real life

JANE CARO: The secret to a long-lasting relationship.

“They gave each other room to be themselves – good, bad or indifferent on occasions – and room to grow.”

Two out of three marriages (and partnerships) still last until death does them part.

What is good about this is that these relationships survive because the people in them freely choose to stay. Contrary to much of the tut-tutting we hear about the woeful state of Australian marriages today, I think the (relative) ease with which people can escape a bad marriage has only strengthened our society. There is nothing good about compulsory partnerships; nothing worth celebrating about two people miserably yoked together because of legal impediments (as was true until the 1970s and the introduction of no-fault divorce), social stigma or financial dependency.

I don’t know if domestic violence has become worse recently or whether we have simply decided to pay long overdue attention to the abuse some women suffer at home. But if it has become worse it may be because women are now much more able to escape destructive relationships. We know that women are most at risk of death when they leave their violent partners. Almost two women a week are currently dying in the hands of men who claim to love them. That’s perhaps why it is really important to know what a good relationship looks like.

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Caro interviewed five very different (and very in love) couples for ABC Compass’ For Better, For Worse. Image via ABC.

I have had the privilege recently of interviewing five very different couples for a five-part special for ABC Compass called For Better, For Worse, which premieres on Sunday 20th September at 6:30pm. They have all been together for decades. In fact, Anne and Dan have been married for a remarkable 72 years.

None of their relationships are perfect. They have all faced crises of various kinds and they have all wondered at some point whether they really wanted to stay together. For some, their religious faith held them together through the tough times but for others it was a choice to just stick it out. Infidelity, the death of a child, the care of a disabled child, caring for aging parents, drug and alcohol abuse, infertility and the more ordinary stresses like arguing about how to raise children have all taken toll.

However, miserable times haven’t just cost these couples something, they have also given them something, particularly once they have come to a calmer place. There is a real satisfaction in having survived and a bedrock of trust in a connection that might have been stretched very thin at times but did not break.

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Carmen and Jessica are always determined to keep the lines of communication open. Image via ABC.

And why didn’t it break?

The answers are as different as the couples themselves. Sometimes it was a small thing that held them together. Sometimes it was an ability to keep talking even about the really difficult things. Both Carmen and Jessica and Brad and Ruth were determined to keep the lines of communication open no matter what. Sometimes it was just sheer exhaustion that meant the effort required to leave was just too great. What struck me, however, as I talked to our couples was that respect and friendship were much more robust than romantic love.

And I also noticed that none of them tried to control or dominate their partner. They gave each other room to be themselves – good, bad or indifferent on occasions – and room to grow (even if it was tough, even if they did so reluctantly). As Anne said when I asked her and Dan about the secret to their 72-year partnership, their relationship survived because she has a lot of forbearance. (Anne, 89, is hilarious). But, jokes aside, I think she has a point.

I suspect it is the ability to hold your tongue when your partner annoys you – not always, but often enough – and to shrug and accept that you have weaknesses just as they do – that is vital for jogging along together through the decades.

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Accepting each other’s weaknesses is a good start. Image via ABC.

The only advice I’d presume to give anyone after a 40-year partnership myself, and interviewing ten couples (we produced a radio version of the program on RN in 2013) on the subject is this:

If your partner makes you feel better about yourself, stick around. If they make you feel worse, get out – fast.

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