Is there a secret to a long, successful marriage?
We set out to find answers from a range of local people with expertise — either as professionals or practitioners, like David and Irene Sipos.
After 45 years of marriage, said David Sipos, one thing you do realize is that nothing is forever….and that can reframe your outlook.
“I’m more aware of the fragility of our time together,” said David, 73. “We are both lucky that we’re still here; I appreciate every minute of every day.”
Marriage and family therapist René Jones of the Couples Counseling Center cites this type of appreciation as critical.
“Happier marriages are couples who, every day, choose to put effort into their relationship,” said Jones. “Doing at least one thing a day to make the relationship better stops it from becoming an afterthought.”
Pastor Tom Yorty of Westminster Presbyterian Church uses a theological description, “covenant,” for the ideal approach to a long-term relationship.
“When each person begins to surrender and sacrifice for this covenant, and that becomes reciprocal, that gives life to the relationship. Each person is giving themselves up for something bigger,” said Yorty.
David and Irene Sipos said that their relationship grew when they decided to stick with it. “We committed to the idea of wanting to be married,” said Irene Sipos. “It takes practice, flexibility, balance. Having kids sustained us; the idea of being a family and having that experience.”
Irene added that in their 50-plus years of knowing each other, they’ve been through all the phases.
“I was 18 when I met Dave. We had (and still have) shared values, and we’re both attracted to the creative parts of life — earlier on, we were not great at practical things and financial decisions,” she said. “Someone once aptly said that we’ve raised each other.”
“It takes love, luck and work,” added David. “We had turmoil early on. And once we committed ourselves, made a decision to be together….that’s where luck came in; one of us could have said, ‘maybe not.’”
Giving without expectation
Nadia Shahram, an attorney who specializes in marriage mediation, said successful partnerships come down to commitment, expectations and sacrifice.
“If your spouse does something nice, even like making coffee, appreciate it, reciprocate,” she said. “It’s not ‘strictly business,’ where you might give one for one. Give two. The next time you may get two…or none. It’s like growing seeds — you must tend it every day, whether you see the sprout or not.”
The notion of expectations, and conversely not expecting that they will always be met, seems to be another key.
“Each person may give their partner or mate the things that they expect and want — respect, comfort, affirmation, a place to be vulnerable,” agreed Pastor Yorty. “And that typically comes back the other way. Yet you can’t necessarily expect to get those things. It shouldn’t be quid pro quo.”
People also need to try to listen and accept, said Jones.
“In marriage, people sometimes think the other person should magically know what to say or do,” she said. “We have to say what we need. If it’s comfort from a partner, or ten minutes alone, say it. And instead of reacting defensively, for example, by thinking that a partner who needs ten minutes is pushing the other away, try to understand the other’s perspective.”
Communication is key
Communication is also an obvious issue. Like many partners, Irene and David Sipos have different styles. “We have the classic man/woman thing,” said Irene. “I want to talk about something; Dave wants to fix it. That has been an issue.”
Asked separately, David agrees. “I’m a terrible listener, and I love making things okay immediately. Irene is the opposite,” he said. “So that’s where the work comes in; working on getting along with each other — and also working to make myself easier to get along with.”
Irene said that through good times and challenging ones — raising their two children, financial difficulties, the death of their parents — they’ve shared a willingness to confront the issues. “We’ve seen friends lose spouses, and people separate just because they didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We appreciate and respect our relationship’s longevity — it’s a new level that you want to take care of. Our kids have moved back to Buffalo, and we have a grandchild; those are sustaining and positive aspects.”
Fostering physical connection
Jones said many couples also have issues with physical intimacy, noting that passion and love aren’t always the best bedfellows. Paraphrasing author and therapist Esther Perel, Jones said, “‘Passion’ (mystery, excitement, spontaneity) and ‘love’ (safety, security, predictability) can be contradictory. Couples need the understanding that marriage is a lifelong job; things don’t get easier with time, they can often become more challenging.”
Attorney/mediator Shahram notes that there is less taboo today about seeking help for stressed relationships, even if it’s about sex. Part of her new-client intake is asking if they’ve had counseling; if so, how many times, and what happened.
She believes that showing emotion and physical affection can help keep the relationship alive.
“When people get into their own habits and activities, they can pull away from each other,” said Shahram. “They stop trying. When they get home from work, they don’t touch or hug. Over the years, married people can start living like roommates; they may feel they’re tired of each other.”
Openness to change
When Jones sees people in a troubled marriage, she reminds them that people change over time.
“People are often viewing the other’s past self. If a couple says they love each other and want to stay together, we first find something positive to build upon,” she said. “I help them learn to meet each other’s needs without acquiescing their own. This is work, not a magic wand. I remind them that they didn’t get here overnight, and they’re not going to get a great relationship overnight.”
Irene Sipos described it as a choice, and said she and David always chose to work it out with each other.
“We’ve got our shared experiences, even the difficult ones. And we know each other so well. Having somebody who was there when both babies were born, it’s an indescribably deep love. I wouldn’t want to break that.”
David also chalks up their longevity to a sense of humor…and a gratitude for life.
“If I feel healthy when I wake up in the morning, then everything is good — we have each other and the kids; any other problems can be worked out. Miraculously, they have.”
Shake up your date night this winter
Whether you and your boo have a standing date night or you’ve resolved to do something nice for your relationship, there are plenty of couples activities around no matter what your tastes — or taste for adventure — are.
Daytime might find you packing a picnic and heading for Chestnut Ridge for a bracing hike. Prefer something indoors? Choose a matinee at one of WNY’s historic movie theaters (The North Park, The Palace, the Aurora Theatre), or enjoy a play on stage at one of Buffalo’s dozen-plus theaters.
Homebodies who enjoy cooking and a nice glass of something? Make a production out of your date night — plan and shop for a menu together; visit a specialty wine or spirits shop for some recommendations, and woo each other through the senses.
Out-of-practice party people? Hit a few city hotspots for happy hour or dinner — Marble + Rye’s bar program is justifiably lauded, Bacchus is tried and true, Dapper Goose is going strong into its second year, and 100 Acres at Hotel Henry is consistently bringing the “wow.” Follow that up with some live music — our region has a wide range of options, from Nietzsche’s to the 9th Ward to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
No matter what activity you choose, remember what experts and actual people agree: choosing to do something good for the relationship each day helps keep it going strong!