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How to stay married

Emma Macdonald

The statistics are sobering. One in three marriages are likely to end in divorce, and the average marriage lasts just over 12 years. *

But optimism trumps realism when couples choose an engagement ring, post out those expensive invitations, and hurtle towards the aisle. We talk to three marriage experts about beating the odds and staying married for—possibly—forever, and discover the formula behind one couple’s 69-year steadfast love.

He was the dashing diplomat— the youngest recruit to Australia’s foreign service who arrived in Canberra in 1946 at the age of 18. She was the beautiful Parisian secretary at the French Embassy, then on Mugga Way.

They met at a British High Commission party in the days before Canberra’s population barely scraped 20,000. Odette Koven was attracted by James Ingram’s shyness.

“He was even shyer than I was and I liked that,” she says.

“Yes, I was shy, but I felt an instant attraction—and I still feel it to this day,” says Jim.

Now aged 89 and 90, Jim and Odette will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary later this year—having nurtured a love that is as evident today as it was when their wedding photos were taken in 1950 at the Hyatt.

Their simple secret?

Commitment.

Jim and Odette

Jim and Odette

Jim says “I believe marriage only works if you are totally committed to it—you can’t come to it hoping to ‘try’ to make a go of it because it won’t last.”

High-level diplomacy skills may also have something to do with it.

Jim and Odette married on a Monday and on the Wednesday they flew to their first posting in Israel.

The career diplomat, Jim devoted more than four decades to representing Australia on the international stage, rising to become the first Australian appointed to head a United Nations’ body—The World Food Program.

Odette was by his side while they relocated to capitals including Jakarta, Washington, Brussels, New York and Rome—raising two daughters and a son along the way.

Jim credits his wife with having the highest level of emotional intelligence of anyone he has ever met and of being “masterfully tactful”.

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“I could not be more grateful to Odette for the support she gave me over those years,” says Jim.

In turn, Odette says that Jim was the sort of man who carved out time for her and their children— no matter the professional demands on him.

“Jim is affectionate and caring. He always says that it is my inner spirit, the real me, that he loves.”

According to Jim, “I think to be totally absorbed in your job is wrong and I have never focused entirely on my work to the exclusion of my family.”

It wasn’t always easy: from the less-than-hospitable house waiting for them in Indonesia with no lightbulbs, sheets or furniture; to the time they were robbed, and feared for their safety, in the dying days of the Sukarno regime.

But they have maintained a love and mutual respect that has defied the years, the pressures of constant relocation and the isolation from friends and family.

“If anything, I think it made us turn inwards and rely on each other even more,” says Jim.

“Very rarely have we disagreed,” says Odette. “We have been fortunate to have had few arguments.”

Enjoying a quiet retirement in a beautiful home in the inner south, Jim and Odette still clearly cherish one another.

“When you are as old as we are and there is no escaping that the end is near, you look back on your life and I feel so fortunate— so blessed to have had Odette,” says Jim.

“Perhaps that is the problem with marriages these days, that people are focused on the wedding and the ceremony and all the excitement that goes with that.

“They should be considering the marriage into the future and how they can make it successful and how they can make it last. That’s probably the best place to focus their energies.” 

It is the job of Lee and Ruth Walton to ensure that couples rushing headlong to the altar are as best prepared to make it to their 67th wedding anniversary as possible.

Lee, a public servant, and Ruth, a retired teacher now working as a Deacon in an Anglican Parish, have been running pre-marriage courses for couples marrying at St John’s Church in Reid for more than three years.

“We were grateful for the mentoring we were given before we were married and during our first few years of marriage by an older couple, and having been married for 30 years, we wanted to be part of offering a similar opportunity for others,” says Lee.

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Four times a year, on a Saturday, Lee and Ruth take a roomful of engaged couples and guide them into preparing for a life-long partnership.

The course includes the presentation of a specific relationships model, a few discussions and activities as a group and a range of conversations by the couple themselves.

Lee and Ruth generally focus on the notion of “gridlock” arising within a marriage and, while acknowledging this is a really normal part of any relationship, try and present strategies to help couples navigate through.

“We know that when two people live together, conflict is inevitable,” says Ruth. “The determination to communicate when things are difficult is the skill they need.”

Both Lee and Ruth acknowledge that some betrothed couples can get so caught up in planning the details of the wedding day, they may not focus on “preparing for the life-long commitment in the relationship. There are also lots of pressures on a couple in the months leading up to a wedding—incompatible family expectations, costs of a wedding. It’s a tough, albeit exciting, time for all involved and it can be easy to forget what it is actually all about,” says Lee.

But they both vehemently support the concept of marriage.

“Life-long commitment builds trust, improves general wellbeing, provides a stable home for children—and is fantastic fun even if it is sometimes hard to navigate the various events that life inevitably throws at you. It is good to know someone will back you whatever,” says Ruth.

But sometimes, it does fall apart.

Janine Moran is a relationship counsellor and mediator who has, for more than a decade, specialised in helping couples with all aspects of relationship wellbeing.

She deals with the gamut of issues—financial woes, job losses, children, infertility, illness, infidelity and simple personal differences.

She helps people navigate the big isolated fights to unpicking decades of entrenched behaviours which push marriages to the brink.

When relationships reach that point, Janine is also a resource for mediated separations.

She believes that in those heady and romantic months before tying the knot, few couples want to wreck the moment by engaging in serious introspection about how they will cope if something goes wrong in the relationship.

“We have seen in recent years that partners expect more emotional support from each other than in the past—when marriages were practical and economic partnerships and perhaps there was more emotional support from extended family and the community,” says Janine.

Janine Moran. Copyright Beth Jennings Photography.

Janine Moran. Copyright Beth Jennings Photography.

“These days there is more pressure to attend to every emotional need of each other— which, of course, can be really difficult to get right.”

Underlying emotional needs revolve around feeling loved and safe with each other. “Do I count? Do you have my back? Am I safe with you? Do I matter to you? Can I trust you?”

If couples can answer yes to these fundamental questions, the other issues can usually be sorted out.

Of course, sometimes two people are just, well, different.

For instance, couples often present to Janine where one is a night owl and one is an early bird. Or one of the couple might be an introvert, the other more extroverted. “These issues never seem to worry couples in the beginning, but start to get in the way as life pressures come along,” she says.

Modern-day marriage stressors are increasingly focused on social media with many couples simply tuning each other out in favour of their phones.

“A common complaint in counselling these days might also see one partner complain about receiving more validation from friends on Facebook than from their partner. However, you have to bear in mind that the sort of validation you get in Facebook can be very superfcial and partners may be providing a more authentic connection than social media.”

In the end, a marriage requires communication and the people that tend to keep happy marriages are those who can “tune in and respond to the needs of each other.”

“It is unrealistic to think you won’t have issues in your marriage but rather than panic that it is not the partnership you thought it was, it is time to look at the strategies to best reach the other person.”

*Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent publication Marriages and Divorces Australia 2015, published November 2016. www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected] nsf/mf/3310.0

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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