On Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.
“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.
“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”
Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.
Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.
I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.
I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.
My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.
Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.
But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”
My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.
One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.
Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.
She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.
“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.
Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.
At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)
I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.
Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.
Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.
*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.
Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.