Relationship secrets from couples married 50 years or more

Oct 21, 2015 at 7:00 a.m. ET
Image: Kathleen Finlay/Image Source/Getty Images

The media constantly bombards us with stories about how difficult marriage is, punctuated by gossip about how another seemingly "invincible" beloved celebrity couple is breaking up. Et tu, Ben and Jen?

Yet it’s equally true yet not as heavily publicized that many, many couples have what it takes for the long haul. To wit: Six percent of married couples in the 2010 U.S. Census reported being married 50 years or longer. What lessons can you glean from their success?

Love can last for a lifetime when you do this.

1. Be each other's top priority

Gene and Beverly said, “I do” 54 years, three children and five grandchildren ago. They have stayed together because as Gene says, “We always make time for one another.”

Many couples that come to me for marriage therapy find themselves estranged. They live in the same house, sleep in the same bed, rear the same children but feel emotionally disconnected. The reason: They let the busyness of life become more important than maintaining their bond.

Beverly explains: “We realized early on how easy it would be to let hobbies, work, even our kids, get in the way of us spending time together. So, we determined once a week come hell or high water we’d have a date night. And that’s what we’ve done for 50+ years. In addition it’s never, ‘Oh, I’m going to finish this email first. You go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.’ We always make time to snuggle and share snippets about our day before falling asleep. We are each other’s number one.”

2. Don’t try to change your partner

In Guys and Dolls, Adelaide sang, “Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow.” Cindy recently reached her 50th anniversary with college sweetheart Randy because she didn’t follow that advice!

Cindy explains, “When we first got married I was instantly on him about changing his wardrobe — way too many sports T-shirts for my taste — and learning to like going to parties. And Randy said something to me that I really took to heart: ‘Babe I love you for who you are, not who I want you to be, and I need you to accept me, the guy you married, for who I am.’”

Yes Cindy remains less than thrilled with his taste in wardrobe (though Randy puts on the suit and tie when necessary) and respects his dislike of parties (though he attends when it’s something important to her). But she doesn’t try to change the essence of who he is. Laughing, Cindy ends with, “We’re both perfectly imperfect the way we are!”

3. Make your partner feel special

“Unless I have a 103 fever I will go the extra mile for Jeff, as he does for me,” explains Dorothy, married nearly 60 years.

Going the extra mile, according to Dorothy, means doing special things for the most important person in her life each and every day. For example? “I bring him coffee and a croissant in bed every morning. It’s a tradition he so appreciates.” In turn, Jeff tells his wife every day how lucky he is to be with her. If she wants water or soda he won’t say, “Go get it” Rather, even when it’s inconvenient he will leap up to do something nice for his wife.

A major dictum for couples who’ve made it 50 years and beyond: Ask not what you can do for me, but what I can do for you.

4. Don't forget what fun feels like

Lois and Bob recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. The motto of this couple, respectively 93 and 92 years old, is “Enjoy each other and enjoy every day.”

That translates into not only partaking in leisure activities — i.e., going on cruises and socializing with neighbors — but in finding causes to work on together. Bob proclaims, “We’re active in community groups.”

Studies have shown that the happiest couples try new things together on a regular basis — be it taking wine tasting classes, attempting challenging puzzles, etc. Doing activities together recreates the chemical surges of early courtship.

Even in their 90s Lois and Bob are not resting on their laurels. They are constantly reinventing their ongoing love affair.