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Beyond Valentines: Lessons from my relationship heroes

 

Today is Valentine’s Day: a day of hearts, flowers, chocolate and the hope for love. In our family, Valentine’s Day was always also a family holiday, where my mom gave each kid their own little gift. One special gift I recall my mom giving to me on Valentine’s Day when I was about 10 was the book “The Secret Garden” with an inscription about how much she loved me. So I grew up loving Valentine’s Day because I felt so cherished.

By the time I got to high school, Valentine’s Day had upped the ante. Some club in our high school had a fundraiser where they sold carnations that people could give to each other: white for a friend, pink for someone you were interested in, and red for someone you loved. Tired of getting all white flowers one year and seeing the cool girls walking around with bouquets in a symphony of pink and red, my friends and I decided to get crafty and give each other the pink and red ones, “signed” by the boys from other schools we were interested in (the boys really existed, but clearly were not clued into Hershey High School’s carnation of love system). I cherish that memory because it demonstrates our ingenuity and a sort of “Galentine’s Day” solidarity before that was a thing.

My friends Jocelyn and Chantal and I did Galentine’s Day without knowing it.

As an adult, Valentine’s Day continues to be a family holiday for us. I plan to give each of my kids a little something today. But alas, my husband is away on a work trip this week, so in a sense, I find myself in the carnation situation again. After almost 25 years together, it is ok, because our love is more than hearts, flowers and chocolate (although Pat if you are reading this, flowers would be nice. They do have phones and the internet in Minnesota).

It gets me thinking about marriage and how to get it to last, it has to be more than the Valentine’s Day stuff which while heady and exciting, will not get you through the hard times. And in any marriage, there are hard times. So for Valentine’s Day, I thought I would ask five couples who are my “relationship heroes”, people who have great loving relationships after many years, how they do it. What I love about their answers is that, while each is a bit different, you will find common themes embedded.

Dr. Ling and Betty Tan: The Tans are ethnic Chinese who emigrated from Indonesia in the 1960’s to the US. The Tans have been married for 56 years, years that included Ling’s stellar success as a physician and Fulbright Scholar in his 70’s as well as the tragic loss of their beloved son Bobby 25 years ago. Through it all, the Tans have retained their love, faith, compassion and common interests (they are avid ballroom dancers). They are my relationship goals for their easygoing presence with each other as well as everyone they meet.

Helen: Dr. Tan, I am writing a blog post about beyond Valentine’s Day. Any thoughts about how you and Betty have sustained marriage through life’s ups and downs?

Ling:  Helen, this is a question that’s not too easy to answer. I guess most of it just happens naturally or perhaps instinctually. But like in all enduring relationships, a good compromise is necessary, where the process of give and take, or push and pull consistently apply. Certainly love and patience help quite a bit. To be respectful to one another, show loving kindness and thoughtfulness, generosity and gratefulness, and have the capacity to forgive are all important ingredients to a sustained marriage.

Helen: One more question, any wisdom on handling fights?

Ling:  As a husband I always follow the two rules: Rule #1: The wife is always right.  Rule #2: When in doubt, quickly go back to Rule #1.  As a wife, you always allow the husband to have the last words, which are “Yes dear”.  Whatever the fight was about, always make up before sleep.

Ling and Betty on their wedding day 56 years ago and today.

Drs. Tony and Joyce Kales: Full disclosure. These are my parents. I have written about them quite a bit, but in a nutshell, they were famous psychiatrist-researchers who had three wonderful and fantastic (especially the middle one) children. Their ups and downs included many career successes as well as some personal losses including the premature deaths of each of their brothers. They share a faith, with Joyce having become Greek Orthodox later in their marriage, and a passion for all things family, and have been married for 55 years. They are my relationship goals for their steady commitment to family.

Helen:  I am writing a blog post about beyond Valentine’s Day. Any thoughts about how you and Dad have sustained marriage through life’s ups and downs?

Joyce:  We believe in perseverance (stick with what you know is right), love (of the type described by St. Paul) and hope (this too will pass). We pray together. We try not to dwell on problems, but on solutions as in “don’t complain about the darkness, but light a candle instead”.

Helen: One more question, any wisdom on handling fights?

Tony:  When you are really angry, you start not to think clearly. As Dick Vitale used to say during basketball games, that is when you “need to take a T.O. (time out) baby!!

Tony and Joyce surrounded by their kids and grandkids.

