Editor’s Note: Margaret is winding up her campaign, so we are running another of her favorite columns from 2004.

    Last week a rumor floated my way from a neighboring state that two of my oldest friends, a couple married for more than three decades, had separated.
    This couple saw each other through separate professional schools. They have wonderful children, three of whom they have shepherded through college and helped plant the seeds of productive adult lives. Together they have lived through the ordeals of childhood and the angst of teenage years, and together they have weathered the deaths of their parents. They have changed careers, both finding professional niches that seem to fit. They have lived together in the same house for many years, adding on and redecorating as family needs shifted. They remain active and responsible members of their community, and both are well known and well respected. Both are in their late 50s.{mosimage}
    I was astounded and saddened by the news, but it is hardly the first time I have heard such stories. Another recent one came from two high school classmates who married in a haze of romance during their junior year in college. As their second and last child finished up college, the wife got her own apartment. He was flabbergasted but has since “adjusted” and is moving on. Another high school friend was equally stunned when her husband of three decades announced one Saturday morning that he would not be coming back, and he has not been.
    My walking partner and I have discussed this circumstance over many miles of pavement in the early morning hours. She maintains that it occurs when two long-marrieds suddenly find themselves alone in the house in which they were so busy, so occupied, so intent on the day-to-day routine and frenzy of combining work and family life that they simply lost track of each other. By the time the last child leaves home for the real world, they no longer recognize each other. The handsome and ambitious young husband and father he once was and the lovely and devoted wife and mother she once was have become two middle-aged people who may no longer have much in common once their mutual “glue” — children — fades away.
    There in the stark silence of their once-bustling home they realize that the people they were have morphed into other people entirely. If they are lucky, these two new people like, maybe even come to love, each other. If they choose to, they can work together to build a new relationship within the context of their marriage, a relationship which can turn out to be even better than the original bonding so many years before. Or, they may just grit their teeth and stick it out, since that was the plan they agreed on so long ago. But if they are not so lucky or if the wounds inflicted over many years of being together cannot heal, they will go their separate ways.
    On Sunday mornings, I often read the newspaper announcements of couples who have been married for 30, 40, 50, even 60 years. These anniversaries are clearly important enough to the couples that they submit the occasion to the newspaper, often accompanied by then and now photographs, a slender young couple in dated fashions next to a couple of more robust and less hairy senior citizens. I salute and wonder about these couples, who are more the exception than the rule. How is it that their marriages survive when so many others do not?
    My own maternal grandparents were married for more than 50 years, and I cherish my grandmother’s gold wedding ring engraved inside, JGD to MRW 1911. But they were the exception for their day and in centuries before theirs. During most of human history death intervened more often than not when men labored long hours on farms and in factories and women gave birth to more babies than their bodies could really endure. I think the couples I read about in the newspaper now are the exception, too, not because today’s Americans are at high risk of premature death, but because we are not. They are exceptions because they have found their own unique ways to make the institution of marriage work for them over the long haul when over the vast sweep of human history, marriage has been relatively short because life has been relatively short.
    Several of my children’s friends have married in their early 20s, and I have looked at these beautiful young people filled with so much hope and so much promise and wondered whether they will still be together when they reach their statistical life expectancies in their 70s and 80s. I hope so, but I also know that as they work on their careers and building their families, they will also have to work on keeping up with each other.
    As for the rumor about my long time friends? At this point, it remains just that, a rumor, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it stays that way. They have invested a great deal in each other, and their children and friends are invested in them.
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