview was made by M, that her husband “came her way” when it came to how to run a house and a family life”. I do not take that lightly and feel that it is probably one of the corner stones on which the foundation of that strong marriage were built. I can see how easily something like this (especially for people who grew up in different ways/cultures) could have been toxic to a marriage like theirs. It does however correspond to the conventional wisdom (or in other words, what my grandmother used to tell me all the time ) , that a household is a woman’s kingdom where she reigns supreme and uncontended. J’s early compromise/recognition of that fact may have been one of the single most important pillars on which that marriage was built to thrive.

  4. Another equally important pillar – in my mind – was when M described patience as a crucial skill that can make or break a marriage. She went on to say “especially on the wife’s part “. Her rational was simple but compelling, that a wife’s role is to raise the children and maintain the family unity, and that will always put her in a position where she needs more patience. When I inquired whether she didn’t feel husbands need to be patient too, she categorically disagreed. She did believe they needed to be but explained that “sometimes they just can’t, and that’s ok”. I feel that this specific understanding of “male psychology “ has been very helpful for both J and M. J didn’t feel like he needed to walk on eggshells all the time, which seems to have boosted his appreciations and love for his wife, and M allowed herself not to take it personally when J was not being very patient. Make no mistake, it doesn’t seem like M is , or ever was , a push over or a submissive wife. On the very contrary, if anything even at this age and after all these years she came across as someone who would call you out on anything she didn’t like, and do so with conviction and authority. The point here is that she didn’t take it personally. She intuitively understood that her husband’s occasional aggression or lack of patience had very little (if anything ) to do with her, and everything to do with “ other “ factors, and that allowed her to express her grievance with the attitude , but not the person.

  5. The last line was a perfect Segway for another skill that both M and J seem to have perfected in their conflict resolution. Both of them agreed that when things went sour ( and they did ), they always made a point to bring up the “ attitude “ they didn’t like , they made their “ case “ to their spouse about how they don’t like how they are “ acting “ or what they were “ saying “ , and then they LEFT the presence of their spouse. I couldn’t help but think of the goals of IMAGO therapy while I was listening to them explain how they handled conflict. It felt like they intuitively understood the underlying principles of IMAGO, and were experts at implementing it without the presence of a therapist. When in conflict, they made sure to express their grievance towards attitudes and not the person, reflecting IMAGO’s technique of I statement as opposed to YOU statements. I couldn’t help but be impressed with their routine of making their case and then “leaving “too. I visualized how at the heat of the moment and while making their case, how their heart rate would spike, and how if they stayed in each other’s presence there was no doubt that they would evoke defensive mechanisms in each other. By employing this simple strategy of voicing a grievance and then leaving, they allowed their spouse ( under attack ) to regain composure, reduce their heart rate, and process the grievance in the “ logical “ brain instead of the reptilian brain, thus achieving the goals of IMAGO of evoking understanding and empathy. Furthermore, there is the distinct impression that they didn’t expect or want an argument. It appeared as if it was only one person speaking at a time voicing their concerns or grievance, with no expectation for the other to respond on the spot, again very similar to IMAGO’s exercise of having one person speak at a time with the other only mirroring what they are hearing.


About Sam Nabil

Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Cincinnati therapist and a Cincinnati Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Cincinnati and Cincinnati Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.


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