This Valentine's Day, legions of sweethearts will shower each other with flowers, candy, and honeyed Hallmarks. But while flowers wilt and greeting cards fade, real love lasts. How? To find out, WORLD sought out experts: Five couples, each married for more than 50 years. Despite hardship, these couples have weathered lifetimes together, and combined they represent nearly three centuries of experience in what it takes to make a marriage last. Here are their love stories.
Herman & Mary Fiala
King of Kings Lutheran Church
Married 53 years
People often ask Mary Fiala how long she and her husband Herman have been married. "54 years," she'll say, then add with mock anxiety: "Do you think it's going to last?"
At this point, it looks certain. Mrs. Fiala, 72, has known Mr. Fiala, 77, all her life. The two were pupils together at a little country schoolhouse in Nebraska where Herman was several grades ahead of her and, she remembers, the same "gentle soul" he is now. One snowy day when she was 6 and Herman was 11, Mary looked in her lunch pail to find only a small packet of fried green tomatoes.
"My family was very poor, though I didn't know it," she says. "I looked at the tomatoes and thought, 'Omigosh, not again.' But Herman Fiala came over to me and said, 'Would you like a piece of my cake? I brought an extra piece today.'
"I said no! I don't know why I said no; I really wanted a piece of that cake!"
Though their families moved to other parts of the county, their parents kept in touch. Then one day, Herman came into the diner where Mary waitressed, earning money for college, and asked her to go to a church festival with him. They married about a year later, in 1951, when he was 24 and she was 19.
At first their ages often outstripped the balance in their bank account. Mrs. Fiala, now a retired teacher, recently purged paperwork she'd saved for decades and found bank statements showing balances as low as $2.50.
The Fialas also had their disagreements. "I'm the firecracker," said Mrs. Fiala: "I'm the one who explodes." But her husband, she said, is still as gentle as the day he offered her his lunch-pail cake. "He thinks things through to decide whether [an issue] is important enough to mention. If he does, he'll tell me, 'This is what I think we should do.'"
Nor is Mr. Fiala a man to shower his wife with flowery endearments. "It's more important to him to bring in flowers that he raised himself," Mrs. Fiala said. "Or to fix something when it's broken. That's his way of showing love, as opposed to a lot of fancy words."
Mrs. Fiala sums up their marital success in a word: God. A grandson in December told Mr. Fiala, "Grandpa, I would like to give the Fiala name to my girlfriend Katie, if that's OK with you." That was fine, Mr. Fiala allowed, as long as God would be in the new marriage, too.
Dick & Bettye Tremmel
Emmanuel Christian Center
Spring Lake Park, Minn.
Married 60 years
Bettye Johnston had known Dick Tremmel when they were kids growing up in northeast Minneapolis. But then the boy she'd known joined the Marine Corps to fight Hitler and Hirohito. When he came home on furlough in 1944, she remembers, he was a man. "I just noticed how he had a strength; he made the decisions: Let's go here, let's do this," she explains. "That's what attracted me."
On their very first date, Dick told Bettye he was a Christian and that he was going to heaven. "I thought, wow! I want this guy."
Dick wanted Bettye, too. They married in September 1944 and he returned to his Marine Corps unit in North Carolina, where she joined him a month later. But they were only together a day and a half before the Corps shipped him out to the South Pacific. Their son was born the next July.
But Mr. Tremmel would not see his baby boy or new bride for more than a year. As war raged across the South Pacific, Mr. Tremmel survived the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody siege that claimed the lives of nearly every original member of his unit, plus many of their replacements.
"We knew what was coming," Mrs. Tremmel, 80, says now. "We knew whatever we had to do without, we'd do without, and we just hoped and prayed the Lord would bring Dick home."
The Lord did. Mr. Tremmel returned to his wife and son on Christmas Eve 1945. The post-WWII housing shortage left them without a place to live, but they endured that and other trials, said Mr. Tremmel, by practicing forgiveness. "Jesus Christ is our propitiation," Mr. Tremmel, 83, says. "If He can forgive us for all the dumb things we do, we can surely forgive each other for the little things that come up now and then."
He worries that couples today don't know the meaning of the word commitment. But the Tremmels have modeled it for their children. "Sometimes when you don't like what's happening [in your marriage], you just have to plough through," Mrs. Tremmel said. "Somewhere, somebody sees that and takes it to heart."
Ron & Mary Lou Davis
Married 55 years
In 1947, when Mary Lou was a sophomore in high school, she learned that the school's Future Farmers of America chapter had planned a party. Among the invited guests: members of the Future Homemakers of America, a club to which Mary Lou belonged.
