Article By Matt Christensen
Marriage advice is easy to ignore until you need it.
Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at such trite aphorisms as “Say sorry even if you don’t mean it” or “Don’t go to bed angry”? These phrases tend to leak out of people’s mouths around weddings and anniversaries but are barely helpful. True, lived-in advice for a long, happy marriage isn’t so tidy because neither are relationships.
So, what is some honest, real advice from couples who’ve been through the long haul? We recently asked 25 people who have been married for 25 plus years about what makes their relationship work. Cliches didn’t enter the equation. Instead, their answers reflected a simple truth: long-term relationships are both easy and hard, but made better by honesty, fun, and a shared sense of unity. They urged communication and clarity. They underscored the importance of shared meals and spicing things up with dirty jokes. They emphasized appreciation and attention to detail. Here’s what they said, and why it’s helped them stay together for the long run.
1. Accept and allow
“This is a mantra I picked up early on in our marriage, and it’s one my husband and I have come to live by. I forget where I heard it, but it’s basically a nice way of saying, ‘You knew who your partner was when you got married, and you can’t change them.’ There were many things I wished I could change about my husband after we’d been married for a little while. But I realized I loved him, and it was a waste of time to dwell on them. I needed to accept him for who he was, and allow him to be himself. That doesn’t mean we can’t get upset, or voice concerns. It just means that we’re committed unconditionally to the person we married, even when they drive us crazy.” – Lynne, 62, Florida (married 31 years)
2. Imagine life without your partner
“My wife and I talk about this all the time. We imagine what our toughest days would be like without each other. Truthfully, we always agree that we’d make it through. Realistically, we’re each independent and strong enough that we’d be fine. But, it would be terrible.
That’s the takeaway: life would be possible without each other, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun, special, or full of great moments.
It’s not uncommon for us to ask each other, ‘Can you imagine if I wasn’t here?’ The answer is usually some variation of, ‘Yeah. It would suck. I’m glad you are.’” – Jerry, 56, Maryland (married 30 years)
3. Crack jokes
“We got married when we were both almost 40, and our sense of humor has gotten more juvenile every year. Maybe it’s just us, but I don’t think so. We laugh at rude noises. We roll our eyes at each other’s terrible jokes. We love raunchy movies. It’s just that primitive, human sense of humor we both have. So many couples seem to lose that the longer they stay married. There’s this weird pressure to become more civilized or dignified as you get older. We never got that memo, it seems. And when it’s just the two of us, we’re usually cracking up. We’ve stayed in love so long because we’re too busy laughing to be fighting.” – David, 68, Michigan (married 30 years)
4. Choose your own adventure
“My marriage has never been easy but it’s always been an adventure. Best advice I can give – getting married is like going to a theme park. Know who you are and what ride you want to go on. If you want to go on the carousel (stability and serenity) marry that. If you want to go on the roller coaster (risk and adventure) don’t marry someone who’s afraid of speed and heights.
The key is to know yourself and what you want before you pledge yourself to a partnership.
Then, once you’ve found your match, run your marriage like a good company. Identify each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and delegate those responsibilities accordingly..” – Kathleen, 57, Nebraska (married 31 years)
5. Don’t be so damn stubborn
“Don’t insist on always having the last word. It’s never not worth it. What you think is a fundamental, bedrock principle might actually be just a personal preference not worth having a spat or holding a grudge about. Be open to that possibility. Even if you get your way, it will take a toll. And if you agree to something, abide by the mutual decision. The loss of trust is also not worth getting your way.
We’ve learned to be responsible for and take ownership of our decisions and actions, and we always try to avoid criticizing or guilting. It never helps. Instead, we try to have constructive conversations about specific behaviors that might be troubling, and we’re each willing to listen to each other’s concerns – even if they seem trivial.” – Claude, 68 (married 33 years)
6. Do the work
“Everyone has heard the phrase, ‘opposites attract’, but you don’t really hear the phrase, ‘opposites keep people together.’ They can, though, if you learn how to navigate them. Opposites can create a great deal of conflict over time if you don’t learn how to accept them. It can be a difficult process, but it’s necessary to stay happily married long term.
Good marriages don’t just happen. They require a great deal of work and intention.
