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Jane Ahlin, Published June 13 2010

Ahlin: No one has a clue why some marriages last, others don’t

My husband and I have our 40th wedding anniversary today. When my maternal grandparents had their 40th, I was 7 years old and was called upon to sing “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver – I Will Love You Just the Same.” The place for the celebration was their church, and my 10-year-old brother also performed by playing a piano solo, although neither of us can remember what it was.

Performance by her progeny must have distracted our mother because she didn’t catch our little brother – not yet a year old – who crawled out of the pew, into the aisle and up the steps to the altar area, where he chose to stay a while. The M.C. (was it the minister?) made a few feeble jokes about his “helper”; however, even at the age of 7, I knew annoyance when I saw it. One cousin, who must have been about 5, recited, “M is for the many things she gave me, O is only that she’s growing old. …” And so it went.

When my parents had their 40th, we laughed, remembering what my grandparents’ friends endured. (Watching someone else’s grandchildren perform followed by a piece of cake and a paper cup of Kool-Aid in the church basement: hmmm, celebration or suffering?)

My parents didn’t want a fuss to mark 40 years and opted for a family dinner, although the family dinner turned into quite a celebration. They didn’t see that anniversary as a big deal and, indeed, they were married for more than 60 years before “death (did them) part.”

Thinking back, it never occurred to me that anything other than death could end the marriages of my parents and grandparents. And yet, as more and more Americans live to a ripe old age, marriage and divorce statistics are changing.

News of Al and Tipper Gore’s separation hot on the heels of their 40th anniversary underscores the fact that increased longevity of life does not guarantee permanence in marriage. If the assumption used to be that couples together more than 25 years were going to stay that way, today all bets are off.

Although the Gores’ surprise split put long marriages and the reasons they last or break up into the news, the breakups of friends or relatives who had 30 or 40 years of shared history made many of us aware earlier. Like the array of pundits and talking heads weighing in on the Gores’ split, we’ve also tried to understand. However, divorce in couples who have spent two-thirds of their lives together doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis.

As far as I can tell, the only philosophical nugget to emerge in all the speculating as to why some marriages last and others don’t is that nobody really has a clue.

In 1970, when my husband-to-be and I scheduled our wedding, there was a reason the weekend of June 12 and 13 was the only one that worked. (Like much else about the wedding, I don’t remember what it was.) He wasn’t superstitious, but I was, and the thought of having a wedding anniversary sometimes landing on Friday the 13th seemed like asking for trouble.

The problem was that there was another wedding at my hometown church on the 12th, so we had to go with the 13th, bad omen or not.

June 13 was hot that year – over 90 degrees – and the dress with long sleeves and high neck I’d picked out in April didn’t seem like a great choice. The groom had been led astray by his friends the night before and probably set a record for the number of showers taken by a groom on his wedding day. Although I’d decided on Bach’s “Air on a G String” for walking down the aisle, my mother refused to put that into print. (The program read, “Air in G.”)

And when my mother and I checked on the reception setup in the church basement, we discovered that the cake had arrived, but it wasn’t what we’d ordered. Evidently, the woman who made it thought it was too plain and took the liberty of adding great plastic swans to the bottom layer.

All in all, however, I think it was a nice wedding.

Forty years later, what I can’t explain is why the marriage has been nicer.

How did all those years go by? How did we come so far together? Why do I feel better when he walks into a room? Maybe not being able to explain is the very best part.

Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.