"I'm not going to any farmer's party!" Mary Lou told her mother. "If you've been invited," her mother replied, "you most certainly will go."
Mary Lou is glad she obeyed. That's where she met Future Farmer Ron Davis, a handsome senior and her future husband.
Ron came from a broken home: His father had abandoned his mother, and his grandparents raised him and his younger brother on a farm in the Allegheny Mountain region of Pennsylvania.
Ron knew he wanted the solid, traditional home life he had not had as a boy. Mary Lou wanted Ron to have a happy home like her own. Two weeks after she graduated, the couple became Mr. and Mrs. Davis.
Tough times followed. In 1957, they moved to Ohio, where Mr. Davis earned a living as a long-haul truck driver. "I was by myself a lot. It was hard during those times," Mrs. Davis says now. She believes one thing that kept the family strong was their decision that she would not work outside their home. "Just him knowing I was there, that when he came home, the whole family was there, that was important."
Mr. Davis agrees. "She handled it a lot better than most women. I knew a lot of men in the trucking industry and there was a high divorce rate because of adultery" by both husbands and wives. "We never had that problem. We attribute that to our obedience to Christ."
Not that they've had a perfect marriage. "We've had differences. We still do," Mrs. Davis said. "But we pray about things and we talk it over and everything seems to work out. I have to think back, what made me fall in love with him years ago? He's still the same person now."
"Wait a minute, you told me I was a better person," Mr. Davis says. "And that if you stayed married to me another 50 years I'd be perfect!"
They laugh, still best friends.
Daniel & Rachel Craig
Lake Forest, Calif.
Married 56 years
Rachel Craig fell in love with her future husband when she was only 9 years old. Daniel was the son of a British missionary who traveled around Argentina planting churches. She was the daughter of European parents who had emigrated to Argentina. When their paths crossed at Plymouth Brethren Church, Daniel was 18 and taught Sunday school to elementary-school boys. Rachel's elementary-age class met in the same room, but she didn't learn a lot that year: "I spent all my time looking at him."
Seven years later, when Daniel was 25 and Rachel was 16, he asked her to marry him. For Rachel it had only been a matter of time: "I knew when I saw him in Sunday school that he was for me."
The Craigs traveled a lot, living first in Argentina, then in London where they moved with Daniel's career as a manager for a worldwide steamship company. In 1953, they returned to Argentina to raise their children, the eldest of whom was 9. But soon, Eva Peron swept into power and her dictatorship absorbed the country's political and educational institutions. Daniel was pressured to join the Peronist party or face losing his salary. At the private British school their children attended, the lessons began to revolve around the life of Eva Peron.
"We decided that wasn't for us," Rachel said. "No matter what, the Lord was going to come first." The Craigs applied at the American embassy for resident visas and moved to the United States in 1959. "We came seeking freedom for our children, freedom of religion, seeking the Lord in every way."
They raised four children, have 12 grandchildren, and now volunteer as marriage counselors at Saddleback church. Their marriage-buffeted at times by financial problems and family separation due to Daniel's career-has been largely a peaceful one, a fact they attribute to the culture of Christian devotion they encouraged in their home.
They also try to keep things light. "Sometimes people take life too seriously," Rachel says. "They enlarge their problems so big that they cannot cope with them." Many of the married couples they mentor, she said, spend no time in God's Word, and want to "manage their lives with their egos instead of by the Holy Spirit." To make strong marriages, the Craigs suggest switching drivers.
Arthur & Cookie Wood
Park City Presbyterian Church
Married 57 years
While courting her in New York City in December 1947, Arthur Wood kept telling Betty "Cookie" Cooke that they'd known each other long enough to marry. They'd met and dated a bit the previous April when he flew in from Oklahoma for a business meeting at the home offices of New York Life. She was 25 and he was 28-in those days a bit old to be single, an issue that concerned them both. Still, as Arthur squired her around the city when he returned for two weeks that December, Cookie told him she'd always favored a long engagement.
Arthur, however, wouldn't take no for an answer. Every day for a week, he sent long-stemmed roses to her 5th Avenue office where she worked as a corporate secretary. "She was vivacious, attractive, outgoing, interesting," he says now. "I noticed especially that she related well to people. I could see she had what I needed. She had the whole package."
For her part, Cookie said Arthur was attentive and romantic, taking her to dinner, indoor polo games, the theater, and walking with her all over New York. As for all those roses, well, "I think that's when my personnel manager started looking for a replacement."
After traveling to Oklahoma to meet Arthur's family, the couple married in February 1948. Despite their whirlwind courtship, they were practical about marriage and thought their common backgrounds-both had college educations, came from families of similar financial standing, and were Christians-boded well. And they did. Still, they fought about the normal things like money and child discipline-"and a few others," Arthur laughs.
