For years, social scientists have been telling us that our relationships are the irrefutable number one source of our happiness, good health, longevity, life satisfaction, and success in so many ways. Certainly, among the most powerful of those relationships is the one we cultivate in a solid marriage.

Last summer, my husband and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary. I had planned for and anticipated the event with delight, but I was quite caught off guard by the depth of emotion I felt as the milestone moment approached.  I had attended several fiftieth wedding anniversary celebrations for people I thought seemed very, very old. The receptions were most commonly held in church gymnasiums. The wife was typically seated on a folding chair wearing a large orchid corsage, with her husband dressed up and seated at her side. I didn’t feel very old, and I couldn’t picture myself wearing an orchid corsage. The details of our celebration would be different, but the notability of the fifty years together would be comparably momentous and surprisingly precious. That exclamation point at the end of the fifty-year-long sentence we had composed together would offer a significant invitation to reflect, recall, refresh, and give thanks.

Any honest recollection, reflection, refreshing, and gratitude-giving relative to our decades together would have to begin and end with an emphatic declaration of the value and blessing of the gospel of Jesus Christ as a bedrock foundation for relationship building. The shared commitment, the promises, the solid principles, and the reliance on the Savior all inform and motivate the tenacity and sincerity that are essential for determined problem solving and steadfast stability. Even that high-minded and lasting foundation can’t guarantee that relationships will endure forever, given the authentic potential implications of poorly exercised personal agency, but it certainly adds significant heft and power to enable two committed people to joyfully go the distance. The proverbial “Sunday School answers” are still and forever right: pray, read the scriptures, be true to covenants, attend the temple, go to church. That still works.

On a more mundane level, other considerations and behaviors may also be helpful additions to consider for us all as we seek to keep in good repair and advance the quality of the relationships we hold dear.

Interestingly, William Ickes, a researcher who has conducted studies to determine how accurate people are at perceiving what other people are thinking, noted that the longer people are married, the less accurate they are at discerning each other’s thoughts and predicting each other’s behaviors. The time they have logged together actually gets in the way of their predictions. The spouses get stuck in the past with assumptions that what their partner thought or did early in the marriage, or last year, or even yesterday, was certainly what he or she would think or do today. They don’t automatically stay current with the changes and growth of the people they love.

In an attempt to reveal and combat that stuck-ness in a playful way, a group of old friends staged a “Not-So-Newlywed Game” for several long-married couples. On small white boards, the players wrote their answers to questions posed to them by a moderator. After each contestant had written his or her answer, they all turned their white boards around to compare their predictions with their partners’ answers. Each contestant typically felt pretty sure that they knew exactly what their partner would say, but they were much more often wrong than right. They had based their answers on assumptions or past data and were surprisingly unsuccessful with their predictions. The questions included simple things like:

  1. Your husband has a day off work and an empty house. How will he spend the day?
  2. Is your wife more like her mom or her dad?
  3. If your wife had to eat one food for the rest of her life, what would it be?
  4. Out of the two of you, who is the most decisive?
  5. Which one of you usually picks the restaurant?
  6. Which of you most often runs late? Why?
  7. Which household chore does your wife most dislike?
  8. Who is most likely to apologize first, you or your spouse?
  9. How long does it take each of you to get ready in the morning?
  10. What is your husband’s pet peeve?

Other playful activities together can also be illuminating and pure fun. Some couples have a tradition of reviewing the year every December, but the review is done with a twist. Each spouse writes a summary of the important events of the year from the perspective of the other. They write in the first person about the other’s challenges, triumphs, happy things, and sad ones. Each spouse then offers comments and adjustments to the impressions of their spouse as they are read aloud. Together they delight in the review even as they good-naturedly correct false assumptions and misunderstandings. They grow closer and more current as they update each other and share their different perspectives.

Another version of that activity involves one spouse telling the life story of the other as they recall or understand it over the course of life chapters. They share their memories of the other’s grade school years, high school years, college years, childhood family, best friends – whatever they think are highpoints, low points, or turning points in the life of the other. The listening spouse is allowed to make liberal corrections and offer amused laughter.

Like many parents, when our children were small, we sat at their bedsides at the end of each day to tuck them in. The children always asked that we tell them all the things they had done that day. I think they were testing our interest in and knowledge of the activities of their day (as well as stalling lights out). Couples might do the same thing as they reviewed for and with each other the things their partner had done during the day as they knew and understood them. They might be surprised to find that they knew less than they assumed they did. The playful conversation can prompt sharing, understanding, clarification, and problem solving. Everyone likes to share their stories and be known, valued, and understood.

Very often, wives are most moved by expressions of appreciation, while husbands are more often validated by expressions of approval and respect. A family tells the story of the first Thanksgiving a new son-in-law spent around their holiday table. That newcomer had grown up in a home that didn’t invest significant time in Thanksgiving feasting. As a result of his personal experience, he was quite overwhelmed by the effort and energy his new mother-in-law had committed to the celebration. As an expression of gratitude, he pulled a large bill out of his wallet after the pumpkin pie and offered it to his mother-in-law as payment for her efforts. Rather than be grateful for his gesture, the mother-in-law was embarrassed and offended. She felt that no financial contribution could adequately compensate her for the effort she had made in love. From her point of view, that gesture even cheapened her offering. The payment that would have spoken to her was his enthusiastic appreciation. That eager son-in-law had learned a lasting lesson about his new mother-in-law and her needs and preferences. The husband and all the others took note and redoubled their efforts to express often and with enthusiasm their appreciation for their wife and mom.

Joyful, cooperative, lasting and loving marriage always requires staying current and making accommodations. Each season warrants its own adjustments and strategies to assure that husbands and wives are staying up to date in their understanding of each other and unified in the direction they are headed together.  Inevitable periodic small and large changes in the music, the tempo, the location, and the details of the dance they are choreographing together necessitate flexibility and grace by them both. Life chapters like births of babies, family moves, empty nests, health challenges, new callings, and new jobs all require adjusted choreography to assist each other with new steps and to avoid stepping on toes. Each one supports and is supported by the other in the dance they do together.

As I have been watching the dramatic construction project unfolding on the Salt Lake Temple, I have admired the synergistic interdependence of the scaffolding and the structure. The scaffolding is essential for the forward motion of the construction on the temple, and the temple is essential for the usefulness of the scaffolding. Both depend on the other to satisfy the job to be done. In marriage, both partners are scaffolding and temple simultaneously and alternately. Ideally, they both serve as support, and they are both supported. In a solid and balanced marriage, neither is the wife only the support for the husband nor the husband only the support for the wife. Both take their turns graciously and gracefully providing and receiving support for the mutual benefit and blessing of their unity and oneness.

Thankfully, I am not exactly the same person I was when I married fifty years ago. Neither is my husband. I didn’t wear a corsage on our big anniversary last summer, but I did sit beside him to enthusiastically celebrate the time we had spent together. We nostalgically reflected both on how we had each changed as well as how we had each stayed astonishingly the same.

As we deliberately strategize earnest efforts to stay current with each other’s growth and changes, the structure of our marriages can remain and become ever more satisfying and beautiful. When we celebrate our partner’s internal and external life and share our own, the synergy between us grows. The knowing promotes the growing.