Imagine being with the same person for 81 years. Does the thought give you the heebie-jeebies? Make you want to run for the hills, where the singles cavort without benefit of clothes? Or does it raise a tear in your eye?
I'm the teary sort myself. Ann and John Betar of Bridgeport, Conn., celebrated their 81st anniversary this week. The Betars eloped against the wishes of their Syrian-American community; Ann's dad wanted her to marry a much older man. According to Mr. Betar, 102, they only ever fight about cooking.
In one video interview, they sit snugly side by side, laughing, hands touching. "Marriage isn't a lovey-dovey thing … for 80 years," says Mrs. Betar, 98. "You learn to accept one another's ways of life, agreements, disagreements." She says something that's lovely and telling: "His hand is always on my knee."
Of course, expectations were different 80 years ago. Marriage was forever and brides didn't try to extort money from their wedding guests like bouquet-toting mafiosi. Maybe you ended up in a happy marriage if you were lucky, but if you didn't, you trudged on in silent misery.
Now, with Western marriage rates in decline, there's a panicky industry in trying to figure out how exactly to get it right. In the past couple of months alone, studies have determined certain factors that help predict a successful marriage: an attractive wife (the husband's looks apparently don't matter), a wife who remains calm during a fight (the husband's temperament is unimportant – I'm sensing a pattern) and a wife who drinks the same amount as her husband. It helps if a couple met online, if they split the housework and if they both have a rosy view of their courtship. They may also want to think about separate beds, but joint accounts.
In other words, no one really knows. Other people's marriages are as mysterious as their medicine cabinets: You can only guess what comfort and pain lies hidden within. Take Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi, whose postmarital bitterness is on show in a London courtroom this week. I once saw them coming out of the Dorchester Hotel, arm in arm, and they stopped to look at a huge anti-austerity rally under way across the road in Hyde Park. They looked like two well-fed otters in the path of an oncoming ocean liner, but perfectly happy for all that. But what do I know? I'm only familiar with the contents of Ms. Lawson's pies, not her heart.
I'm almost certain that David and Victoria Beckham do not spend most of their days oiled and painted like tarts, gazing longingly at each other as they do on the cover of the current Paris Vogue. I'll bet, come 7 a.m., there's as much bum-scratching and screaming in that house as anywhere else in the world. The cover line, under Victoria's pout, reads, "Ses passions … sa vie privé." Translated, I think that means, "If you leave the toilet seat up one more time, you can take your damn football and go."
This is the picture of marital bliss that is forever on sale. But getting married is easy. Staying married is the trick, once the champagne glasses are gathering dust and the dirty socks have multiplied like rabbits. In pursuit of happiness, you could follow the advice of the 2011 manual Spousonomics, which tells couples to treat their marriage as a small business and apply the principles of economics: Essentially, once you strip away emotion and learn to distribute limited resources rationally, you'll both be happier. (Although, this might only work if Alan Greenspan marries Alan Greenspan.)
Or you could turn from economics to a truly enlightening world view – that is, the novelist's. The great writer Ann Patchett has just published a collection of essays called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage; the title piece is taken up equally with her disastrous first marriage and her enriching second one. Ms. Patchett writes about her reluctance to let go of the sinking ship of the first, ashamed to admit its failure and unsure what went wrong, until a friend posed a simple question: "Does your husband make you a better person? Do you make him better?"
Perhaps it's that simple. When you start looking at the advice given by other survivors of the marriage trenches, it runs along remarkably similar lines: Take a long view of things. Laugh together at everyone else. Never put an empty milk bag back in the fridge. Buy an eyeliner you can both wear. (Thanks, David and Victoria!) As someone said to me before I got married, "Learn to bite your tongue." I'm still working on that one.
I wish I'd known about Karam and Katari Chand before I took the plunge. The British couple, married in India in 1925, just celebrated a mind-boggling 88th wedding anniversary, which prompted The Sun newspaper's headline, "Party Granimals." Their advice for a happy marriage, like that of the Betars, involves laughter and kindness above all. Mrs. Chand has a secret weapon: "I always save a bit of my chapatti for him." In love, the little things go a long way.