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The care and feeding of a marriage

Published September 11. 2010 09:00AM

As I pull the weeds from my new landscaping, I find myself thinking that marriage is a lot like gardening.

A gardener chooses the best plants, puts in a good foundation and carefully does everything right to create a beautiful garden.

But no matter how beautiful the landscaping is, weeds will overtake and ruin a garden unless you work to keep them out.

I often think the care and feeding of a marriage requires the same diligence. A truly blissful marriage doesn't run on autopilot. It takes a conscious effort to keep a marriage strong.

So how can a couple keep the weeds from overtaking a relationship?

I asked that question of several couples married for 50 years. While staying married that long is an accomplishment, staying HAPPILY married is a much greater feat and these couples have managed to do exactly that.

When one watches my friends Joyce and Don Rebholz, it's easy to mistake them for newlyweds. As they dance a Bolero in beautiful harmony, Joyce looks deeply into his eyes and smiles.

Laughter bubbles from the couple as easily as newly opened champagne. Dancing is just one way they keep the fun in their marriage.

"We make it a point to go dancing at least two or three times a week," says Joyce, who frequently organizes friends for dinner and dancing. The laughter coming from their table attests to their ability to have a good time.

Married for 54 years, they met at a Bethlehem dance when Don was 30 and Joyce was 26.

The Deep Creek man says he knew "after about 20 minutes" that the smart schoolteacher had all the qualities he was looking for in a wife. Joyce found Don appealing "because he was grounded and knew where he was going in life."

When they got married, there was never any doubt that they would be "married for keeps," Don says. "Not for one minute would either of us consider otherwise."

When they get mad at each other, they "do nothing," Joyce says. "We just wait until we cool off."

But it's the fun they pack into their lives that keeps the marriage strong. Both have a passion for travel and cruises, logging 635 days at sea. They continue to have fun taking ballroom dance lessons and after 53 years, they are still always ready for their next adventure.

My friends Skip and Ruth Rasmussen will celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in March. From the time they were married, they have always done everything together, including running several businesses.

After they sold their business, they enjoyed long trips on their sailboat and motorboat. Now, they bike together and paddle smoothly together in their tandem kayak.

Some couples that spend a lot of time together end up bickering and arguing. Not so with Skip and Ruth. Harmony and happiness are twin residents in their home.

When I asked Ruth why she thinks they have such a good marriage, she said "It's because I always do what he wants."

If Skip doesn't want to do something Ruth is set on doing, she doesn't pout. She just accepts it.

Skip is fast to credit easygoing Ruth with the success of their marriage. "What makes it work? The fact that she has a short memory," he says. "When I do something wrong, she forgets it in a hurry."

Plus, the marriage thrives because they share the same values, Skip adds.

Relationship experts say that how a couple fights is as important as how they love. Ruth and Skip know that not holding grudges and quickly forgetting transgressions bodes well for a happy marriage.

Experts also tell us that a good marriage involves a 50 - 50 give and take.

Not so, say the happily married couples I interviewed.

"At best, it's a 60 -40 split. He calls the shots," Joyce says of her husband.

"Skip always calls the shots," says Ruth. Then, a wide smile breaks on her face as she says as an aside: "That's only because I let him."

These two couples weren't the only ones I interviewed on the subject of marriage. But because of space issues, I had to only focus on two couples.

"So, what did you learn from talking with everyone?" asked Joyce. "What did we all have in common?"

One thing the couples shared is a strong sense of knowing what is important and what isn't. "The older we get, the less we stress about small stuff," said Jan Johannessen. "And it's true when they say, it's all small stuff."

Preserving a harmonious relationship was cited as being more important than "who's right and who's wrong." Judgmental words such as "blame" and "wrong" have no place in their vocabulary.

What impressed me was how gently these couples treat each other. After five decades of being married, they still are very protective of each other's feelings.

Another pattern that seems to run through each of the marriages is that they remain active and adventurous. Each couple has fun activities they enjoy doing together. One partner doesn't sit home while the other one goes adventure hunting.

All the couples agreed on the main requirement for making a marriage succeed: A lot of hard work.

They conclude that the care and feeding of a marriage is a lifelong commitment.

So now it's the reader's turn. Tell us what you do to keep your marriage strong.

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