How to Stay Happily Married for Fifty Years

We threw a 50th anniversary party for my parents over the weekend. It was a great celebration of their marriage but, more importantly, it was a testimony to what happens when two people allow God to have control of their lives. That truly has been the foundation of what has made their marriage work.

Steve and Sally Johnson on their wedding day, June 8, 1963.

Steve and Sally Johnson on their wedding day, June 8, 1963.

I have found that there is a significant misnomer in the minds of people whose marriages are difficult. They assume that those who have satisfying, long-lasting marriages are able to pull it off because of some magical compatibility. Or that the couple was blessed to marry their "soul mate." Hogwash. My folks have built an amazing marriage not because they found the right person, but because they both choose daily to be the right person.

Leo Tolstoy said, "What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility." 

To that point, my mom and dad aren't magically compatible. He is a farm boy from Pecos, Texas. She is the daughter of two brilliant educators.

He is relatively introverted. She loves a good party.

He was raised Baptist. She was a Methodist.

He is a successful, sometimes workaholic civil engineer, prone to spending huge blocks of time "tinkering" in his barn or in his garden. She loves to entertain and travel.

There is very little in their backgrounds or natural interests that make them "right" for one another.  But still, everyone around them would agree that they are just that: right for one another.

When I have asked my mom over the years what has made their marriage work, she consistently brings up the same things. (I usually have these conversations with my mom because she is the talker. Dad is usually listening from across the room, head in a newspaper or sitting in front of the computer, chiming in with an occasional: "Yep!")

Mom and dad in the early years of their marriage. They were young, dumb, and completely in love, just like we all typically begin. But they have made it work for the long haul. 

Mom and dad in the early years of their marriage. They were young, dumb, and completely in love, just like we all typically begin. But they have made it work for the long haul. 

They display sacrificial love.

My mom explains that they have chosen to lay down their own wants and desires to daily meet each others' needs. This is something modeled by and commanded by Christ. It is something that few couples in troubled marriages are willing to do. In contrast, I know that there is nothing that my dad wouldn't do for my mom. Or that my mom wouldn't do for my dad. Their 50 years of marriage have been marked by a million daily acts of service and sacrifice. This has built a joy and a strength between them that the most significant trials cannot break.

They practice mutual submission. 

I heard my mom and dad tell the story last night of the time that my grandparents convinced my dad to let me and my brother take a Greyhound bus from Houston to their home in Muskogee, Oklahoma...at 8 and 10 years of age. My mom was against it (what mom wouldn't be?), but she submitted to her husband and we made the trip. While we could start a debate about who was the more responsible parent in this case, the important point is that my mom didn't dig in her heels and demand her way. There are literally thousands of examples when I have seen my mom and dad defer to the wishes and desires of the other. They live out Ephesians 5:21 as faithfully as anyone I know.

They give each other personal space.

My mom and dad are very different people with very different interests. Because she knows my dad needs time to tinker in his barn or his garden, my mom gives him that space without making him feel guilty. If my mom wants to take a road trip with some ladies, he encourages her to go. Too many married people take it personally if their spouses have interests apart from the relationship. If a husband loves to hunt, it is not in a wife's best interests to give him guilt and pain every time he wants to go. He will begin to resent her for it. Obviously, there's a place for balance in life (you don't need to hunt every single weekend of the season, fellas), but committing in marriage doesn't mean deleting everything else in life. In fact, my mom has stressed that one key to their marriage has been to not try to change each other.

This is the invitation to my folks' anniversary party. It is a great example how my dad loves my mom. He would never have the idea to take a picture on the beach in their 70's. But it was important to mom, so it was important to dad. Look at that smile on his face!

This is the invitation to my folks' anniversary party. It is a great example how my dad loves my mom. He would never have the idea to take a picture on the beach in their 70's. But it was important to mom, so it was important to dad. Look at that smile on his face!

They see retirement as an opportunity to minister.

My folks have been officially retired from work for close to ten years. But they have stayed busy doing things that matter in eternity. Dad has become a key leader in the Gideons (he probably put that Bible in your hotel room). Mom mentors young mothers. They both look for opportunities to serve widows. Dad helps out in the kitchen at church. They invest greatly into the lives of their grandchildren. The list goes on and on. The point is that their days are filled with purpose. My experience is that many people who fail to make marriage work long term are so caught up in building their own kingdoms that they don't have any time to build God's kingdom. This breeds selfishness which is never a good thing in marriage.

They truly enjoy one another.

For more than 40 years I have watched my mom and dad have fun with each other. This doesn't mean they never fight or are never cross, but just that they fight fast and resolve conflicts quickly. They forgive each other and get back to enjoying life together. I guess they figure that the relationship is worth too much to hold a grudge. Resentment would get in the way of their travel adventures, their daily routines, or the playful "grab" that I regularly see my dad give my mom in the kitchen. (That grossed me out as a teenager, but it makes me smile today.) I don't know how they have done it, but they have made a happy marriage look easy. 

Steve and Sally and 12 of their 13 descendants at Lindsey's wedding a year ago. Caleb (descendant #13) would arrive 9 months later.

Steve and Sally and 12 of their 13 descendants at Lindsey's wedding a year ago. Caleb (descendant #13) would arrive 9 months later.

At the 50 year milestone, they deserve honor.

I don't know many people who stay married for 50 years and who look so good doing it. A friend of my parents mentioned to me at the party that it was a refreshing change to get a 50th anniversary announcement (see above) where the couple of honor didn't look like old people. I agree. I hope and pray that Jenifer and I look that good 26 years from now when we hit that milestone.

Some 70+ year-olds are happy. Some have been married 50 years. But few people are both happy and married that long. Anyone who stays happily married for 50 years deserves all the honor we can give them. And we would be wise to watch what they do and apply it to our own marriages. There are things we can learn from them, but my folks insist that there are few magic formulas beyond doing things God's way with God's help. That's a lesson we can all apply to our lives.

Mom and Dad, if you're reading this, know that we love and value you more than our words and our parties could ever say. We are thankful for the legacy you have left us. There are three generations & thirteen lives (and counting) whose lives are rich because of your example. And just so you know, we want to be like you when we grow up.