For many people now in their 20s or 30s, life’s grand narrative has lost its traditional arc. We don’t necessarily find “the one” but instead tend to open our hearts to three, four or even seven. We say “I love you” when we’re not sure. We schedule when we have children using contraceptive pills, IVF and egg freezing. We Tinder into our 40s.
When I think about all the relationships I’ve had that fizzled out around the one-year mark, I wonder whether I could even go the distance of five years, let alone 50. I wonder whether there’s just something different about people now, about the way our hearts and minds work, and whether speaking to couples who have stayed together will teach me anything about how it’s done. Below, three couples invite me into their homes to do just that.
Jill and Michael
When Jill and Michael first met 60 years ago, it wasn’t love at first sight. Jill was 18, Michael was 21 and they were at a dance held by their local Jewish youth club. Michael was taken with Jill’s auburn hair and asked her to dance. “At that time I had about three other girlfriends that were redheads,” he jokes, explaining that he brushed them off when Jill eventually started showing interest. When I ask them whether they kissed that first meeting, they laugh; “I don’t think so,” says Jill, coyly. “It was a very casual meeting, nothing dramatic,” Michael adds, glancing over the table at Jill affectionately. And what attracted Jill to Michael, I ask? “I think what attracted Jill to me was that her father approved of my job,” Michael answers, suddenly sounding a little more serious. “I was training to be a dentist and he thought that was a worthwhile thing – something that would be good in the future.”
At 80 and 83, Jill and Michael are totally in sync with one another, and their flat – overlooking Regent’s Park in London – is filled with photographs from their 57 years of marriage. The wedding, they explain, took place in a synagogue off Edgware Road. Their parents were pleased they were marrying within the faith and, in hindsight, Michael and Jill agree that it’s made things easier, “even if it just means we understand each other better”. The ceremony upheld Jewish traditions like glass-breaking, and a ritual where the bride circles the groom seven times. “That’s to signify that the bride will honour him, look after him during his life,” explains Jill. “I’m still waiting for that to happen actually,” says Michael sarcastically, before Jill tells him to be careful or he might split the whole marriage up now.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual to marry young. In fact, says Jill, if she hadn’t, her relations might have started to “nudge”. Michael agrees: “I think when we were young, the parents thought that children should be married by their early 20s. Now, whatever the parents think, the children don’t always bother to agree.” They believe that these days, people are waiting longer before they get married – if they get married at all – because they’re more concerned with following careers, earning money and being independent. But these two are glad they didn’t wait – particularly when it came to becoming parents. “I think children like young parents. Things get harder as you get older, it’s not quite as easy to keep up with the kids,” says Jill.
The other thing about younger people today, they add, is that not only do they seem to wait longer to settle down and have children, but they seem less likely to stay together long-term. Why is that, I ask? “I think we were more innocent, you see,” Jill muses. “I suppose the television’s got a lot to do with it. And the internet. Because they have such sexual, violent things on. We never thought of those horrible things.” Michael feels the same: “I’ve always said that bad news is good news, because bad news sells. People don’t want to know about nice things happening anymore. It’s like the Barbra Streisand song: ‘Was it all so much simpler then?’ I think that life was much simpler in our generation. There weren’t so many distractions.”
Ron and Ellen
Talking to Jill and Michael, 57 years of marriage sounds like a walk in the park. But maybe that’s just their experience. When I speak to Ron and Ellen, a couple from Worcester who are both 85, they put an emphasis on how much hard work it takes to go the distance. Like Jill and Michael, they met at a dance in the 1950s, but unlike Jill and Michael, they’re from very different backgrounds; Ellen – short for Eleanora – is Catholic and from Verona in Italy, Ron is Church of England, from Worcester. He says he told Ellen he was going to marry her the very first time they met, and just nine months later, they actually did it. Now they’ve been together for 63 years, but their relationship was tinged with pain in the middle, and it took forgiveness as well as love to overcome it.
“Oh, an attractive, beautiful man. Really! Gorgeous,” says Ellen excitedly, when I ask her about the first time she clapped eyes on Ron. Ellen still has a thick Italian accent, despite spending six decades in Britain, and over the phone she is warm and chatty. “My friends, they were jealous, because they wanted to dance with him and they say one night.. they say to me… ‘I’m sure he’ll come to dance with me’ but he never did!” Ron and Ellen met because Ellen was in the UK working as an au pair. Ron was living locally and working as a design engineer. When they became an item, their differing nationalities sometimes proved tricky; Ellen’s parents couldn’t make it to the wedding because travel was harder in those days – although Ron did agree to a Catholic wedding in a Catholic church.
When Ellen fell pregnant, she went back to her family in Italy for six months while Ron stayed in Worcester to work. “Ron didn’t like it,” she says, “he missed me a lot. We talked on the phone all the time, or wrote each other letters. He sent kisses, you know, writing: ‘I’m looking forward, I’ll be there’.” When Ellen got back, they had their first child and began their life together. Ron bought a plot of land and built them a bungalow, something that might not have been possible today, he concedes. “I think financially at least, it’s a lot more difficult nowadays, because there isn’t the work about that there was when we were young,” says Ron. “The cost of buying a house and things like that have gone tremendously high. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a good family, a nice house and live in a nice area. We consider ourselves to be very lucky.”
