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Valerie SchultzJuly 10, 2024
iStock photo/AleksandarNakic

It has come to my attention, after careful research, that my husband and I might be exhibiting all the signs of a condition we’ll call Long Marriage. Maybe you have it, too. Have you spotted the wrinkles and laugh lines, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the grace and troubles, the love and aggravation, the simplicity and complexity, of Long Marriage? If you’re an old married person, you may want to investigate further.

Some of the symptoms of Long Marriage include the following:

You measure the length of your marriage in decades, using inexact figures like “going on 30 years” or “just over 40 years” or “50 years in June.” You have trouble remembering particular years of your marriage because there have been so many of them, some admittedly better than others. You do recall the major events on your shared married timeline—births, baptisms, homes, jobs, vacations, graduations, illnesses, deaths—but the precise dates can be foggy. What year is it, again?

You find that young people think that, as a couple, you are adorable. If you show any kind of public display of affection, like holding hands while walking to your car or resting your head on your spouse’s shoulder, some young people will coo rapturously about how cute you two are. This is not because you are actually cute but because you are both so old. Not only are you both old, but you are doing a romantic thing that young people sometimes think is specific to them. Face it: To them you are quaint.

You acknowledge that you were not especially impacted by the imposed isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. As you are probably retired from your day jobs, being at home with just your spouse was not unusual for you. You spend a lot of time at home together, so you found that you were neither bored nor lonely when you were forced to stay put. You may have craved some time with the rest of your family, or really anyone else, but you were secure in the knowledge that if anything bad happened, you were not alone. Come to think of it, you enjoy the comfort of knowing there is another beating heart in the house even when you are not in the midst of a pandemic. Long Marriage is like your own small sanctuary.

You admit to a certain curiosity about today’s dating practices, but you cannot fathom ever going on a date with anyone besides your spouse. You hardly even remember being single: What was that like? Modern dating seems even more fraught than it did in the last century. You are grateful not to have to navigate this brave new world of dating apps, of posting profile photos or appearing interesting or swiping right or left, let alone meeting some prospective suitor online. You are happy that you never again have to worry about ordering an awkward-to-eat entrée on a first date. (Looking at you, spaghetti.)

You accept the loss of modesty that is a side effect of Long Marriage. You’ve seen each other naked, but more than that, you’ve seen each other’s most vulnerable times of sickness and failure, of doubt and desolation, of sorrow and grief. You have what they call history. You’ve seen each other through some physically and emotionally messy moments, from the blood and guts of childbirth to the inelegant aftereffects of a hip replacement.

The flip side to this loss of modesty is a deep and holy intimacy that can only be the product of many years on the same team. You know what sends your spouse, and vice versa. You can anticipate each other’s moods. You can communicate across a crowded room without words. You know each other’s likes and dislikes, your politics and principles, your triggers and indulgences, your values and foibles. You know each other inside out. Literally.

You and your spouse can’t help but note that cops and doctors and pastors look so young these days that they could be your children. Or your grandchildren (theoretically). Are they even old enough to have these jobs? You recall a distant time in your past when people in these professions were obviously older than you, which made them seem more trustworthy than these current wet-behind-the-ears authority figures. Then you calm down and understand that this is what old age feels like.

You appreciate that after all this time together, your families of origin have blended. You have a lot of relatives. You sometimes wonder: Exactly who is related to whom, and how do I know this person again? From the families into which you were each born, you’ve formed your own nuclear family, which by now has perhaps extended to your children’s spouses and their families, and so on and on until your Christmas gift list is gigantic. And which you count as a gigantic blessing. When they all visit, you run out of beds and clean towels and coffee cups, and you revel in the pure excess of it all. You love when they all come together and you love when they all leave because even though you are exhausted, you still have the pleasure of Long Marriage in the house.

You realize finally that if you find you are suffering from Long Marriage, you’re lucky. Long Marriage is a chronic condition, but it is also a rare gift. It is worthy of being called a vocation, a sacrament, a two-person witness to everything good and worthwhile and enduring. Long Marriage can be a little taste of heaven and a lesser inkling of hell, more roses than thorns, more love and joy and sacrifice than you thought possible, and more God than you will ever understand. If you have it, you’ll have to live with Long Marriage for the rest of your life. There is no cure.

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