The English language has one word for love. I love my wife and I love spicy food. There is no comparison. Since the term ‘I love you’ is so confusing and vague it makes sense to define what that means to both of you, even if you’re total opposites.” – Monte, 64, Florida (married 40 years)
7. Bite your tongue
“My rule is: bite your tongue for at least 24-48 hours after before speaking when tensions are high. If you are overly emotional and/or upset about something, doing so gives you time to cool off and then reflect on the situation with greater space, perspective, calmness, and clarity. If you still want to talk about it, schedule a mutually agreed upon time to do so. Say something like, ‘I am upset about what you just said/did, but I want to think about it before we talk.’ Mentally, you’ll be in a much better place.” – Romy, 52, California (married 26 years)
8. You won’t always be on the same page
“And that’s okay. Patience and communication are key to any successful relationship, but especially a long-term one. It’s important to remember that you’re not always going to agree about everything. There will be times when you need to listen more than you talk, and times when you need to communicate openly and honestly. You can do this by making time for each other, even when life gets busy. Whether it’s taking a walk after dinner or spending a weekend away together, do everything you can to keep the bond strong.” – Steve, 49, Arizona (married 26 years)
9. Keep each other guessing
“My husband is a quiet man. Me? Not so much. I was surprised when he told me how much he loves the fact that he never knows what I’m going to do from one minute to the next. And I appreciate his willingness to try different things. As our unofficial ‘social secretary,’ I’ve planned trips where he hasn’t really known where we’re going until we get on the plane. Our secret really is just keeping our life interesting. Otherwise, life becomes stale and boring. Do something unexpected from time to time and you’ll learn how much you cherish each other’s company.” – Carol, 72, Georgia (married 49 years)
10. Ask for space when you need it
“I think many couples are afraid to say, ‘Hey, I need some time alone, away from you.’ They worry that their partner will take it personally, and so they avoid the conversation completely. Early in our courtship, we were very clear with each other about the fact that we wouldn’t survive marriage if we couldn’t each have our own space. So, we’re not shy with each other when we need a breather. Sometimes it’s just a few hours with a good book. Other times, one of us wants to get a coffee and run errands on a Saturday. The key is being respectful about the request, considering any commitments you might have, and using that time to recharge yourself for the betterment of the relationship.” – Curt, 64, South Carolina (married for 36 years)
11. Learn each other’s love language
“Any act of love done with the best intentions is good, but knowing how your partner prefers to receive those gestures can make them much more special. My wife’s two love languages are quality time and acts of service.
Over the course of our marriage, I’ve learned how happy it makes her when I help out around the house. Simple things, like unloading the dishwasher or flipping the laundry, make her so happy. And because I pitch in, and we work as a team, we’re able to spend more quality time together.
You can take the tests and stuff to figure out what each other’s love language is. That’s easy. The more fun part is finding out how you can try to speak to your partner using them every day.” – Gene, 54, Massachusetts (married 28 years)
12. Always kiss goodnight
“In all of our years of marriage, I think there have been maybe a dozen times my husband and I haven’t kissed each other goodnight. Even when we’ve had terrible, terrible arguments, we always kiss each other on the cheek, or the forehead, just as a way to remind each other that we’ll get through this.
When you don’t want to talk to someone because you’re so angry, it can be hard to say, ‘I love you.’ Sometimes, you just don’t have the voice. But a quick kiss can say a lot, and for us it has.” – Renee, 60, Texas (married 31 years)
13. Be patient with your spouse — and yourself
“You need to be flexible in a marriage. You need to understand that, if you and your partner truly love each other, you’re not deliberately trying to make things difficult. But, inevitably, there will come times when you just can’t agree. In those times, you need to remember that you both are only human. We used to get upset with each other, and then beat ourselves up pretty badly because we’d think, ‘I should be better at this…” And our marriage suffered. It wasn’t until we were able to extend grace to ourselves and each other, and remind ourselves that we are both still learning how to be better every day that we really grew as a couple.” – Ray, 47, New York (married 25 years)
14. Never assume
“If your partner is upset with you, don’t assume you know why. If he’s quiet or down, don’t assume you know why. If you’re upset, don’t assume he knows why. You have to remember that, no matter how connected you both may be, you’re not mind-readers. You need to communicate as clearly as possible, and as frequently as possible. Give each other permission to say you’d rather wait to talk about things, but always let your partner know that you don’t want to assume you know what’s going on.” – Christine, 51, Connecticut (married 26 years)
15. Nurture the friendship
“Remember that your partner is also your friend. Not every conversation you have should be about life decisions, finances, or being married. I love my marital relationship with my wife, but I’d dare say I love our friendship more. When we get to spend time together ‘as friends’, we laugh, we joke, and we remember why we’re such a good team. And that helps with our marriage. You wouldn’t want to be on a team without any friends, would you? A marriage is the same idea, and it’s for the rest of your lives. Make sure you always try to make time for that one-of-a-kind friendship.” – William, 57, Colorado (married 30 years)
16. Talk every day
“Even if it’s just a hello in the morning, or a goodnight before bed. Or a text or email to say hi. Don’t ever let a day go by that you don’t talk to your spouse. For me, even on our worst days, hearing my husband’s voice is a reassurance. I know he feels the same way. We might not want to speak to each other, but we know that we’re still committed to each other, and we’ll get past whatever spat we’re facing. For both of us, silence is not an option. And because of that, we find our way back to each other every time.” – Leanne, 49, Nevada (married 25 years)
