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marital resilience

'They were like honeymooners, some of them,' says Rachel Aber-Schlesinger, who with husband Ben Schlesinger studied 20 couples who had been married at least 45 years.They've been married 51 years.Dave Chan for the Globe and Mail

Margaret Ann and Hu Puffer, it's easy to tell, have spent a good part of their 50-year marriage teasing one another. Mr. Puffer, a retired school principal, volunteers that he has five nicknames for his wife depending on her mood. Ms. Puffer, a former nurse, knows all his best material: His jokes, she sighs, "are pretty corny, let me tell you."

The secret to their half-century of marital happiness is rolling with the punches, her husband explains, as the couple banters on the phone from their home in St. Albert, Alta. "You've got to keep thing in perspective. And laugh."

Arguments are best avoided, Mr. Puffer adds: "I always lose anyway."

As Canadians continue to live longer, they can expect to spend more years with their life partners, whatever old age brings. Late-life divorce is increasing - led by wives - but most married couples stay together in their later years. And that is the time when, research suggests, the benefits of a happy marriage - and the consequences of a bad one - have the most impact on health.

Even with current trends of marrying later, more couples can expect to make it to the golden anniversary and beyond, says Barbara Mitchell, an associate professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University. "It brings a whole new meaning to the vows, 'till death do you part.' "

Laughter aside, the Puffers have many other ingredients of a good long-time marriage: They both keep busy volunteering ("We don't have time to complain," Ms. Puffer says), they have many friends and they've resolved most of the big - and little - issues.

Of course, life isn't always sunny. A series of major stomach operations have left Mr. Puffer dangerously thin. ("Built for speed," he jokes. "And not for cuddling, so he says," his wife fires back.) But their days aren't dull.

As Mr. Puffer observes: "This is kind of the climax to the whole deal."

The years bring perspective, Bill Hubbard agrees. Every day, the 82-year-old retired insurance manager carries the newspaper across the street from his home in Trail, B.C., to the nursing home where his wife, Joan, now lives. They read it together. On bad days, stricken with Parkinson's disease and twinges of dementia, she doesn't always remember who he is. But her long-term memory is sharper, so she's the one who gets the details right when they reminisce about family and cottage holidays. This month, they celebrated their 55th anniversary with Chinese takeout ordered by one of their three daughters.

Ms. Hubbard's illness changed their retirement plans; they moved to Trail because she became too sick for her husband to care for her alone. Now their lives together are a series of conversations, or quiet time in front of the TV, learning to laugh when he arrives to find her trapped in her wheelchair in the bathroom, after looking for her husband there.

Mr. Hubbard has his regrets, mostly about what he calls the "blank" middle years of their marriage, when they were so swamped with family and work responsibilities that they didn't make time for each other. "It was a blur. We were just sort of robots going through what we had to do," he recalls. "If we had only stood back and said, 'what the hell are we doing?' "

Now, their time together feels more precious. "All the rest of the stuff is meaningless to me, what I concentrate on is Joan," Mr. Hubbard says. "It may sound strange, but I think our marriage is stronger than ever."

In fact, the research suggests that, while there's no guarantee that sticking it out will lead to happiness, good marriages often get better later in life.

"They were like honeymooners, some of them," says Rachel Aber-Schlesinger, an associate professor of social sciences at York University, who with her husband, Ben Schlesinger, recently studied 20 couples who had been married at least 45 years by intensively interviewing the husbands and wives separately.

What the happy couples said: Keep busy, maintain a strong social circle, invest energy in your grandkids. The couples reported working hard at their marriages, but not trying to change their partners. They had fun - "these were not dour people," Dr. Aber-Schlesinger says. And they still made plans, even into their 90s. "They didn't only look back, they also planned ahead."

How do you do it? Share your marriage secrets

"We had quite a bit of sexual satisfaction in our study," adds Dr. Schlesinger, a professor emeritus in the social work department at the University of Toronto.

"We didn't ask, but they volunteered it," Dr. Aber-Schlesinger says.

The couple, who have been married 51 years themselves, also offer their own advice. "Deal with the negatives, work it out, discuss it," Dr. Schlesinger says. "If you have to go to counselling, go to counselling."

The couple often talks about issues before they become a point of contention, such as leaving their house for a smaller apartment. "We problem-solve and rehearse in advance," Dr. Aber-Schlesinger says says.

One big advantage of a long marriage, she says: "We packed together, rather than bringing our own baggage with us."

And for the most part, they've emptied those bags of the traditionally nagging quibbles.

"He's a Luddite," Dr. Aber-Schlesinger says. "He doesn't turn on the stove or the computer."

"I help set the table, and take out the garbage …" Dr. Schlesinger lightly begins his defence.

"It's all negotiated," his wife says with a laugh. "It's okay."

Secrets of success

Terri Orbuch, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and the author of the recent 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, has been tracking the marriages of 373 couples for the past 24 years. Here's a sampling of what she's learned from the ones who stayed happily together - and the nearly half of them who parted ways.

Be generous with praise

According to Dr. Orbuch's research, husbands reported a need to hear compliments from their partners - even more so than wives, who tend to get affirmation also from their friends. Men who said they didn't feel special to their wives were two times more likely to get divorced.

Shake things up

"Knock your partner off balance just a little bit," Dr. Orbuch says. That may mean exercising together or watching a scary movie or hopping on a roller coaster. Active couples are happy couples.

Talk about what you'd do if you won the lottery

Take time each day to talk about something besides the kids, work and the house renovation, a topic that reveals something to you about your partner. For instance, Dr. Orbuch suggests: "If you had all the money in the world, where would you travel?"

Know your partner's top two expectations

Frustration sets in, Dr. Orbuch says, when there's a big gap between what you expect to happen and what's actually happening. The top expectation in her study, according to nearly every husband and wife: Never hurt or deceive the other person.

Sweat the small stuff

This seems counterintuitive, Dr. Orbuch says, but she's not really talking about the toilet seat being left up. If your partner always leaves the room during a fight, for example, and it irritates you now, it will probably drive you crazy later. Talk it over.

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