What Makes a Marriage Last?
The following is an excerpt from “What Makes a Marriage Last” by Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue
So there we were on the deck of the Mississippi Queen, the beautiful old paddleboat that sails the river that bears her name. Phil and I had just attended the Kentucky Derby and thought the cruise would be a fun way to end the day. Sure, it was a corny attraction targeted at tourists and the hopelessly romantic, but Phil and I had just recently started dating, so we qualified on both counts. We’d just finished our dinner when the entertainers walked on deck. They were a small band of very old gentlemen who specialized in Dixieland music—a banjo player, a pianist, and a sweet-looking little man on the clarinet. They began to play, and the crowd immediately began bopping and swaying. All three of the men were clearly having a wonderful time, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that clarinetist—he was in a zone. You could see the sheer pleasure he took in making his music, submerged as he was in a personal state of bliss. I was mesmerized by him. After a moment, Phil nudged me. “Look at the clarinet player,” he whispered, “how happy he is.” “I’m already there!” I whispered back. Then I took Phil’s hand. It was just a passing moment, one of probably a billion that Phil and I have shared over the years—a warm confirmation that we’d both been moved by the same thing. And yet to this day, that little man and his clarinet remain a touchstone for us as the definition of a person who’s truly in the moment.
Whether it’s someone delivering a passionate speech, a bustling waitress who loves her job, or a grandfather rocking a child in his arms, one of us will nudge the other and say, “That’s a real clarinet player.” To us, that’s the highest compliment. This is not a huge thing, I know, but it is one more tiny connection for Phil and me, a secret code passed between two people who long ago began thinking many of the same thoughts and feeling many of the same feelings. Over a long marriage, I’ve noticed, there comes an unconscious agreement between two people to tuck this little moment, or that little observation, into the cupboard of shared memories they’ve collected over the years. That’s the stuff of marriage.
Marriage. Wow. I was the girl who never wanted any part of it. That’s because marriage didn’t seem like a roomy enough place for me—and that’s putting it nicely. In fact, I always had some cheeky remark to offer on the subject—like “Marriage is like living with a jailer you have to please,” or “Marriage is like a vacuum cleaner: you stick it to your ear and it sucks out all your energy and ambition.” And now here I am, writing a book—with my husband—about marriage. Life’s funny, right? In my own defense, when I was growing up I didn’t see a lot of marriages that looked like a club I wanted to be a part of. Even the couples who had stayed married for a long time made me wonder, Do they really want to? To me, many of those couples seemed to have made a bargain, and they were just good enough people to have lived up to it. Or maybe they secretly wanted to break the deal a long time ago, but were stuck with it—and in it. Others seemed basically content with one another—but were they really happy? I never believed that true happiness with another human being was sustainable forever, or even “till death do us part.” But then something happened. I went on a talk show in 1977 to pro-mote a project, but when the host walked into the green room beforehand to say hi—that thick white hair, those killer blue eyes—it was like one of those shampoo commercials where everything suddenly goes into slow motion.
When we got on the air, things got a bit embarrassing. Here I was, this very strong feminist with all sorts of penetrating observations about equality and gender roles—and pretty much everything that came out of my mouth was a girlish giggle. I’d been on a lot of talk shows by that time, but this felt more like a first date. Phil asked me more personal questions than I’d ever been asked in an interview. He dug in about the men I had dated and asked if there was “someone special.” He was a man on a mission—a divorced man, I might add, raising four boys (his daughter lived with her mother)—and I was his eager accomplice. As I look back on it now, it was not professional, but it was honest—a spontaneous, chemical reaction. People still tell us that they saw that Donahue episode and instantly knew something was going on. They were right. Phil and I went to dinner the next night and married three years later.
Our wedding day was everything we wanted it to be—small, just our families, thirty-five people, intimate and very private. It still feels like yesterday. Over the decades, Phil and I have lived the sweeping landscape of marriage, and sometimes that landscape has had its valleys. But each obstacle we faced as a couple not only helped us find the solution to the challenge, but also strengthened the bond that had brought us together. And then we got a call. It was May 2019, and Phil and I were about to celebrate our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, when the phone rang. I picked up and heard the tearful voice of one of our dearest friends. “We’re getting a divorce,” she told me, and I nearly lost my breath. She and her husband had been married twenty-eight years. They were good friends and always good company. This earthquake in their lives shook Phil and me—and many of our friends, too. “What happened?” we kept asking each other. If it happened to them, could it happen to any of us? Where did they go wrong, we wondered—and, more to the point, where did we go right? This heartbreaking event in the lives of two of our friends prompted Phil and me to talk about our marriage. What did we like about us as a couple? What do we still not get right? How far have we traveled since that spring day in 1980 when we made those promises to each other, and what exactly has kept us going year after year? We started to wonder if there really is a secret sauce to a successful marriage. And that’s how we came to create this book—one that would pull together the stories of many devoted couples and uncover some of the mystery of marriage in a way that could be a source of information and inspiration for other couples—from newlyweds to long-married couples like us. This was new territory for Phil and me. For years we’ve been asked to write about our marriage, but we’ve always been reluctant. Who are we to give advice? We’re not experts. And it’s working, so why jinx it? But we’re living in a very negative time—a time when we’re lashing out more than we’re reaching out; a time in which we too often forget that we’re at our best, our strongest, when we’re holding the hand—and have the back—of someone we care about. So Phil and I broke an ironclad rule of our marriage—for the first time, ever—and decided to work on a project together. Talk about putting your marriage to the test!
Excerpted from What Makes A Marriage Last by Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2020.
This excerpt was featured in the May 17th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.