What I Know About Marriage On The Eve Of My 30th Anniversary

On March 22, 1986, at 2:00 p.m., Alan and I got married.

Our wedding day...so young and in love!

Our wedding day…so young and in love!

We had dated for five years already. We were young, naive and in love. Thirty years later, we are older and wiser but we’re not “in love” anymore. What I feel for him after 30 years has no resemblance to the feelings I had on the day I said, “I do.” At 25, he made my heart flutter…and I thought that’s what love was.

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn't he adorable?

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn’t he adorable?

At 55, he makes my heart swell…with gratitude and pride…gratitude that we are still together and pride that we have beat the odds (And he does still make my heart flutter…just in a deeper, more profound and more meaningful way!).

Statistics say we shouldn’t still be married. I’m damn proud of us…for course-correcting as we go and for keeping our eye on the prize. There aren’t a lot of folks our age who can say that they’ve only been married once because it’s hard work. There have been many times during our thirty-year marriage when one of us may have wanted to throw in the towel and we’ve both given each other many reasons to do just that. But we didn’t.

So, in a spirit of self-congratulations, I offer you my unsolicited advice on staying married. Wherever you may be on the relationship journey, here’s what I know to be true:

  1. Start by choosing well. We knew enough about each other’s basic value system that we could confidently state we shared same approach to life and wanted the same general outcome. Before Alan, I had never met anyone who looked at life and its purpose through the same filter as me. We shared the same basic philosophy about religion, politics, money and family, although we were too young to have tested any of the theories we held on these topics.
  2. Always respect each other. We may not always agree and we definitely utilize different tactics to get where we want to go but we have a deep and abiding respect for what the other brings to the table.
  3. Understand that if you dissolve a marriage, the issues within that marriage will follow you. The problem with getting divorced is that unless you do a tremendous amount of personal work, the issues that broke up your marriage will continue to haunt you…and they will be magnified by the divisions divorce creates. We figured we might as well stick it out with each other because had we chosen to walk away from our marriage, our personal shortcomings would still be there, staring back at us in the mirror. We both have a lot of personal growth still left to do but we’ve always agreed that it would be easier to do that growth side by side than it would be to do that work apart, with the complications of second marriages, stepchildren, and all that goes along with divorce.

    Our young family in 1992

    Our young family in 1992

  4. Find things to be passionate about together. From the Beatles and the arts to Alabama football, we have always looked for ways to share mutual enthusiasm. There are lots of things we enjoy separately and those things are important to us as individuals but there are some things that we invest our energy into equally. These shared interests give us something to focus on when our separate interests collide.
    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    And we are lucky that all of our shared passions clicked together when we created Merrimack Hall.

    With a few of our students in 2014

    With a few of our students in 2014

  5. Focus on the legacy that your marriage will leave. I imagine that all people who have long-term marriages have a commitment to leaving some sort of legacy – for their children or their religion or their profession or their community. Alan and I both know that separately, we can leave a mark and we both have. But together, we can make a more powerful statement. I bet every couple who’s been together long enough will say the same thing.

And the most powerful thing I know about being married is this:

7. “We” is more important than “me.” We have approached every challenge and every triumph from the mindset of “we.” There have been dozens of times when what was best for “we” might not have been what was best for either of us personally but we were committed to the notion that when we said, “I Do,” we were forging an alliance that was more important than either of us as individuals.

As I scrolled through photos to use for this post, I was struck by the fact that we all have pictures of ourselves and our lives at our best. I have hundreds of photos of Alan and me at moments of great personal achievement and of great happiness.

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney...definitely a high point

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney…definitely a high point

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

I wish I had photos that show the turmoil, heartbreak, anger, frustration, chaos and sadness that have marked our 30-year marriage because those would be the photos that really tell the story: when the bank balance is “zero;” when parents age and die; when children veer off course and we fear for their future happiness; when arguments escalate into low-blow name-calling; when business ventures fail; when we embarrass ourselves in public; when we make mistakes that the other predicted but we wouldn’t listen to their advice; when we vehemently disagree on matters of great importance; when we hurt each other…these are the photos I wish I had because they would be the ones that tell the story of staying married for 30 years.

I treasure the moments of heartache and hurt almost as much as I cherish the memories of happiness and joy because it was in those moments that seemed the most hopeless that we chose to remember that WE are more important than ME. And that’s why we’ve managed to stay married for 30 years.

