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R-J Gilbert, 81, and Humphrey Gilbert, 89, seen here on Feb., 10, 2020, have found laughter to be a key ingredient in their marriage.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Modern times have not been kind to the idea of lifelong marriage.

This is the era that ushered in the grey divorce, with long-term couples such as Al and Tipper Gore distressing other marrieds when they split after 40 years. The children of boomers were watching and launched the cynical notion of the “starter marriage” – the doomed-to-fail, trial-run marriage you’re to learn from, supposedly. In recent years, numerous thinkers have sounded alarm over the failures of monogamy and the rise of open marriages.

Amid such cultural realities, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that many married Canadians are actually in it for the long haul.

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Half of Canadians age 75 and older who are in relationships have been with their partners for 55 years or more, and five million of those 55 and up boast long-lasting unions of 30 years or more, according to recently released data from Statistics Canada’s 2017 General Social Survey on families.

“Young people have an excessively pessimistic view of their chances of staying married for a long time,” says Karl Pillemer, who interviewed 700 elders for his book 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage.

“Lots of people do stay married for the long haul and of those who do many of them find a sublime experience: the pleasure, interest and feeling of being with somebody for a half-century. For them, it’s the signature achievement of their life and this incredible engine of personal growth,” said Dr. Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist who spearheaded the Legacy Project, a large-scale series of studies intended to tap the practical wisdom of older people.

While the nature of marriage has changed over generations, as has people’s skepticism around marital longevity, one thing that curiously hasn’t budged is people’s more private hope for themselves, Dr. Pillemer said.

“No matter how post-modern our culture gets, most young people still have this goal of staying married for a lifetime. The question is how do they do it,” Dr. Pillemer said.

The gerontologist’s top recommendation was listening to elders who have been married a long time – and who feel happy about it. The Globe and Mail spoke with couples across the country together for four decades or more as well as with researchers about the secrets of the long-haul marriage.


R-J Gilbert, 81, and Humphrey Gilbert, 89

Married 55 years
Toronto

Playful ribbing and peals of laughter are frequent in the Gilberts’ conversation. The two met at work in 1956, and laughing has been a key ingredient in their marriage.

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“You were just a lot of fun, there was no doubt about that,” said Mr. Gilbert, addressing his wife.

The two have a name for their family’s plentiful inside jokes: “Gilbertisms.”

This inner world of couples – the private jokes and daily bids for attention and affection – plays a role in marital longevity, according to American researchers John Gottman and Janice Driver, who termed this behaviour “turning inward.” The researchers interviewed newlyweds and then tracked them for six years, finding that those who had turned inward often were much more likely to still be married.

“We still really like one another,” Ms. Gilbert said. “Makes it a whole lot easier.”

The wife stressed how her husband always prioritized the women in his family: her, as well as their two grown daughters. “He always has us three girls as numero uno in his world,” Ms. Gilbert said. “Top of the list,” her husband chimed in.

A partner who can palpably sense that their spouse is committed to them is the No. 1 predictor of strong relationships over time, according to Samantha Joel, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London, who is leading international research into themes that recur in lasting unions.

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“It seems to really matter how committed and satisfied you think your partner is,” said Prof. Joel, who mined the insights of more than 11,196 couples featured in 42 longitudinal studies from 29 relationship research laboratories across Canada, the United States, Israel, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Janet Balfour, 63, and Bob Balfour, 67

Married 42 years
Calgary

For more than four decades, the Balfours have made a point of going for breakfast every weekend.

Everywhere they go, the two still hold hands. “I kind of like it,” said Ms. Balfour. “It’s a sign that we still choose to be connected.”

Still, both husband and wife attest to the more sobering ebbs and flows of a union spanning decades. “It’s understanding that it’s not going to be a bed of roses every day, month, year of your life,” Mr. Balfour said.

Those in it for the long haul understand and sit through the tough phases in their relationships, said Dr. Pillemer. “In my studies, every single couple has had extremely difficult periods, times of despair when they thought they would leave one another,” he said.

