This article is the 39th in a series profiling couples who have been married for at least 35 years. As sociologist Mark Regnerus writes, “Young adults want to know that it’s possible for two fellow believers to stay happy together for a lifetime, and they need to hear how the generations preceding them did it.” It is also important to see that marriages are not always happy all the time, but commitment is crucial.
Matt Mogekwu teaches at Ithaca College in upstate New York. His wife Gladys lives in Silver Spring, Md., a 10-hour bus ride away. They’ve been married for 36 years, but physically separated for the last five except for one weekend a month—yet they say their marriage is strong. What’s their secret?
Matt and Gladys met in Nigeria, where they grew up. In Nigeria, marriage is a prolonged and complicated process, with its success tied directly to the reputation of both families. Matt explains, “Ordinarily you don’t just walk into somebody’s house and ask: ‘Is Mary there please?’ They will blow your head off.” In Nigeria, when a man finds a prospective wife, he tells his parents, and his parents conduct a thorough investigation. The woman’s family does the same.
When the investigations are complete, both families begin to protect the interests of the newly-formed couple. “Where I come from, individuals don’t get married. It is their families that get married,” Matt said. “This is why we can’t just take off and run away because you will be a stigma forever and disgracing your family.”
However, there is more to their marriage than Nigeria’s socially constructed tradition. After their traditional wedding ceremony, they had their Christian-style wedding in East Lansing, Michigan while Matt was working on his Masters degree. That is when their real journey as a married couple began. “Since then we’ve been together. We were very much in love, the longer we stay, the more reason we have to be in love every minute.”
One of the reasons is their five children. “These five people,” Matt said, pointing to his children’s photos sitting on his document-cluttered desk. “In Nigeria, there is a saying: The baby goat always watches the mama goat, whatever grass or leaf the mama goat eats, the baby goat want to eat it. So whatever we do, these kids are watching. We know we owe them responsibility so that they will not go astray.”
In the past, Matt has made career-altering compromise to keep the family together. When they first returned to Africa after Matt finished school in the U.S., Matt had to choose between two teaching offers from two universities: The university with the weather Gladys liked or the university with stronger academics. Matt chose to make Gladys happy, even though he had to work much harder to move ahead.
When the bad economy hit the U.S. in 2007, Matt had to move north and look for jobs in New York. Cladys has been living in Maryland since then with their unmarried children. For them, this state of separation is not ideal, but necessary. “I want a job that would sustain all of us.” Matt said. “They understood that it’s not easy. There are challenges but we all understand it’s for the good of the family.”