Jean and Jody Keyser of Rockville have been married happily for 32 years, winning against the odds of young marriages ending in divorce. Married at ages 18 and 22, respectively, they have two children and three grandchildren.
“We were lucky in that we grew up together,” Mrs. Keyser says.
The couple also learned how to deal with each other. “We have different ways of blowing off steam,” she says. “I was a yeller and a thrower, and he thought the marriage was over the first time I yelled.”
Mr. Keyser says, “I didnt realize you could fight and when its all over still love each other.” He was an only child who never heard his parents argue; his wife was one of five children in an Italian family where emotions were out in the open.
“Part of a relationship is learning the reality of where the other person is coming from,” he says.
Their differences have withstood the test of time. Unfortunately, almost 50 percent of marriages today will end in divorce, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. This is a troubling statistic in terms of the costs to both individuals and society as a whole.
What are some of the common elements in a long-term marriage? What challenges must couples deal with in marriage? Researchers say there are emotional, behavioral and physiological predictors of long-term marriages, such as communication ability, conflict-management skills, attitude, expectations and beliefs.
Like most married couples, the Keysers have experienced challenges in their marriage.
“The first 10 years, its kind of a sparring match,” Mr. Keyser says with a laugh. Couples are trying to find out what is important. There was a period when his work required networking and socializing in the evenings, which created problems in the marriage, Mrs. Keyser says. She went back to work part-time “so he would have to take care of the kids and see what that was like,” she says.
Mr. Keyser emphasizes that its important to understand what each person has to deal with on a daily basis. Both also agree its important to talk to each other and listen.
“We are still learning that,” he says. “Never take what you have for granted.”
Friends for life
Throughout all the ups and downs of their marriage, the Keysers say, they have remained friends. And that friendship is one of the common elements of a successful long-term marriage, researchers say.
Robert Levenson, a psychologist, therapist and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied long-term first marriages in middle-age and older couples for the past 11 years. Half of the 156 couples in the study were in their 40s and married at least 15 years. The other half were in their 60s and married at least 35 years. The research shows that the quality of friendship is a big factor in a successful marriage.
“Many of these couples see each other as their best friend,” he says. “They celebrate each other.”
After 54 years of marriage, Margarette and Clarence Cooper of Alexandria are still best friends. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary by renewing their vows and having a big church wedding.
“I didnt have a big wedding, and so for my 50th anniversary, I got married in my granddaughters wedding gown,” Mrs. Cooper says. The couple had the same best man and maid of honor and invited several hundred guests to a reception at the Lyceum in Old Town.
The Coopers were married on Christmas Eve 1946, six years after they met at a school dance when they were both seniors.
Louise and Joe Fisher of Rockville have been married 35 years and met while attending Montgomery College.
“We were friends for quite a while before we started dating,” Mrs. Fisher says. “Sometimes I think it helps to be good friends because there are no surprises.”
As couples become friends, their friendship leads to another theme in long-term marriages — mutual respect.
“Theres a remarkable power in that,” Mr. Levenson says. “If you dont respect your partner, over the years its emotionally explosive. Contempt is always a sign of trouble.”
An unexpected theme that surprised the researchers of long-term marriages was that the “men in these relationships prize their wives,” Mr. Levenson says. “That relieves the wife of some of the insecurities that can undermine women in marriages. These are men who feel they won the lottery.”
This is clearly the case in the Keysers marriage.
“I saw Jean for the first time, and the bells went off. I can still see her in that yellow dress. I was one of the lucky ones; I knew this is the one I wanted,” Mr. Keyser says, smiling at his wife.
Scott M. Stanley, a marriage researcher at the University of Denver, says there is some new research that finds “something pretty powerful in the male side of the equation when it comes to commitment differences. How the males understand and think about commitment has a lot to do with how the marriage is going to go. If a male perceives the woman and the relationship are special in the context of a long-term view, he is most likely to sacrifice for the female.”
A sense of having been tested over time was another theme that Mr. Levensons research uncovered with couples married for a long time.
“All of them have been tested as a couple and have worked their way through it. That is really important in late life when you start coming up against the decline that comes with age,” he explains.
The Fishers have had several tests in their marriage. When they were first married, he worked full time and finished college at night.
