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Storybook romance

By Kirsten Valle

Posted: Monday, Jan. 25, 2010

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Photo by Critsey Rowe

Kirsten Valle is a business reporter for the Observer. She can be reached at kvalle@charlotteobserver.com.

Read more "Getting to 'I do.'"

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make a marriage work. After all, there are so many conflicting messages out there. You have, on one hand, the movies, where romance is as light and breezy as a spring day, where love and marriage and conflict and resolution are wrapped up in a neat two-hour package. Then, of course, you have the real-life marriages of those same actors, elaborate spectacles that crumble after a few years. You have the stats – half of all marriages end in divorce. And then you have the countless couples who prove that 40, 50, 60 years together isn’t really all that difficult.

I guess the short answer is, there’s no marriage manual, nothing elusive or remarkable about love that lasts forever. Most marriages aren’t perfect. And by that same token, most aren’t doomed to fail, either. If you take a closer look at those statistics, you’ll see that they’re a bit misleading, and that the chance of success is higher for first-time marriages, for people who marry over the age of 20 and other factors.

Nonetheless, I’ve taken a greater interest in those marriages that work, searching for clues as to what makes love endure, what people love most about each other, and how they reach for and remember those things in the midst of their lowest moments. Fortunately, Reese and I have some good role models.

Our parents have been married for more than a quarter-century; our grandparents for more than 50 years. I’ll never forget celebrating my grandparents’ 50th anniversary a few years ago in a small chapel in Maryland’s rolling countryside – the way they looked, grinning and holding hands on the altar, and the way my parents looked at each other and promised they’d get there one day, too. It’s nice to think we’ll have all that love, all that history, backing us as we vow in a few months to do the same.

I’m also hungry for strangers’ stories. Fiction about love and marriage is one thing, but I find the real-life accounts more fascinating. I remember vividly a story I read a few years ago by a woman who swore she’d trained her husband, like Shamu, by offering positive reinforcement for small tasks such as picking up his dirty socks. And another story, more recently, by a woman who decided that her relatively healthy and uneventful marriage deserved just as much time and effort as her career, so she set to improve it by dragging her husband along to couples therapy.

One of the best books I’ve read in a while is “About Alice,” by Calvin Trillin, a touching tribute to the author’s late wife. Reese bought me the book for Christmas and wrote something inside like, “I hope we’ll have a life as happy as Alice and Calvin,” which of course made me cry. It’s a quick read – I started and finished it on a recent flight from Charlotte to Florida – and is a funny, honest portrait of their life, rather than his loss. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a good (real) love story.

Aside from all the reading, I’m taking care to tuck away all the little bits of advice I’ve gotten on love. Still, the best, I think, came from a college professor – a white-haired woman who once told our class that she wouldn’t hold it against us if we chose to sit on the quad on a spring afternoon enjoying Chapel Hill’s blooming dogwoods instead of coming to class. Her advice for marriage, offered to her students unsolicited, was that it was a partnership – some days you’ll love each other, and some days you might hate each other, but you’re in it together for the long haul. It was a good reminder that life isn’t always romantic comedy-perfect.

And that’s OK. I believe love is a pretty strong bond, and I believe that things are always easier together. My favorite stories are the ones that prove it – and now, we’re starting our own.

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