Lynn and Tim Holland: Lynn was my daughter Tasia’s preschool teacher from when she was a baby to when she was in kindergarten. As such, Lynn became a friend and part of the family as did her wonderful husband Tim. Earlier in their marriage, the Hollands sustained tough times with the help of counseling and stayed together and have now been married 36 years. They are my relationship goals for a couple who are truly best friends and enjoy each day together in wonder and laughter.

Helen:  Lynn, I am writing a blog post about beyond Valentine’s Day. Any thoughts about how you and Tim have sustained marriage through life’s ups and downs?

Lynn: Haha. We are arguing about what to say!! So, having a sense of humor and being kind to each other. Turning towards the other person. Tim says putting each other first and gratitude. We also spent a lot of time and money on therapy. Couples and individual. For when you hit those speed bumps of life.

Helen: One more question, any wisdom on handling fights?

Lynn:  We always say, fight fair and fight in the present. Don’t dredge up the past.

Lynn and Tim, living their dream on a daily basis.

Karen and Angelo Ialacci: Karen is my cousin and she and Angelo have become the hub of my generation of my big fat Greek family (Angelo has his own big fat Italian family, so he gets it). They are in business together, running numerous pizza franchises. They have also weathered the illnesses and surgeries of their children, always together, always with grace and humor. They have been married for 30 years and are my relationship goals for a couple who is always keeping each other laughing and retaining a positive outlook despite whatever curveballs life throws at them.

Helen:  Karen, I am writing a blog post about beyond Valentine’s Day. Any thoughts about how you and Angelo have sustained marriage through life’s ups and downs?

Karen: We believe marriage is a forever thing. You don’t enter into marriage thinking it may not work out. It’s important to choose the right person. We definitely laugh a lot and give each other the space we need. That’s kind of hard because we are together 24/7, but we enjoy each other’s company.

Helen: One more question, any wisdom on handling fights?

Karen: I let Angelo win! LOL. Or at least he thinks he’s does. If we are in a real heated argument, we each go to a corner to cool off and meet back and talk, but we always get through it.

Karen and Angelo, partners in pizza and in life.

Lauren and Rich Grubb: Rich was in my high school class (Hershey High Trojans ’83!) and married Lauren who is the younger sister of another classmate. I became reacquainted with Lauren on Facebook where I have grown to greatly admire her approach to life and her marriage to Rich, which is one of the most solid around. Notably, Lauren sustained a traumatic brain injury four years ago in a car accident and lives daily with the consequences including severe migraines and memory loss. After 30 years of marriage, she and Rich continue to create a beautiful life with their three daughters, and are my relationship goals for their continued devotion to each other and their commitment to celebrating the small moments each day. As you will see in her responses below, despite her TBI, Lauren is also one of the most eloquent writers I know.

Helen:  Lauren, I am writing a blog post about beyond Valentine’s Day. Any thoughts about how you and Rich have sustained marriage through life’s ups and downs?

Lauren: I think when you love someone, you find a way to work through the highs and lows. In sickness and in health – these wedding vows have been our test of our marriage these last four years. The easier thing for sure would be to just give up. So many times I say to Rich, just go, be free of all of this with me, but he always says in return “um ya no, that’s not an option, next?”…which makes me feel special despite my deficiencies.

Communication has always been key for us. We have a rule that if something is bothering us we talk about as soon as we can.

Our faith too motivates us to not give up and is our foundation that we built our marriage on.

Taking time to make US the priority, by having date nights, giving little surprises, get aways, walks, slipping uplifting notes in lunches, inspirational quotes or just a thank you or an I love you by text in the middle of the day can recharge the mundane. These are all essential ingredients to our marriage. The unexpected spontaneous moments keep life fun too. Not everything needs to be planned.

Hugs. Hugs and more hugs. Never enough hugs. A hug is saying ‘hey I got you and I’m not going to let you go at it alone’. We are a team and team’s only are a team if we all are working towards the same goal.

Our goal is to be together as long as life allows. I definitely married my best friend. He makes me laugh with his silly moments. I feel fortunate but marriage is still not easy. But we aren’t promised easy, or even happiness, and knowing that makes the work that goes into a strong marriage worth it all in the end despite the tough trials that come with this journey.

Helen: One more question, any wisdom on handling fights?

Lauren: Life is about choices. Marriage is about choices. Compromising is a way to agree on decisions.

Lauren and Rich, then (1985) and now

So there you have it. Enjoy the flowers, chocolates and hearts today. But to get beyond Valentine’s Day, consider the advice of these relationship heroes.

kales@umich.eduBeyond Valentines: Lessons from my relationship heroes

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