Throughout his research with hundreds of aging couples, Dr. Pillemer noticed a U-shaped curve of marital happiness over time: the happy high upon marrying, a precipitous drop with the birth of the first child and simultaneous stressors of first career and first home, followed by a second peak when couples reach the empty nest phase.

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What pulls long-haulers out is hard work, Dr. Pillemer said. “Their view of marriage was as a discipline, like learning a martial art or playing an instrument or ultra-marathon running,” the gerontologist said.

Understanding the nature of compromise is another hallmark of long-term marriages. Poet Judith Viorst, whose marriage is now in its sixth decade, offered her thoughts on compromise in her 2019 book Nearing 90, and Other Comedies of Late Life. Ms. Viorst has described marriage as a third party in the room: When she and her husband make compromises, it is to the marriage, not to the other person.

“Compromise doesn’t mean relinquishing, it means seeing the other person’s point of view,” Ms. Balfour said.

“The battle of wills is one of the toughest things to overcome in a marriage,” she said, adding that the things she and her husband fought over in the early days are the same things they fight over today. Her advice is to pick your battles. “Some things just aren’t worth arguing over. Does it really matter at the end of the day if they don’t know how to load the dishwasher?”

Long-time partners eventually learn how to lower the temperature in battle, said Sue Johnson, a Victoria-based clinical psychologist and author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. “The people that can fight and then trust each other enough to turn back for a different kind of conversation, their bonds last,” Dr. Johnson said. “The defining question in marriage is, ‘Are you there for me?’ If I know that even though we’ve been fighting, you’ll turn towards me, love can last.”

The Balfours said they felt strongly aligned on their beliefs and values; Mr. Balfour views the “opposites attract” model with deep skepticism.

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Dr. Pillemer concurred. “If you’re talking about long marriages, you’re really talking about birds of a feather,” the gerontologist said. “People are much more likely to be married over the long-term if their values align around money, child rearing, spirituality, religion,” Dr. Pillemer said. “Research shows that marrying someone who’s really different from you is not a particularly good prospect.”

Raquel Hirsch, 62, and Rafael Hirsch, 67

Married 41 years
Vancouver

She was 21 and he 26 when they wed at a synagogue and had dinner at a nearby hotel afterward. Ms. Hirsch, a digital strategist, joked that their marriage felt relatively easy after a harrowing honeymoon: six weeks spent camping in Texas, the sun blazing and swarms of mosquitoes big enough to “lift your steak off the grill.”

“When we got back after six weeks, I thought, ‘This is much better. Maybe I can be married to him forever,’ ” Ms. Hirsch laughed. She describes her husband as a “best friend and the most interesting person I know.” They frequently debate politics, social issues and the news.

“One reason marriages may not last is that they die of boredom. We don’t have that,” said Mr. Hirsch, a retired investment adviser. “From the moment we met until today we always have tons of stuff to talk about.”

Engaged friendship is a hallmark in marriages that persist over decades, according to Dr. Pillemer’s research.

Dr. Pillemer interviewed wives who were unwilling to be “golf widows,” so they simply took up the sport, as well as elderly husbands attending the opera or ballet for the first time in their lives at the behest of their wives. Long-connected partners were open to trying new things, instead of resenting each other’s passions, Dr. Pillemer said.

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Equally important are the small daily rituals the couple engages in. Ms. Hirsch makes a habit of looking out the window at her husband as he rakes the leaves and complimenting him when he comes through the door. For his part, Mr. Hirsch cooks decadently for the two of them. “I bring my wife, every morning, a cappuccino to bed,” he added.

Creating as many positive, daily interactions as you possibly can is crucial in long marriages, according to Dr. Pillemer. “Rather than big gifts or big gestures, research shows us incredibly clearly that … for long-married couples, it’s this fabric of small, positive, unexpected and expected events taking place throughout the day.”

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