Ron and Ellen’s relationship hit a major hurdle in the early 1970s, after about 15 years of marriage and, when I bring this up, it’s understandably tough to talk about. “Well, we parted for four or five years,” says Ron, tentatively. “It was mainly my fault but we got back together again and here we are.” Ellen interrupts: “Can I speak?” she says. “I’m a forgiving lady, you know… but he went with another woman, and it was my best friend. She used to bring me gifts, she was lovely to my children, I invited her to lunch and I’m afraid she betrayed me.” I ask how they overcame the affair. “I went back and told her I wanted to be together again,” remembers Ron. “He begged me,” corrects Ellen. “I didn’t want him to come back. But because I love him so much I forgave him, and still I forgive him today.” She lets out a deep sigh. “It’s life, isn’t it?”
Isabell and Ronnie
Isabell and Ronnie, the third couple I speak to, met in 1959. Like Ron and Ellen, they were from different parts of the world. Ronnie had come to England from Dominica in the West Indies and had travelled up to Bradford, where his brother was living. They met at Isabell’s house – her stepfather was in a steel band with Ronnie’s cousin and one afternoon, Ronnie joined him at practice. Ronnie was on leave from the army, where he was doing National Service at the time. “I didn't fancy him straight away,” Isabell remembers, “he said to me, ‘I'm going to marry you’ and I said, ‘You wish’.” After that, they started writing to one another, and would go to the cinema or the pub when Ronnie was back in town. One night, Isabell went round to listen to Ronnie’s records and fell pregnant, so they decided to get married. Isabell was 16 and Ronnie was 21. It was, she admits, young to marry, even then. But 57 years later, she says it’s “been nothing but lovely.”
Ronnie is black and Isabell is white, which presented its own set of difficulties at that time. Isabell’s parents didn’t mind the fact, the couple explain, but Ronnie’s family did. “His family were against it because we were a mixed marriage, but he said, 'We’re getting married and you'll have to like it’.” After a few years, Isabell won them over: “They thought I was the best thing since sliced bread,” she says proudly. When I ask Ronnie what kind of prejudice they faced as an interracial couple, he tells me they used to get a lot of looks on the street, but that the biggest challenge of their relationship was getting a mortgage. “When we decided to buy a house, building societies would not lend to us because I were black,” says Ronnie. In his eyes, there were only two things they could do: “Ride it or fight it.” They decided to ride it. “Nothing and nobody, whatever they said, made any difference to us. We just got on, living our lives.”
Like Ron and Ellen, Isabell and Ronnie believe that for young people today, there are just more choices to make, and that can confuse matters of the heart. “There’s a world out there now that they can go and explore, whereas it wasn't that easy in our time,” says Isabell. “There wasn't the ability to fly to different countries and do all that. Young people can go and follow their dreams.” And then there’s the contraceptive pill, she adds: “They don't have children as young 'cause they don't have to, but in our day it was the luck of the draw.” Ronnie, meanwhile, believes the pressures on couples today are mostly financial: “When we got married we purchased one thing at a time. When the first one were paid, we’d go buy something else. Whereas today they get married, then they want everything there and then. The bills start coming in for all these things they purchased and it creates problems.”
When I asked all of these couples their secrets to staying together, their answers were surprisingly succinct. None of them felt like there was some secret code to crack in order to have a long-lasting and harmonious marriage. While Jill and Michael are the vision of a couple in love, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing together, they didn’t think it was all about finding the right person to begin with – “there’s a lot of luck involved,” says Michael – but that it’s more about what happens afterwards. It’s about keeping the magic alive with dates, with romantic holidays, and never walking away from an argument, they explain. When they said it was all so much simpler back then, I suppose what they really meant was that being with someone for a long time is about making a decision and sticking with it – something that all three couples agreed on.
According to Ron, the biggest part of staying together for a long period is just regularly taking the time out to appreciate how fortunate you are – a lesson he learned the hard way, perhaps. For Ellen, it’s been about seeing through the bad times. “You must stay there forever like we did… I don’t know how much longer I’ve got to live, but I’ll stay forever. That’s what my mother did with my father and that is what I will do,” she explained. And for Isabell, being happy meant not succumbing to FOMO (although that wasn’t quite the term she used). “I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything because whatever we've done, we've done together,” she said, “we just did it when the kids grew up rather than when they were young.” Ronnie agrees: “The young people seem to be chasing too much, whereas in our day we accepted what we had.”
If you’re in your 20s or 30s, then, and looking for everlasting love, take solace from the fact that these people, who have seen eight decades of social change, truly believe the odds are stacked against us today – whether that be financial odds, technological odds or just a plethora of confusing choices. But perhaps we do need to rethink our obsession with making “the right choice” and consider how that might be, in a way, stopping us from giving things a real shot. Romance isn’t dead, we’re just more cynical about it. And if you need proof of that, look no further than these couples. As Isabell puts it: “You do change physically with the years, but you care for each other, you get closer and closer.” And Ronnie: “How has Isabell changed? She’s just got nicer and nicer.”