Long-lasting relationships lack secrets

On Oct. 15, 2010, I met my parents for dinner at a local Italian restaurant to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary. While 33 years of marriage is certainly a milestone worth celebrating, my parents have taken to downplaying the significance the number of years plays. So it came as no surprise that instead of lavish gifts or a big party, they were content with a quiet dinner in a familiar restaurant.

As I listened to them talk about their wedding day and honeymoon 33 years ago, one thought crept into my mind. How have my parents managed to defy statistics and remained married, happily for the most part, for better than three decades? The more they talked about that special day in 1977, the more I wondered if there was some secret they knew or some special set of circumstances that allowed them to prevail in the face of overwhelming odds.

When my parents got married, Jimmy Carter was struggling through his first rocky year in office, we were still fighting the communist scourge and the price of gasoline was slowly, and not so quietly, rising. The year my parents were married, 1977, Elvis Presley died, unemployment was at 6.8 percent and the new Atari 2600 game system was released. The economic situation today looks very similar to the 1970s, with a few variations. Then, my mom explained, no one expected to have a job waiting for them when they got out of high school. Now, no one expects to have a job waiting when they graduate college. My dad was 25 and my mom was 20, young by today’s standards. Mom was still in college studying to be a teacher and dad was on unemployment from working construction. They picked Oct. 15 because it was Columbus Day weekend and gave them a long weekend before mom had to go back to school.

On Oct. 15, 1977, my parents were married in a small, but respectable, Catholic church in the tiny town of Mexico, N.Y. My dad’s brown velvet tuxedo did not complement my mom’s traditional white dress. The day started in sunshine, but, as morning gave way to afternoon, a steady drizzle turned to a downpour. The sky cleared just long enough for pictures after the ceremony. The reception was at a local banquet hall that had once been a grain warehouse. When Mr. and Mrs. Russell Sturtz left the on their honeymoon, the celebrations were still going strong, in no small part to Mr. Sturtz’s rowdy friends. It started snowing on the drive to Old Forge, a pleasant Adirondack hideaway during the summer months, and turned into a blizzard when they got to the motel. The clerk gave them a space heater to warm the room while they went to dinner. The bill for the two prime rib dinners came to $80, roughly what my dad made in a week on unemployment. Adjusted for inflation, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $300. The rest of the honeymoon is left to the imagination.

All of my parents reminiscing hadn’t answered my question about how they stayed together for 33 years, so at the risk of being rude I asked my parents bluntly. After a pause, they both agreed that the in-ground pool they bought 20 years ago was a divorce killer. It was so expensive that if they divorced, neither would have been able to make the payments. That one joke, that one nugget of wisdom was all I could get. It was as if they really didn’t know the answer themselves. I had heard my mother and father say many times that my brother and I were what kept them going, as many kids have heard their parents tell them. But without an answer and with my curiosity still unchecked, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe my parents just went to sleep in the ‘70s and woke up in the twenty-first century together.

Maybe there isn’t an answer to how to keep a marriage together. Maybe the casual way my parents handle the whole situation has something to do with their success story. It is almost as if they always knew they would be together forever. Still, there must be more than that.