Lifetime Love: Advice from Couples Who Made Marriage Last

Greg and Erin Smalley
FOTF/Cary Bates

Charles and Sara Rippey met in grammar school: Charles was in sixth grade, Sara was in fourth. For the next 89 years, they went together like cookies and milk. They were married in 1942 — more than 75 years ago — and had five children. Other than when Charles fought in World War II, Charles and Sara were rarely apart — even in death. From KTLA:

[Their son] Mike Rippey said he believes his father died trying to save his mother [during a California wildfire Oct. 9]. Charles Rippey's body was found in the charred remains of the hallway just outside where his wife was sleeping. "From where they found his body, he was trying to get from his room to her room," he said. "He never made it. Even if he had gotten there, he wouldn't have been able to get her out. ... And there is no way he would have left."

This story touched me deeply. Yes, it was tragic, but beautiful, too. As a husband, I want to end well like Charles did — committed to my wife.

I certainly don't know the intricacies of the Rippeys' marriage or their relationship with Christ, but I appreciate the example they set. I want to grow old with my wife, Erin, and celebrate our 75th wedding anniversary with our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. I want to pursue my wife till the very end. I want to treasure Erin until God calls one of us home.

We can all learn something from couples like the Rippeys. We'd be wise to listen to those who have been married for a long time. They have important lessons to teach us.

Dr. Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell University. He and his team interviewed more than 700 Americans, ranging in age from 63 to 108, about their views on love. This research was part of The Legacy Project. Married for an average of 43 years, these couples weighed in on everything from how to find the right person to what keeps the spark of love alive. Pillemer published participants' answers in the book 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the wisest Americans on love, relationships and marriage.

I can't list all 30 lessons, but I can offer the following insights from Pillemer's study, along with a few thoughts of my own.


Pillemer's couples mentioned this more than anything else: You must learn how to communicate with each other. The word communication can describe several important types of talks that couples should have regularly.

First, we engage in small talk — shooting the breeze, sharing facts and relaying our daily experiences. This creates a connection without deep, emotional vulnerability. We also "administrate" our marriage — have mini business meetings to discuss our daily schedules, to-do lists and budget. These talks keep our marriage running smoothly. Third, we need to work through arguments that inevitably arise — conflict management. Successfully managing disagreements keeps small problems from becoming bigger issues in our marriage.

These first three types of conversations usually dominate our communication. They happen pretty naturally. But your marriage won't survive long term if these are the only conversations you have together. You also need to create "life giving" discussions where you talk about your spouse's inner life — their feelings, fears, needs and dreams. This type of communication will keep you current with what's happening in your spouse's heart. It gives life to your marriage.


The apostle Paul made it clear that "those who marry will have worldly troubles" (1 Corinthians 7:28). Rough patches are part of every couple's journey together, but inevitable turbulence isn't a reason to jump out of the plane. Couples in long-lasting marriages adopt a lifelong commitment mindset. Divorce isn't even an option.


I believe that humor is vital to the long-term success of a marriage — even if it sometimes feels as if your spouse's humor might shorten your lifespan.

For example, the other day my alarm went off at 5 a.m. as usual. I pulled myself out of bed and staggered toward the bathroom — not turning on any lights, of course, for fear of waking Erin. I closed the door to the pitch-black room and then ...


Someone — something — screamed right in front of me.


I was so startled I screamed back — probably the only thing that kept me from passing out from fright.

I couldn't imagine what sinister creature was lurking in our master bathroom … until I heard Erin's familiar laugh. She had gotten up a few minutes earlier to use the bathroom and, when she heard my alarm go off, she decided to wait for me to come in.

I almost died from fright. But even so, there's something incredibly attractive about Erin when she makes that effort to be playful. Humor gives a marriage a sense of safety and togetherness. When marriages hit difficult seasons, humor can keep us connected.

(But be sure you know your spouse well — and any potential heart conditions he or she may have — before you scare him or her as a joke.)


Couples in Pillemer's study often offered a similar summation of their relationships: "We're best friends." Take Leslie and Allan Slan, who'd been married 47 years at the time of the study: "If I have a problem he's the first person I'd turn to, and vice versa," says Leslie. "I think it's important for couples to really nurture that friendship. That's what keeps you together over the years."

I've told Erin that instead of telling me that she loves me, I'd much rather hear her say that she likes me. I want to know that I'm one of Erin's best friends. But to create that sort of relationship requires time together. It's so important for couples to develop friendship rituals: having a regular date night, exercising together, or finding a hobby or TV show that you both enjoy.

Canada's National Bureau of Economic Research compiled data in 2014 from several surveys and found that not only are married people happier than singles, but those who married their best friends also boasted the highest rates of happiness. The research summary states, "well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend."

Conflict resolution

It might seem counterintuitive, but your marriage needs conflict to flourish. Healthy conflict is the doorway into the deepest levels of intimacy and connection in your relationship. You have the opportunity to use conflict — those times when you're hurt, annoyed, frustrated, wounded, confused, angry and discouraged with each other — to grow closer together.

Couples in long-lasting marriages learn how to face their differences and work through their disagreements and hurt. They don't allow unresolved conflict to cause long-term resentment and a hardened heart. A hard heart is the kiss of death to a marriage: Your marriage will not last if you are unable or unwilling to work through those difficult issues.

I really like how marriage expert Dr. John Gottman puts it in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail:

If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of research it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple's ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim "we never fight" is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That's how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of several books.

Did you know couples are 30 percent less likely to get a divorce if they get some sort of premarital training? If you or someone you know is planning to marry, check out Focus on the Family's Ready to Wed curriculum, and then prepare for a marriage you'll love!

© 2017 Focus on the Family.

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