“I used to go to work at 5 or 6 in the morning and get home at 11 at night,” he says.
Another hurdle was his Navy Reserve duty, which took time away from the family.
“In our early years, I didnt want him to do the reserves. He really didnt want to give it up. I had to come around to it,” Mrs. Fisher says.
Another difficult time was when their son Fred was born. He was very sick and had to undergo two operations.
“We turn to each other for the strength we need,” Mrs. Fisher says.
Mr. Fisher adds, “I have never felt that I didnt come first with Louise. I think thats extremely important — feeling that you are No. 1 in the eyes of your spouse.”
The Fishers also say their faith has cemented their relationship and helped them get through the difficult times.
For the Keysers, one stressor came in 1991, when Mr. Keyser lost his job after 25 years as senior vice president for computer systems at Madison National Bank.
“That whole summer, he was so angry. It was kind of scary. I really wasnt sure what to do. We had two kids in college. We were charging groceries just to stay afloat,” Mrs. Keyser recalls.
Mr. Keyser says, “I have to say the reason I pulled it off was my partner… . She was very supportive. She got over her anger and worked with me on getting over my anger.”
The Keysers did an evaluation — they had two wonderful children, a home, friends and a set of skills. In retrospect, Mr. Keyser says he believes losing his job was a good thing as it gave him an opportunity to start his own consulting business.
Accentuate the positive
Mr. Keyser says part of what has helped him get through difficult times is putting a positive spin where there are negatives.
“So often we focus on what is negative and forget about the things that are good,” he says.
Mr. Stanley concurs.
“The question is how well (couples) preserve the positive side of the relationship and how well they are able to manage the negative side. One of the things that people do in the heat of an argument — they tend to say the nastiest things. The things they choose to say to win that immediate battle are things they learned at other times they were intimate. They take that and make it into a weapon.”
He explains that this kind of negative behavior can wipe out a lot of the positives, so its important for couples to manage the negatives.
“Finding a way to protect the positive side of the relationship and stay in touch with what they like about each other,” Mr. Stanley says. “Marriages are like the stock market and do best when you realize there will be ups and downs and you keep investing in the relationship.”
Claudia and David Arp have been married for 38 years and in the past 25 years have written more than 20 books together on the topic of marriage. They faced an empty nest in 1990 when the youngest of their three sons went to college.
“Things change, and have to reinvent their relationship,” Mrs. Arp says.
Authors of “The Second Half of Marriage” and “Fighting for Your Empty-Nest Marriage,” the Arps talk about their own experiences and what prompted them to write these books.
“So many times when that last child leaves home, they have been so child- and career-focused, they dont know each other,” Mrs. Arp explains. This occurred in her own marriage when she and her husband got too busy, accepted too many speaking engagements and signed too many book contracts.
“We were sitting at the breakfast table staring at each other, and we were both more tired than when we had three children at home. We headed up to New England and took a whole week for a marriage checkup to evaluate our marriage and look at the second half and where we want to go,” Mrs. Arp says.
The couple listed their strengths and things they needed to work on. Out of that experience came “The Second Half of Marriage,” which identifies eight challenges for that part of a relationship. They include:
* Letting go of past marital disappointment, forgiving each other and recommitting to the relationship.
* Creating a marriage that is partner-focused rather than child-focused. Refocusing and figuring out what you want to do as a couple.
* Maintaining an effective communication system. Expressing your deepest feelings. Taking a marriage education course.
* Making an anger contract. Agreeing not to attack each other or to defend yourself. Telling your partner when you are getting angry and asking for help.
* Building a deeper friendship and enjoying your spouse.
* Putting more fun into your relationship through dating. Setting aside one night every week and calling it a date. Renewing romance and restoring a pleasurable intimate relationship.
* Adjusting to changing roles with aging parents and adult children. Making the marriage the anchor, whatever the problems may be.
* Evaluating your spiritual pilgrimage. Growing closer to God.
“Today, we know the skills to change that bad marriage into a good marriage,” Mrs. Arp says. “Theres a lot of help out there for couples who want to do well. We have to get away from the idea that if you have a bad marriage, the only answer is divorce. We can learn these skills. We can learn new habit patterns.”
Mr. Arp concludes: “We have a good marriage but have had to work hard on our marriage.”