The 5 Things That 42 Years of Marriage Have Taught Me

bride wearing wifey shirt

Marriage, indeed, is not all romance and flowers. Romantic, perhaps, in that deciding to marry is a giant leap of faith in many ways. When I was young, committing to live my days with another seemed a stretch of the imagination—possibly even a little uncomfortably so. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine being old together. Getting married at twenty-two, having just graduated from college, I’m not sure that we didn’t enter into marriage together with a sense of adventure and romance—but we certainly had not devoted much time to long or even short range planning.

On Memorial Day of 1970 Jim and I were married, surrounded by friends in a place known as Zoar Valley in western New York. It was a bucolic setting, at the convergence of two small rivers. It was a hippy wedding. Our minister was an official Universal Life minister, a mail-order ministry useful at that time for some to avoid the draft. The social and political arenas were volatile. As emerging adults, we had endured violent assassinations of beloved leaders, an ugly unpopular war, racial riots and discord, and a vocal counterculture. To say that these were turbulent times would be an understatement.

Very little planning went into staging our wedding—a lot of phone calls mostly. I made huge bowls of macaroni and potato salad. Someone brought a large sheet cake; I don’t remember it being inscribed. Others brought things as well, but to make up for what we lacked, we stopped at a small, rural supermarket on the way. I can only imagine what the employees were thinking as this large group of hippy people converged on their store, buying everything from chips and dips to hot dogs and hamburgers.

My wedding dress was a simple empire-waisted mini-dress, a style popular at the time. I made it the week before we were married. A friend gave me a daisy garland with streams of grosgrain ribbons, a beautiful complement to my waist-length hair.

Our wedding was rooted in the spirit of that era. In some ways I think that we were pretty casual and naïve going into this life-long commitment. Each of us said more than once that we could go our separate ways if things didn’t work out. (Side Note: The first week of our marriage Jim drove off in a fury when I burned the chocolate chip cookies. He returned an hour later, humiliated that he got to the next town with little cash and no gas.) As our years together grew, we both realized that we had indeed committed to a lifetime partnership.

Did I ever think that marriage was going to be all romance and flowers? Does anyone really believe that? I don’t think I ever had such illusions.

So if it’s not all romance and flowers, what love languages—ways that show we care—have nurtured and sustained us? What is the vocabulary? What are the common threads that have bound us together in an enduring and flourishing relationship? As a retired middle school reading and writing teacher, I always told my students that their best writing was from their own experiences. After more than forty-two years of marriage to the same man, I think that I’ve accumulated enough experiences to be able to address this topic. That said, everyone should define—and refine over time—the terms together, knowing that the longevity of your relationship depends upon your ability to adapt to change and add new vocabulary.

Commitment is one of love language’s vocabulary; commitment to each other, the relationship, to shared dreams and goals.

In our younger days, my husband and I actually had more than one five-year plan. In the mid-seventies we were back-to-the landers, building our small house with recycled lumber, living on ninety acres in rural upstate New York. We had a big garden, two horses, chickens, two daughters, and almost no money. Life was difficult, yet sweet. Our planning discussions included building plans, employment options, economic goals, as well as personal aspirations.

Both Jim’s and my parents had marriages that exceeded fifty years. We didn’t lack for examples of commitment. My father used to say that marriage is a 60/40 proposition—and you were the one giving the 60 percent. He was a terrific role model in so many ways, married for almost sixty years; but his care, devotion and attention to my mother who suffered from Parkinson’s was exceptional. Though the years were difficult, he never questioned his commitment or his love.

Empathy and encouraging are words that have also found their place in our love’s language. 

Over the years I learned to remain open-minded to Jim’s new adventures. When my husband takes on a new interest, it sometimes gets out of hand—at one time we had four sailboats of different sizes, or four Saabs in our Saab era. He often will proudly tell people that he has held more than thirty jobs in forty-two years. Being empathetic and encouraging has tested my patience more than once, but it’s afforded a rich ride!

Something that I never considered when I was younger: Expect that you will grow and change over your lifetime.

It would be weird otherwise. Embrace change. It will breathe life, vitality, and freshness into a relationship, regardless of the number of years spent together. A static relationship isn’t romance and flowers. At this point in our lives being comfortably retired, we are hopeful of pursuing new adventures. Jim has become joined at the hip to his motorcycle and can be frequently found riding the North Country roads while I am planning on deeper study of yoga and getting back into weaving and fibers—something that was put aside during those family and working years.

Make peace—truly.

Having been married for over forty-two years, I’ll admit that there are things that come up that are never truly resolved. We were never the couple who resolved not to go to bed angry. Our anger with each other could extend for days without coming to clear resolution. Last year we went to a session with a marriage counselor—something that Jim really wanted to do. I was more reticent and skeptical. We had come to a communications impasse. As it turned out, the session opened the door to more productive discussion and helped us clarify and redefine our intentions and commitment. If you are in a committed, long-term relationship, accept the idea that there will be times when you do not agree—and never will. Embrace differences.

Laugh frequently—at yourself, at each other, at life, over past events and experiences.

As my husband and I age, we frequently mishear each other (a malady of aging), our conversations reminiscent of a bad sit-com.

The language of love equals the compilation of years, of shared family, friends and experiences. The wedding is only one day. The rest of your lives together is the real test of your relationship. There is comfort and laughter discovering that you are both pondering the same thoughts simultaneously. I have often heard people comment that they did not want to become one of those old people, sitting across from each other without talking. Let’s face it, after so many years together, it’s going to happen. This does not mean that you have run out of conversation, but rather are comfortable in silence.

