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How do you stay married for a lifetime? This is the question I put to my high school theatre teacher, Jean Hodges. I’ve long been an admirer of her decades-long marriage to husband, Jack.

Because Jean packed every class with a lesson in compassion, she inspired me to major in theatre in college. She made theatre class a continuous lesson about the meaning of love in our everyday life. According to Jean, theatre is simply a study of living a life in someone else’s shoes. That’s the compassion lesson.

She was married for 59 years before her husband, Jack, died. In this episode of the podcast, Jean imparts wisdom that comes from sharing your life with someone for nearly 6 decades.

You’ll hear about the three eras that Jean divides marriage into, as well as the different kinds of leadership she and her husband shared. Finally, you’ll be buoyed by what Jean describes as “The Laboratory of Love” that is marriage and family life.



The early years of a lifetime marriage are full of discovery and delight

In the early stages of your marriage, you discover more about your spouse and your life together. In Jean’s case, this was everything from which way the toilet paper should unroll, to how to say “I’m sorry” to each other.

It was an exciting time filled with learning about each other, and learning about the world. What will our lifetime marriage bring to us?


A lifetime of learning about leadership within marriage

When Jean and Jack became the teachers for a Sunday school group, they learned how to share leadership. Both of them were strong-willed and had their own ideas, so they had to figure out how to take turns. This ended up being a life lesson that helped them with other aspects of their relationship.

They decided to assign leadership explicitly: each one taking a turn as the leader. The other person, then, filled the role of back up or support.

Not every decision was as clear as teaching a classroom of young people, but the principle of shared leadership served them well in their lifetime marriage.

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The work and weariness that characterize the middle years of a lifetime marriage

In the middle years of their marriage, Jean and Jack were raising children together while working on their careers. The joy of these things also came with uncertainty and exhaustion.

That’s when Jean learned how to ask cleanly for what she needed, and Jack made room for her. He could have spent all night preparing his lectures, but instead, he figured it out so Jean could feed her personal ambition too. They had each others’ backs.

Along with making time for the others’ ambitions, it was also important to make time for their relationship. They planned nights that they could have dinner out, just the two of them, or they took a walk together. In order to understand where they were each changing, they took time to talk. They kept getting to know each other.

They understood how life’s circumstances made demands. They listened to each others’ frustrations, and made adjustments where they could. This ability to listen and adjust to changes in their marriage is what set them up for a lifetime together.


Differences can make a marriage stronger

In many ways, Jean and Jack are an “opposites attract” marriage.  She’s always reinventing, while Jack is that sturdy foundation that keeps their trains running on time. Throughout their marriage, these differences in their personality balanced out to give the other what they needed.

Jean’s ability to reinvent manifested in ideas. “Let’s go overseas!” or “Let’s join a club.” Jean brought vitality to the marriage because she was always thinking of the something new they could explore together.

Jack, on the other hand, was the rock of foundation for their marriage. He ran the numbers to see how they could make an overseas trip work. He followed up with details that mapped out the territory they could explore.


Retirement and revisions in the later years of marriage

Jean saw retirement as a chance to re-envision their life rather than a time to cash it in and rest. When she witnessed a couple in a restaurant who were sitting across the table from one another in silence she pointed them out to Jack. “That looks like death to me,” she told her lifetime-partner.

She came up with a phrase, “sparkling conversation.” If either of them said, “I need some sparkling conversation,” that was a cue to dig deep, think of something interesting to say and engage together.

This idea of sparkling conversation is essentially like saying, “I want my marriage to you to feel like a lifetime of dating.” Remember how you were eager to be interesting, engaging, and curious early in your relationship? “Sparkling conversation” was their invitation to each other to continue the courtship long after the marriage had been secured.

Try this: 

This week’s habit for your happily ever after is to practice “sparkling conversation” with your partner.

What conversations light you up? What can you bring to the discussion to make your conversation sparkle?

Let go of your agenda. Offer grace instead.

We can only change ourselves. In a lifetime marriage, there will be many times you’ll want your circumstances to change.

The closer you feel to your partner, the easier it will be to create an agenda and plan for how your partner should live each day. You know the best way to load the dishwasher. You know the best place to spend Christmas. You know the state, the city, and the perfect home where you both should live.

But your partner won’t always agree.

Jean echos one of my core coaching principles: Stay in your own business.

This allows her to know her own mind, and, when she wants something from Jack, she asks cleanly for it. When she was deep in production for the high school musical and missed many dinners at home, Jack got lonely. He’d ask “When will you have time for me again?” and that was a signal for the two of them to make a concrete plan that valued their relationship as well as each of their personal ambitions.

It’s important to live your own life, even in the midst of a lifetime marriage. And. It’s important to see how you’re able to keep your relationship alive at the same time you’re pursuing your dreams.


A lifetime laboratory of love

“Marriage and children are a laboratory for learning about love,” says Jean. Through compromise, struggle, and celebrations Jean has learned about love and she credits the longevity of her marriage with all that learning.

What lessons are you learning about love?

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