By Anne Gagliano
Relationships continue to develop even after the honeymoon is over. Most of us are familiar with the early stages—meeting, dating, and commitment. Following courtship is marriage and the honeymoon phase, where everything is new and exciting and wonderful; this is what all the love songs proclaim as “being in love.” Then you set up house together, and this is when the work of marriage begins. Couples move from a fantasy based relationship to a reality based one. Here the magic can fade when you begin to relax and expose your truest self to your spouse as all of your warts, flaws, and idiosyncrasies emerge. In this stage, couples can feel vulnerable and awkward and even confused as if something were wrong because they no longer quite recognize each other. Many couples do not survive the reality stage; arguments become more frequent as each spouse struggles for power when colliding lifestyles try to merge into one.
The “being in love” stage is the fun part, the most common, and the easiest. It’s the “happily ever after” part of love and romance that is elusive. In this country, every 13 seconds someone is getting a divorce. Ever heard of the “Seven-Year Itch?” Turns out this phrase has been and continues to be quite accurate; most marriages that end in divorce do so during the seventh year. This is largely because couples simply cannot transition from fantasy to reality, from the excitement of a new relationship to the sameness of a continuous, long-term one. Only 33 percent of marriages celebrate a 25th anniversary, 20 percent a 35thAnniversary, and just 5 percent make it to a 50th. “Happily ever after,” unfortunately, is rarely found in the real world.
My husband Mike and I are in our 29th year of marriage and still going strong. I say this not to brag but to share our wisdom, because the only source of help for long-term relationships is to glean truth from those who have actually lived in one. It cannot be found in books. It cannot be taught by professionals. It can only be recounted from firsthand experience. We had a few bumps as we transitioned from dating to marriage. We had a few more as we added children to our lives. Then we had all new bumps when the children moved out of our lives. But through it all we’ve adapted, and our love has remained strong and passionate. Millions of tiny little pieces and choices over time are what comprise a successful relationship, but all of these elements can be divided into what I believe to be four primary categories or ways to make marriage last:
- Lots of Communication. Communication is essential for any human relationship; it’s what separates us from the animals. Good communication is vital for marriage; it’s what keeps us from separating. Couples that stop talking almost always divorce. Women tend to want to talk a bit more than men do, but at the end of the day, both sexes just really want to be heard. So listen, don’t just talk. And when you do talk, talk about anything and everything. Talk about your day, talk about the kids, talk about the house, even talk about the weather. But don’t forget to share your deeper thoughts too, such as your hopes, your fears, your beliefs, and even your sexual fantasies. Keep nothing back; no secrets allowed. And just because you “already know each other,” remember that we human beings are always growing and changing, so you can never completely know anyone. Keep sharing to keep in touch. Good communication builds intimacy, and intimacy builds trust; over time, that trust forms unshakable bonds that last forever.
- Lots of Sex. We human beings are sexual creatures. If we’re not getting satisfying sex within marriage, we will seek it elsewhere. “Just being really good friends” is simply a myth; we will always want more. Men and women may crave sex for different reasons—but we both still crave it. When the sex dies, the love usually does too; you simply can’t have one without the other. The human sex drive lasts well into our 80s, for both men and women. So how do you keep a sex life passionate and exciting long term? How do you sustain the same thrills from the same old same old that you can only get with something new? Is it even possible? The answer, again from experience, is yes, it is absolutely possible. Couples who develop a “sexual repertoire” never get bored. This means variety; change things up a bit. Use your imagination. Reinvent dating/early marriage scenarios. Get “sneaky”– i.e., different locations, even risky ones. Try new outfits. Share your fantasies and act them out; with a little effort, lovemaking can be new—every day.
- Lots of Fun. We are sexual beings because we are sensual beings; in other words, we crave pleasures of all kinds but, most especially, joy and laughter. The good times are what make life worth living. If you’re not having fun together as a couple, just as in sex, you will seek it elsewhere. I’ve seen too many couples drift apart because they never do anything enjoyable together–no dates, no hobbies, no trips. All the fun stuff they do with someone else. Mike and I firmly believe you have to have your very best times and life experiences with each other; your happiest memories should include, not exclude, your spouse. You will then naturally be drawn closer as you associate pleasure with each other’s presence. Keep dating, forever. Go out or stay home, but make it a date. Keep laughing. Find hobbies you can do together; plan them and make them happen. Cut back on work to make time if you have to. All work and no play make any marriage dull.
- Lots of Support. Support means encouragement, belief, respect, and comfort. We need it when we’re young to handle the challenges of new careers, new babies, and new financial pressures. We need it as we learn to trust each other, to give up separate lives to become one, to become a unit. With that support, couples can handle just about anything that comes along; without it, life can be simply unbearable. As we age, we need support for different reasons, but we need it just the same. With age come new challenges; just when you thought the toughest years were behind you, like trying to buy a house or raise decent kids and put them through college, new, even scarier, problems arise. Growing old is never pretty; surgeries, illnesses, diseases and injuries become more frequent. Aging bodies become riddled with the scars of life as once smooth skin becomes wrinkled and strong muscles fade into weakness. We older couples need each other’s support more than ever to be reassured that we’re still attractive, desired, and respected. Age can wither one’s confidence, but through the loving, supportive eyes of our spouse, we once again see that we’re important, special, beautiful, and young as we grow old—together.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.