The Secret to Long Marriage

Author and psychologist Maggie Scarf, who has herself been married 55 years, interviewed 75 couples between 50 and 75 years old to learn about marriage in the later years. The result is a book called September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years. She expected lots of complaints about how tough life and marriage was in these longer marriages. What she found was that most marriages showed a U-shaped trajectory over time.

In the beginning of these marriages was a blissful peak, which was followed by a challenging time with the stress of career building and child rearing. Many of you are currently in this challenging time. In fact, this is frequently when marriages fall apart or become extremely worn out. “Every marriage has a downside, a time when you looked across the room and thought …what is it with this person?” Scarf said. But there is a longer view to keep in mind.

What Scarf found was that couples who got through the tough patches gained more time together and “refound” one another, including the fun and intimacy they once had. They actually regained that peak point, making the other side of the U. Scarf calls these happier older years the “bonus years” which include a longer, healthier, happier life.

The secret of a long marriage may be that couples who stay together can envision this up side while they are enduring stressful times. In fact, I just interviewed an amazing military family that has endured an Iraq deployment and many years of infertility. Now that they have a house full of young children (whom they struggled and longed for), they have little time for one another. However, they like to focus on the joy amidst the current chaos, and the peace they will eventually enjoy together when their children are a little older. In short, they can see to the other side.

Where are you in the “U”? How do you envision your future together?

*Originally published at Marriage Gems in April 2009.

Photo courtesty of by James Sigle

4 responses to “The Secret to Long Marriage

  1. I wouldn’t quite describe our 29 years as a “U.” Ours is more like a steady upward line with some ups and downs along the way. (I suppose it depends on what the line means: happiness, intimacy, selflessness, overall marriage strength, etc.)

  2. We’ve been married 24 years, now, and I think our marriage is on the upward swing from the bottom of the U. The kids are getting older, yes, and that stress is diminished, and the longer we’ve been married, the more we’re able to relate to each other. We’ve learned to give and take, we’ve learned, and are still learning, how to understand each other, it just seems to get better all the time, as long as we are willing to forgive each other and continue to try to make things work, and work well.

  3. Regarding the U I cannot say because we celebrate our 13th anniversary in 2 weeks and do not have children yet–infertility. So I know there are blessed challenges ahead.

    But I was wondering whether she compared long-married couples in the later years to more recently married couples in those same age ranges–recent could be 20 years married. Basically is there a difference between couples who got through the U with raising their own (biological or adopted) children versus couples who either married after having raised children and divorced the parent of their children or married and struggled with blended/step families. A question to ask is whether achieving the upswing bliss is in part due to shared history and making it through the challenges together.

  4. My understanding was it was due to the shared history and making it through challenges together. I haven’t read the complete research, so you could check the book, but I don’t think it was children necessarily but rather ups and downs in the relationship. However, a commonality was during the early child rearing years many couples had more challenging times, and when they worked through them were happier with their shared history. Happy anniversary to you and best wishes regarding your hopes for a family. I’ve interviewed many couples who experienced infertility and I know it can be a major stressor. Often they told me they wished they had enjoyed each other more during the challenging stages of infertility. Marriage is a blessing with our without children. Best to you.

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