Their children grew up during the child-indulgent Dr. Spock generation. Cookie says she wasn't very good at spanking. Arthur says he was better at spanking than talking things out. Family finances were also tricky because as an insurance agent, Arthur always worked on straight commission. Cookie stayed home to raise their four kids, but, not knowing how much money was coming in, often felt insecure. Eventually, they worked out a viable solution: Cookie would have her own budget regardless of what kind of financial month Arthur was having.
That solution was 20 years in the making.
"There's always something to work through," Cookie says of marriage, noting that today's "something" is Arthur's hearing ("I think he has a hearing problem. He thinks it's my talking.") But the Woods urge other couples not to get hung up in the struggles.
"Focus on living one day at a time," Cookie said, "because God's grace is fresh every morning."
'You just can't give up'
Not every married couple makes a big deal out of Valentine's Day, but Anthony and Mitchie Stewart of Tallahassee, Fla., vividly remember Feb. 14, 1996. Their son Jamal, then 3, was spending the night with grandma, and Mr. Stewart had planned a cozy dinner for two, a warm bath, rose petals-to some wives, the stuff of romantic dreams.
But not to Mrs. Stewart. By then she was tired of fighting with her husband over the time he spent away from home, working overtime or hanging with his friends. It had gotten so bad, she remembers, that the couple would pass in the driveway-Mrs. Stewart and Jamal pulling in, Mr. Stewart pulling out. On at least one such occasion, Jamal began to cry.
"So when Anthony planned this really nice dinner at home, I was like 'whatever,'" said Mrs. Stewart, 41, a university admissions officer. "I thought, he's never here, what's the point? Valentine's Day comes around and now he wants to be the perfect husband. I did not want to be bothered. I just went through the motions."
She kept going through the motions for three more years. Mr. Stewart, meanwhile, truly loved his wife and thought he was showing it by being a good provider. The pharmacy supervisor, now 42, tried to change to please her, but change never lasted. Finally, in February 2000, the Stewarts divorced.
They don't recommend it.
But American culture does. A booming marriage-therapy industry encourages warring partners to seek first their individual happiness. Hollywood tries to normalize divorce, populating casts with characters who've split or are splitting. Even bumper stickers celebrate divorce with slogans like "I miss my ex, but my aim is improving."
"The societal model today is if you're not happy, well, just dump them, move on, and find someone else," said Ellen Purcell, administrative director and master teacher for the PAIRS Foundation, a marriage-education group in Reston, Va. Increasingly, PAIRS and other marriage-education and mentoring programs are battling against society's divorce-as-antidote message.
For example, Marriage Savers, a Bible-centered program, has trained mentor couples in 10,000 churches to coach other couples through troubled times. Meanwhile, more than 70,000 brink-of-divorce couples have attended Retrouvaille, a free, weekend program at which attendees learn from other couples who swerved to avoid divorce and rebuilt happy marriages. Eighty percent of couples that attend Retrouvaille decide to stayed married.
Divorce didn't cure Anthony and Mitchie Stewart. They remained on cordial terms as they shared custody of Jamal. By 2003, both were even engaged to marry someone else. But as their new nuptials approached, each wrestled privately with God.
One night after dropping off Jamal at Mitchie's house, Mr. Stewart went home, lay down on his bed, and cried. "I prayed and told God, 'Here I am about to marry [another] young lady, and I still seem to have feelings for Mitchie. I don't want to make a mistake. Show me what to do.'" He realized then that Mitchie was his wife, the woman he had made a covenant with.
Mr. Stewart didn't know it, but Mitchie had already had the same change of heart and had broken off her own engagement. And when Jamal, then 10, learned that his father wasn't going to marry the new lady, he told his mother: "Mama, my prayers have been answered."
Last year, the Stewarts made a very big deal out of Valentine's Day: They got married again at their home church, Bethel AME in Tallahassee. But not before attending a PAIRS class to learn how to work through struggles that once tore them apart.
PAIRS helped the Stewarts learn to communicate without the extremes of cold wars or fireworks. "It helped me learn to listen and not just hear, to really listen and take in what he's saying," Mrs. Stewart said. Her husband agrees: "We learned to try to come to a mutual agreement, and not just shut down. Now, if I have to take one step back to go forward, I say let's do that. I've learned to work toward the middle ground."
The Stewarts' advice to couples considering divorce? "Don't give up," Mrs. Stewart said. "You may not like that person right now, but you have to keep working at it. You just can't give up. It's not worth it."