17. Have your own hobbies
“One of the things my wife and I love about each other is our respective passions. She’s an amazing painter, and I love making and building things. She has a room downstairs where she goes and paints for hours at a time, and I’m always so excited for her to open the door and invite me in to see what she’s created. She feels the same way when I come in from the garage with a newly stained chair, or a birdhouse, or something that I’ve been working on. We love talking to each other about our passions, and they give us so many chances to support each other as husband and wife.” – John, 55, New York (married 35 years)
18. Don’t look for flaws
“If you actively look for flaws in your partner, you’ll find them. Because no one is perfect, and they are definitely there. Why would anyone want to look for flaws, right? Well, we both found ourselves doing that during some rough patches in our marriage. It was almost like we were playing ‘Gotcha!’ with each other, trying to prove each other wrong. It took a while to figure out, but we realized that we needed to work together against whatever problem we were facing, instead of using it as an excuse to work against each other. It wasn’t an easy lesson, but it’s probably the most important one we’ve ever learned for the sake of our marriage.” – Bryan, 48, Indiana (married 26 years)
19. Stay intimate
“Intimacy is more than sex. And, as you get older, that’s a great thing to realize. It’s holding each other’s hands. It’s making sure to give each other a kiss before you leave in the morning and as soon as you get home at night. It’s turning off your phones for a night, and just enjoying each other’s company. Physically, we’re not where we used to be. We still make love, but I think we both agree that the intimacy we strive for takes place more outside of the bedroom than in it. And it’s kept us very much in love for a long time.” – Natalie, 60, North Carolina (married 35 years)
20. Eat together
“It sounds like a given, but both my wife and I came from families that never sat down to eat together. When we started dating, we realized that sharing a meal was – and still is – our favorite thing to do. Breakfast is kind of rushed, and we’re both at work for lunch, but we rarely schedule anything that would disrupt our dinner plans. Even if it’s just crappy take out, and we’ve each still got a lot to do that evening, we commit to sitting down, eating, and enjoying each other’s company for those 20 minutes. It’s a special time for us that’s become the highlight of our days and, for me, our marriage.” – Peter, 56, Georgia (married for 27 years)
21. Communicate your needs
“Otherwise, your partner will be guessing. Or, even worse, your partner will be fretting over the fact that he or she doesn’t know what you’re thinking. My wife and I can both be catastrophic thinkers. If she’s upset about something but doesn’t tell me what it is, I immediately think it’s something I’ve done. And vice versa. And more often than not, it’s something that has nothing to do with me or us. But the mind can play tricks on you and make you start to wonder. You and your partner will thrive as a couple if you can communicate what’s going on as clearly as possible so that, instead of wondering, you can be present for each other and there to offer support.” – Richard, 70, Ohio (married 40 years)
22. Show gratitude
“My husband and I are ‘overthankers’. That’s what we call it. We always go overboard when we show appreciation to someone who’s done something nice for us. And that’s because we both sincerely appreciate a genuine ‘Thank You’. That’s why we make sure, no matter how small or large the gesture, to say it to each other whenever we can. Sometimes it’s obvious, like if one of us gets the other one a gift. Other times, it could be, ‘Thank you for taking the garbage out last night. I appreciate it.’ My husband has taken the garbage out every week for almost 35 years, and I always remember to say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s a small gesture, but we both appreciate it every time.” – Robin, 60, Arizona (married 34 years)
23. Learn how to apologize
“You have to remember that there are many reasons to apologize. You can apologize for something you did or didn’t do. You can apologize for something you said or didn’t say. You can apologize just for the sake of wanting to end a disagreement and move on.
Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you concede or believe what you did was wrong. It means that the situation resulted in something — like hurt feelings or miscommunications — that made your partner feel bad. And that’s the last thing you want to see when you love someone.
Not every argument is going to end with one person being right and the other person being wrong. Putting aside that ego so that you can move on and grow stronger is much more important, we think.” – Robert, 63, Michigan (Married 33 years)
24. Don’t keep score
“If you start looking at your marriage like a point system, you’re never going to be happy. When we were younger, we would constantly bicker about shared responsibilities. One of us would feel like we did more housework one week, while the other one would feel like they worked longer hours. Or one of us would feel like we didn’t get enough credit for doing X, Y, and Z, while the other didn’t feel enough appreciation for A, B, and C. It was a lose/lose situation. It wasn’t until we realized that we were both working hard to create a good life and a happy household that we stopped nitpicking. Instead, we just helped each other when we could, and did our best to be partners on the same team.” – Alyce, 71 (married 39 years)
25. Choose your stress
“This is great marriage advice and, really, great life advice. You can only handle so much stress in one day, as an individual and as part of a family. As we’ve both gotten older, we’ve realized that we’re more capable of choosing what we want to stress over, and that’s what we do. What might have seemed like a huge deal 20 years ago — an annoying neighbor, or unexpected car trouble, for example — has really been put into perspective by all we’ve gotten through together. If you can accept that you’ll have stressors in your life, you can train yourself to decide which ones you’ll let affect you and your marriage. And, more importantly, which ones you won’t.” – Karl, 57, Oregon (married 30 years)
A version of this article originally appeared here on fatherly.com