Marriage tips from couples who’ve lasted a lifetime

Written by Beverley Hadgraft for Australian Seniors. 

Why is it that when some relationships are hit by adversity they collapse, while others not only survive but thrive? 

Up to 33% of all Australian marriages are expected to end in divorce, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The reasons for divorce are well documented — lack of communication and connection, infidelity, financial problems, work pressures, and health issues. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling all make every problem worse. 

Sadly, though, we often fail to acknowledge and explore what keeps a couple together, especially when they encounter difficulties. Sydney psychologist Susan Nicholson has spent many years counselling couples. She believes there are a number of traits that are particularly useful when encountering adversity — and are the real road to a long and successful marriage. These include: 

Emotional resilience – the ability to take care of yourself and your partner. The strength of the relationship outside the adversity, including shared values, companionship, communication, mutual respect and appreciation, laughter, and sheer love.

Flexibility – as well as the ability to adapt and work with changed circumstances.

Support – accepting the right help, both from each other and from outside (such as a network of friends or professional support agencies). As you’ll see, our two extraordinary couples featured here have all these traits in spades as they move into their senior years, more in love than ever.

JO Morrice, 85 tells the story of his successful marriage of 62 years 

JO and Helena Morrice at home

When I joined the Naval College aged 13, I was advised to be careful who I married. With a naval career, you both have to go where you’re told and endure long separations. It took only four months to decide Helena was the one. She was resilient and resourceful, had a vibrant personality and was very attractive. I was enchanted. 

We were posted to England and nine months later, expecting our first child, were told we were being sent to Malta. Ten days before our departure date, we were told I was going “somewhere east of Suez” alone instead, and couldn’t know for how long because it was secret. I had to leave my new pregnant wife alone in England. 

Away for 14 months, I missed our first two Christmases and the birth of our daughter, Jane. However, when Jane was three months, Helena travelled out to join me by troop ship in Singapore and we had the baby christened using the ship’s bell as a font.

Helena continued to demonstrate resilience, patience and fortitude during my moves, which occurred about every 18 months, and my absences, which occurred at short notice and could be dangerous. I was involved in peacekeeping after the Korean War and went to Malaysia and Vietnam. It wasn’t a life for the faint-hearted. 

I missed the births of my three other children, Charles, Margaret and Adrian, and was absent for much of their upbringing. Helena was devoted to the children but it must’ve been exhausting. In fact one night, when my ship docked early, I slipped home and into bed beside her and she didn’t even realise I was there until she woke up next morning. 

I finally left the navy after 37 years in 1985 and we bought a home in Sydney. Being in the same place together was strange but good and we settled into a new routine until, in our 60s, we took in an orphaned niece and nephew aged 11. I’m a member and former president of [defence force charity] Legacy which assisted my mother when my World War I veteran father died in 1941, so we willingly accepted this new challenge, but needed help from our own children in dealing with things like new technology! The twins are now part of our family and very much loved. 

Today Helena and I live in the NSW Southern Highlands. We’ve been here 21 years — the longest ever in one house. We are ‘Darby and Joan’, devoted to one another. I feel most fortunate that Helena has loved and respected me for 62 years.

Helena Morrice, 82, recalls the tough times being married to a naval officer 

My father fought in World War I and my four oldest siblings saw naval service in World War II. My strongest memory is of my mother sitting at her desk to write to all her absent children. Her strength and the importance she put on communication was terrific and helped me when JO was away for months on end. 

My mother had cancer and my father Parkinson’s and both had died by the time I was 16. I was raised to be useful and resilient. When I met JO at a naval dinner, I was terribly shy. JO was terrific and it was obvious he was keen [on me] as he travelled to Adelaide to see me whenever he could get away.

We were married in January 1959 and a week later sailed to England. JO had promised the one-month trip in first class would be our honeymoon and I anticipated a lovely adventure. Unfortunately, I was terribly seasick.

When I discovered JO and I weren’t going to Malta, I cried for two days before realising there was no alternative but to get on with it. That continued to be my attitude and the only other time I ever cried as a naval wife was years later when we moved to Port Moresby together and the removalists lost my inventory of all our possessions, so I had to do it all again. 

JO was constantly away and every time he sailed, I took the children down to the harbour to wave him off. I often didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing but I never feared he wouldn’t come home. 

When I wrote to him, I never bothered him with problems. There’s no sense telling a man on a warship something is wrong. It’ll be three weeks before your letter arrives and they won’t be able to do anything about it so I only told him once problems were solved. 