So, Alan, love of my life and best friend forever, congratulations to us. If we’ve made it through everything life has thrown us so far, I’d say we’re golden for the next 30 years. And to borrow Chelsie’s phrase, Alan…you I love.



In Sickness and In Health


I usually write about the people with special needs who are part of my arts education program or I write about being the mother of an addict in recovery. Today, I’m writing about a totally different topic…my marriage. I’m close to being an “expert” on the topic of marriage, as I’ve been married for over 28 years to the same man, who was my sweetheart for five years before we said, “I do.”

What prompted me to think about marriage is that I went to a wedding last weekend. The groom has been one of my daughter’s closest friends since they were in diapers and he is the first one of her close friends to tie the knot. He and his bride looked like Barbie and Ken, so gorgeous and happy. When the minister said, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” I thought, “He’s not a man…he’s a little boy who’s diapers I changed; a boy who was convinced he was Captain Hook for about two years; a boy who loved to eat Reece’s Pieces…very deliberately, one at a time…for hours.”

As I teared up, Alan put his arm around me. Maybe he thought I was thinking of our wedding day, of how quickly the years have gone by, of how incredible it is to realize that we’ve been together more than half of our lives. I was thinking these things but I was also thinking that I’ve taken for granted that I will always have Alan by my side and that we’re too old to take anything for granted anymore.

Debra and Alan first date

When I was 25 and again when I was 40, I had intestinal resection surgery to deal with my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, a chronic and progressive disease of the intestines. Alan’s had to face the possibility of my death and he’s had to nurse me through everything from C-sections to back surgery. The worst health issue that Alan’s ever had was a torn ACL. Because I live with a chronic illness, I’ve obviously thought about the possibility of my death and have sometimes agonized over the thought that I might not be around to watch my children reach adulthood or to be a grandmother.

I’ve worried about what my children would do without me but never about Alan. He’s a man, after all, tough and capable. I’ve always figured that I’d go first and that he’d get married again or would spend the rest of his life remembering me with affection but would move on without much fanfare, remaining strong for our kids. I’ve never doubted his love and devotion but I guess I’ve always thought we were two individuals who decided to spend our lives together and who would eventually be okay when one of us was gone and the other had to return to life before those “I dos.” I’ve been oblivious to how old we’ve gotten and told myself that one of us dying…well, that won’t happen for years. Only we’re not so young anymore and Alan wouldn’t have been okay if something had happened to me. I know this now because the tables have turned and for the first time in the 32 years that I’ve known him, Alan is facing a health crisis.

It’s nothing he won’t recover from but it is something that involves a serious major surgery, scheduled for two weeks from now. It will involve a week in the hospital, then a 6-week recovery and it will involve a lot of pain and some alterations to his lifestyle. I know he will be fine, I’m grateful that a routine procedure discovered something that isn’t critical now but would have been a death sentence a year from now and I have no doubt that he will recover completely. But imagining, even for a minute, that I might lose him is something I wasn’t prepared to think about. No, if something had happened to me, Alan wouldn’t have been able to just move on and if he goes before me neither will I.

Debra and Alan at Conner Wedding

As the bride and groom pledged to be there for each other through sickness and health, I thought about the power of those vows we take. Two young people choose each other and then they stand in front of God and everyone they love and promise to hang in there, even when it gets hard. Those words we say to each other, when we are too young to really understand what they mean, are what bind us together through the years and the ups and the downs, through the joy and the tears and the loss. When people take those vows, they cease to me “you” and “me” and they become “we.” Alan and I have been a “we” for so long that I can’t even contemplate what it would mean to be “me” again…and I never want to find out.

Being married isn’t easy. Marriage requires a selfless resolve to remember those vows every day and to work through those things that make it difficult to live with the same person day in and day out. Marriage means that sometimes you may not get what you want and sometimes, you might not even get what you need. But it also means that if you stick with it, your relationship with each other will evolve into an intricate tapestry with threads of tragedy, sadness and pain woven together with threads of joy and contentment. If you stay the course, your marriage will become a union of you and me that cannot be put asunder because it’s woven together so tightly that it’s bonds are stronger than you could imagine when you were young and so in love. And when you’ve been married long enough, you will know that you are a different person, a better person because of your spouse and because of all the things you’ve shared in your life as husband and wife.

Because of this current health crisis, I realize that I cannot take being married for granted any longer because it won’t last forever…one of us will leave our marriage someday. The other one won’t be ready when that happens and the other one will never be the same. But at least whichever one of us is left behind will have a beautiful tapestry to wrap around our shoulders.

Debra and Alan with kids from NoAla