The most romantic aspect of longevity in marriage is that possibilities still remain; new adventures to be planned; new skills to be acquired; new memories to be created. On our trip to Florida last year—my first—I was really attentive to taking photographs, recording out trip—something that I am not always diligent doing. On our last morning camping in St. Augustine we walked to the beach to watch the sunrise. It was incredibly beautiful! I took many photos to record it the best I could. And they were quite stunning shots. Unfortunately our computer, with several years of pictures, decided that was it! Sadly our record was lost. You may lose the image (as did I) of the sunrise in St. Augustine, but the experience still remains. That’s romance.

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  • Such a nice read…and 42 years! wow! how wonderful!

  • Beautiful – thank you! xox

  • The note about the cookies? I laughed so hard I spewed coffee everywhere.

    And the advice? Amazing.

  • Just lovely. I appreciate that you eloquently addressed the sitting-in-silence stereotype that is such an unfounded fear for people! I’ve been married a year and some change and sometimes we like not talking and listening to the rest of the cafe or restaurant. Usually a raised eyebrow or a look says it all. And if we compare notes after we leave, it’s clear that we had a great conversation.

    • Carbon Girl

      Yes, sitting-in-silence seems like one more cultural narrative that can be damaging. Some days, especially as I work to finish my dissertation, I just do not feel like talking. I have found myself worrying that maybe it is a “bad sign” for our relationship but then I realize I do not feel like talking to anyone.

    • I just had a friend stay with us for a few days, and the evenings after dinner were all of us sitting in the living room, on various devices, not really talking (though the boy and I were playing online chess and Draw Something; friend was travel journalling and a bit of work). I was a little worried that she would think we were boring, but then I decided that as long as we were all having a good time, it really is just representative of us.

      • Caroline

        I actually take that as a sign of how close our relationship is with my best friend, that we sometimes all hang out doing our own thing and that is totally fine.

        • Not Sarah

          I had a relationship a few years ago where the most fun we had sometimes was sitting next to each other on the couch, writing code, surfing the internet, and doing our own thing, but being together. I want to be with someone that I can be with, but do my own thing and feel like that is together time. (Not all the time, but sometimes at least.)

          • Jamie

            My fiance and I have definitely gotten the “do your own thing while spending time together” routine down. He usually plays Skyrim or some other game while I read on my Nook. We might not be “hanging out” the same way other couples do, but we’re enjoying each others company and usually touching at the same time (usually either me laying with my head in his lap or someone will have their feet resting in the others’ lap). It’s nice to have this kind of time together, I highly recommend it.

    • KB

      “I have often heard people comment that they did not want to become one of those old people, sitting across from each other without talking. Let’s face it, after so many years together, it’s going to happen. This does not mean that you have run out of conversation, but rather are comfortable in silence.”

      This is so true! I like that we can sit together in silence, reading or doing things on the computer and just poke each other to say hi. I figure that you get to a certain point where you’re spending most of your time with the other person anyways – if you had to entertain each other through conversation after that much time, it would be exhausting!

      • Cali

        So true! We are both introverted people, so we both need quiet time to recharge. But when you’re married and living together, you are naturally going to be together a huge percentage of the time. Obviously, we do talk to each other a lot, but I can’t even imagine how draining it would be if we felt obligated to talk to each other every single second we are together. Sometimes I’d rather just sit next to him on the couch and read while he plays on his computer.

        • KB

          Ha, your guy and my guy must doppelgangers – he’s usually playing on his computer most nights, which I love because I can then commandeer the TV :-) Sometimes you just need to “be” together.

        • Being comfortable in silence together was one of the biggest “moments” for me and my fiance. It’s comforting. There’s no feeling like I always have to be entertaining, or have something relevant to say and yet my company is still valuable.

  • Karen

    This was really beautiful. Thank you for bringing attention to the fact that marriage is making a lifetime commitment – and that when you enter into it you really don’t know what that means. It’s experiential, you learn as you go. I appreciate your wisdom and vulnerability in sharing with us your life and love story.

  • Florence

    That was wonderful, I want to include passages in my vows! Congratulations on those 42 years, I wish you many more!

  • What a great definition of lasting, loving relationships, and a great example to set for couples just starting their journey. Thanks for sharing!

  • “Expect that you will grow and change over your lifetime. It would be weird otherwise.”


    • Taylor

      A million times yes! As another young woman getting married at 22, straight out of college, I keep hearing “no! you’re too young! You’ll still change so much before you’re (insert arbitrary age here)”

      and This: “Expect that you will grow and change over your lifetime. It would be weird otherwise.” is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell them. Sure we’ll change plenty before we’re 25, 30, whatever. We’ve changed a ton since we met at 15. But neither of us have plans to stop changing and I think that it is when we DO that we are in trouble, not the other way around.

  • Excellent post, and all of this is great to read as a new wife (although I’m sure it’s just as helpful to anyone in any stage of a relationship). I especially liked the part on “empathy and encouraging.” I hate to see couples snip at each other. Obviously every couple has disagreements, but overall I think you should want to encourage your partner, not demean them. Empathy and Encouraging is a great phrase to keep in mind.

  • natalie

    Thank you for sharing this—I am in tears! After being married one month and two days, we are still adjusting to living together and making sacrifices for each other. this is so encouraging and uplifting. thank you and god bless you

  • MDBethann

    Congratulations on 42 years of marriage and may you have 42 more!

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!!

  • Class of 1980

    Fabulous post.