In 2003, two 28-year-old bachelors (and childhood friends), Mathew Boggs and Jason Miller, set out to answer a number of fundamental questions about marriage, the most important being: what makes a marriage work? Moreover, what makes it endure?
Boggs hardly approached the subject as someone who held the answers to these secrets. He'd recently gone through a nasty breakup, and his parents had divorced after nearly three decades of marriage, leaving him bitter and jaded: "I wanted my parents to love each other again," he writes. "I wanted my family back, but it was hopeless. Apparently a commitment to forever lasted only until you changed your mind."
His sole example of a happy marriage could be found in his grandparents, married 63 years and still deliriously happy. Boggs understood that "it was not convention or habit that kept them together" and was determined, someday, to find such a loving, fulfilling union himself. Filled with questions about how this might be achieved, Boggs decided he would crisscross the country in search of what he termed "Marriage Masters"—couples who'd been married for 40 years or longer. He enlisted the commitment phobic Miller on his quixotic quest and they hit the road in an RV to interview hundreds of happy couples, traveling 12,000 miles in just nine weeks. What they found on their journey were inspiring and often unexpected answers. "We were able to determine what the amazing couples are doing to set themselves apart from the ho-hum couples," Miller writes," the couples who are just trying to get by."
So what did they learn? Interestingly, that longevity is rooted in failure—that is, how couples deal with disappointments, frustrations, and setbacks, both minor and major. But unlike couples who might be driven apart by strife, the so-called Marriage Masters "were brave enough and determined enough to work through those failures and, for the most part, fix them," writes Miller. "The true beauty of lifelong marriage isn't expressed in the measure of gushy-gushy affection these older marrieds were able to emit for us on the couch, but rather in the history of their courage. As they showed time and time again, lifelong love is not for the faint of heart." These interviewees possessed a healthy amount of "stick-to-itiveness," which meant countless apologies and lots of humility and forgiveness, over decades of marriage.
Other themes that emerged (perhaps obvious in theory, but not in practice): shared values over family and money; generosity; preserving your sex life, even if it takes work; having an underlying structure of friendship; allowing for, and respecting, individuality in a mate; and frequently shared laughter and rich conversations. Regardless of which city the authors visited, or the couple's financial situation, or the ages of the spouses, these common threads held true across the board.
Some of the couples interviewed found love at first sight; others allowed for a slowly evolving (but equally strong) romance. Regardless, each of the couples' narratives in Project Everlasting proves instructive, moving, and wise. No two are the same.
The bad news? Marriage, it turns out, is the hardest job you'll have in your lifetime. The good news, as Boggs and Miller find, is that if you choose not to quit, it will also be the most satisfying one by far.
Carmela Ciuraru is a writer and editor in New York City. She has written forthe Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, The Washington Post, and other publications,and edited six anthologies of poetry. She previously reviewed Gringos in Paradise on AARPThe Magazine Online.