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Clarke Thomas: Going for the gold

What makes a marriage last? After 50 years, I am willing to venture a few thoughts

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

When Jean and I were married in 1952, golden anniversaries were the expected thing, unless death intervened.

   Clarke Thomas is a Post-Gazette senior editor ( clt34@pitt.edu ). 

But in the years since, the tide of broken marriages has risen to the point that such a lifelong commitment has become unusual. I recall an article in which six couples at a dinner table realized, in the words of one: "Yes, we are a rare gathering, because we're all in our first marriage, and most of us have been married for a very long time. Fifteen years minimum, wouldn't you say?"

When I mentioned the upcoming anniversary to my primary physician, she asked, "What are the reasons?"

I told her I had thought of writing on that subject but felt it might seem immodest. She shook her head, saying that, to the contrary, there is so much news about separations and divorces, that a "good news" piece on the subject might be welcome. So here goes.

There are the customary reasons for lasting marriages. Choosing the right person in the first place. Giving permission for growth and change. Sexual compatibility. Ability to agree on how to rear children. Agreement on financial principles.

I'll dwell just a moment on the last item. From the start, Jean and I agreed on setting aside 10 percent of our net income for a division among church, charities and arts organizations. And we realized we couldn't have everything. Because we both wanted to travel, the offset was remaining a one-car, economy-model family. The point is that agreement on these basics has made easier other decisions on spending.

But, beyond the above, we have come to believe in the importance of rituals in marriage. Let me describe two that we have developed.

Jean and I first became really acquainted at a restaurant in Hutchinson, Kan., on Feb. 25, 1951. I learned that evening that Jean, a fine arts major, had made two A's in economics from one of the toughest professors at the University of Kansas, which we attended at different times. From my experience in making an A from that same professor, I was immediately impressed. Our common interests in music and a variety of other subjects also surfaced, and our dating began.

A month later I gave Jean a book of poetry, thus starting a ritual of doing something special on the 25th of each month. Usually, that means eating out. The ground rules are no talking about finances or points of disagreement. Instead, the evening is to be devoted to the romance of our lives together.

It's no coincidence, then, that we became engaged on Feb. 25, 1952, and were married Aug. 25, 1952, in her Starkville, Miss., hometown. Our "25ths" have proved to be a powerful bonding influence in our half-century together.

When we had children, we evolved another ritual around that special time for children -- birthdays. At some point, cycled in with the birthday cake and the presents, we have a "what I like best about you" time of compliments for the birthday honoree. No wisecracks, criticisms or "advice" allowed -- only genuine compliments from the heart from each person present, from the youngest to the oldest.

You would be surprised at how meaningful that ritual has become in our family. In fact, the family still laughs how at one of my birthday dinners I became disgruntled as the evening wore on, beginning to think the family had forgotten that part of birthday observances.

Obviously, no ritual will do for every family. Perhaps these can give some ideas for others to develop their own. Rituals have to come out of the experience of living together. But just like Thanksgiving and Christmas times for the family, rituals special to a couple or to a family can have an undergirding importance.

Finally, perhaps in this era more than any other, one must not take one's marriage for granted. I will close with a few lines of poetry that I quoted in a letter to Jean on our wedding day 50 years ago. They come from a W.B. Yeats poem, "The Two Kings":

What can they know of love that do not know

She builds her nest upon a narrow ledge

Above a windy precipice?

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