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Every time I meet an older couple, I find myself asking them the same question: “What’s the secret?” The funny thing is, I get different answers every time. Some wives say compromise is the key. Husbands often argue that “yes, dear” is the best phrase to ensure happiness. But while these answers always make me smile, I know there is more than one secret to a long-lasting union.

I have found that the couples with the best advice are those who have managed to stay together for decades. I spoke with two couples who’ve each been married for more than twenty years. Some of their advice was expected; some of it not. But the most common advice might surprise you.

A happy marriage requires forgiveness.

While the day-to-day sacrifices of sharing life with another person can be challenging, this is especially true when it comes to arguments. Little things grow into big things, and forgiveness becomes a necessary daily ritual.

After being married for twenty-six years, Kerry says that being quick to forgive his wife Kim is key to not allowing issues to fester. “Most offenses committed in a marriage are not malicious, just ignorant or inconsiderate. . . . Recognize that pride stems from perceiving things as either right or wrong. Humble yourself, and admit to your spouse the hurt received or given so that love and forgiveness can prevail.”

Rita agrees that her forty-year marriage to Steve has remained stable not because of flowers and chocolates but by learning that “not every issue is worth going to the mat for. You can afford to lose an argument, lose a point, to win the war.”

Understanding that not every hill is worth dying on has been an equally significant point for Rita’s husband Steve. “Practicing forgiveness when it hurts, even when the other party continues to hurt you, is imperative to marital harmony. It releases the other party emotionally.”

It’s not just about romance.

Kim and Kerry just celebrated their twenty-sixth anniversary. When I asked Kerry what makes it all work, his response didn’t sound very romantic on the surface:

“Love is an unselfish commitment to the greatest good of another person. This is the mindset and determination that you must have in order to make your marriage last. Anything less will result in a gradual degradation of the relationship resulting in the eventual contemplation of divorce. Any percentage of commitment less than 100 percent by both husband and wife leaves a back door open that becomes very tempting when unhappiness with the marriage reaches critical mass.”

Yes, a marriage must be built to survive long nights, financial changes, and relational challenges year after year for the rest of your lives. It may sound dreary to talk of weathering through in marriage, but the love Kerry describes is determined and strong, and a marriage is all the more romantic for it.

There may come times when the niceties of courtship become sparse, and the little gestures become routine. But don’t lose heart. The commitment you’ve made to build one another up will keep your love safe while you revive the romance.

Sex matters.

This is a big one. As the fights get louder and longer, intimacy in the bedroom can fall by the wayside or even fade out altogether. Kerry and Kim stressed to me that this is one killer in marriage. “Never use sex as a weapon or as leverage against your spouse or withhold your physical affection from one another when times are hard,” Kerry says. “Your bedroom should be sacred ground that’s never trespassed upon by any relational discord. If you’re at odds with your spouse about something, solve it before entering the bedroom.”

Steve and Rita are equally emphatic on the importance of consistent sex: “Sex is a natural desire—as natural as hunger.” Steve attests that after forty years of marriage, “It should be regularly satisfied within the marriage bond.” But he also warns that young couples shouldn’t be quick to make sex the focus point of the relationship. “A marriage based on the importance of sex is a value system of our culture,” he says. “Enjoy the marriage bed frequently. A marriage based on the importance of sex, like what young people often believe today, sells marriage short.”

Sex is an important aspect of a marriage—but maybe not in the way we tend to think about it. Focus on sex as an important way to grow in unity and intimacy in your relationship overall, and don’t let our sex-crazed culture convince you that it is anything less (or more) than that.

Know your love language.

“After the bliss of the first few months wears off, the ‘you don’t love me anymore’ syndrome can set in if spouses are not mutually expressing love for one another in the ‘language’ they understand,” Kerry explains. He even argues that not knowing or expressing your spouse’s love language is the basis for most divorces.

Kerry’s personal experience bears out in Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. As Chapman explains in his book:

“Most couples get married when they still have the euphoric feelings of being in love. . . . When the euphoric feelings evaporate some time after the wedding, and their differences begin to emerge, they often find themselves in conflict. With no positive plan for resolving conflicts, they often find themselves speaking harshly to each other. Harsh words create feelings of hurt, disappointment, and anger. Not only do they feel unloved, but they also begin to resent each other.”

Chapman says that by knowing your partner’s preferred method of expressing love (quality time, physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts, or words of affirmation), it becomes easier to connect and communicate. For example, if your husband’s love language is physical touch, start with something simple, such as putting your hand on his shoulder as you set dinner on the table, or give him a little kiss as he leaves for work. These are the little things that help build one another up and grow in your relationship.

After more than a combined half century of marriage, these couples have faced challenges that newlyweds like myself are only just beginning to understand. These lessons are just a few of the hard-earned truths that couples have gleaned from the struggles and victories that can only come from decades of commitment—lessons that young couples will continue to learn as they step into the lifelong journey of sanctification.

Photo Credit: Kitchener Photography