Interestingly, the long absences were easier to put up with than the short ones but either way, whenever he came home, I ensured there was a place for him. I stopped putting out the bins, he looked after the money and I was always the disciplinarian with the children, I didn’t expect him to come back and do that.

We only had one overseas deployment together with all the children, which was in Auckland – and brilliant as we could be part of the community. 

In the meantime, I had my naval family — the other wives were an enormous source of support. JO has told me he found parenting challenging but when our then-teenage daughter Jane was critically injured in a car accident, he was a pillar of strength.  

We have such pride now in how our family has turned out. We have nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. One 14-year-old granddaughter told me recently: “You and Grandpa JO are so good together.”  

Paul Corp, 74, tells how his marriage was put to the test by his wife’s massive stroke 

Paul and Wendy Corp, at home in their garden

From the first moment I saw Wendy I was ‘gone’. She was beautiful, good at golf and enjoyed a beer. It was 1993 and we couldn’t believe our luck at finding each other at our age in life [in their 40s]. 

I went down on one knee in a restaurant and when she agreed to marry me, all the diners cheered. When I saw her in her beautiful wedding dress, I cried so hard I could hardly get my vows out. 

In 2001, we moved from Melbourne to Bribie Island in Queensland to be nearer my dad. We made lots of friends and started making plans for our retirement. Then in October 2003, six months after her 60th birthday, I walked into the kitchen and Wendy was sitting on the floor, unable to talk or move. 

Things have improved in terms of treatment now but all we were told then was Wendy had suffered a blockage and stroke. After two weeks in hospital, my girl spent nine weeks in rehabilitation. I drove 45 minutes every day to see her, but at night I’d come back to an empty bed and it was absolutely awful. 

Once Wendy could walk a little, they sent her home. However, she still couldn’t talk. Communication is everything in a relationship but all she could say was: “Yes” and I had to decipher what she meant by that. But you know, we laughed a lot at the results and that was important. 

Things improved when we found the aphasia speech therapy clinic at the University of Queensland. It sounds crazy but it was the first time we’d even heard the word aphasia [an acquired brain injury that often results from stroke]. They taught us a lot about the problem and what we could do.

We know others who’ve been left with aphasia and find it all too hard so give up, but Wendy was never one of those people. She spent hours in front of the computer, relearning how to shape her mouth to form a letter of the alphabet. Why did she work so hard? Because she wanted to come back to me and once we could talk again, it made the biggest difference.

Anglicare now sends people over to be with Wendy so we can both get a break from each other. That’s been a huge thing. You don’t realise you have to look after yourself so you can look after your partner.

We’ve had awful setbacks. Wendy lost a lot of blood having a pacemaker put in and subsequently lost the ability to swallow. It means she now has to be fed through a tube in her stomach. Two years ago, she also felt a lump in one of her breasts, resulting in a mastectomy. I help Wendy with everything now. There’s nothing private and that’s absolutely fine, but I’m glad I’m a bloke. When she had her breast screening, I thought, oh mate!

Wendy has been so determined and brave though all this. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her but if the situation was reversed, I know she’d do as much, if not more, for me. I feel exactly the same about her as I did the day we first met. 

Wendy Corp, 77, had to learn to talk again but her relationship has only grown sweeter 

The thing I liked most about Paul when we met was his sense of humour. He’s always laughing and his ability to see the funny side has been invaluable.

We married on my birthday, which I’ve never forgiven myself for as it means he only has to give me one present!

When I had the stroke, I was in the kitchen and suddenly couldn’t move. Paul said: “Are you all right, darling?” But I couldn’t respond.

Six months later, I managed to ask if I’d ever talk again and was told: “You won’t improve much from here.” I wept then. I’d rather they’d left me totally wheelchair-bound than unable to talk – but, ironically, I couldn’t tell them that.

I so love Paul, I had to be strong for him as well as me, to fight and to learn to communicate again. Finding the aphasia speech therapy clinic was a massive turning point. It was hard but I was determined. Today I can speak, read and write. 

I used to be the one who sorted out our problems and would joke that Paul was away with the fairies, but he does literally everything for me. Nothing is too much and I’m really proud of him.

When one partner becomes very ill, the relationship can go either way, but the best enjoy a new intense sweetness and that’s happened to us. We know each other on a different level now. 

Read more about seniors and their love habits in the Modern Dating report