Editor's Note: Today, we welcome Mary Hasson to our CatholicMom.com family of contributors.  Mary will join us twice a month to share her writing on a variety of faith and family topics.  With Kimberly Hahn, Mary is the co-author of the great book Catholic Education: Homeward Bound : A Useful Guide to Catholic Home Schooling.  Please take some time today to enjoy Mary's blog Words from Cana.  Welcome Mary and thanks for sharing the gift of your writing with us!  LMH

I couldn’t help but notice their chemistry.

Paul and Lynn were our unexpected dinner companions, joining our small group for a delicious seafood dinner. The meal was fabulous, truly, but not nearly as memorable as this delightful couple.

Their enviable relationship was the fruit of fifty years of marriage, some very hard times, and one secret—the secret, I discovered, that can make nearly every marriage better.

It’s been a tough year for marriage, in my world.

Four couples I care about are divorcing this year after 13, 17, 24, and 28 years together. Their backgrounds, hometowns, and stories all differ.  Some are parting for just cause; others for the excitement offered elsewhere. But twenty children (the combined total from the four families) now share a common, painful experience: lives turned upside down, families fractured, and hearts broken.

Recently I stumbled across an interview with writer Nora Ephron, a frank and usually funny woman.  But she spoke seriously about divorce: “There are a lot of people who get divorced and several years later they think, ‘Hmm, was I really that bored?’ ...Don't kid yourself that your kids are OK. The kids are really not alright. It doesn't mean they don't survive; it's just, don't kid yourself that kids like leaving one house to go to another. It's not what they're built for.... It's tough for kids; it just is.”

Even when divorce is the right solution for an untenable situation, like abuse, it wounds not just the couple but the families and friends who love them both.

So my heart smiled within minutes of meeting this pair, Paul and Lynn. They glowed with love for each other—twinkled together, really--as Lynn shared their plans to celebrate fifty years of marriage with a ten-day cruise to Alaska.

When she spoke, his eyes shone with tenderness and crinkled in smiling delight.  He listened, really listened, when she talked. No glazed eyes or dismissive looks; no wavering attention or a wandering eye. He really wanted to hear what she was saying over dinner. No matter that they’d already shared some 17,000 dinner discussions. He was as attentive that night as if it were their first conversation.

And her face sparkled, with both youthful affection and mature love, as she talked about him, the life they had shared, and the years ahead. She enjoyed him, leaning forward to catch his soft-spoken words, touching him affectionately, and anticipating his needs before he did. It was unself-conscious and real.

But I was sure that it hadn’t come easy.

Over the years, I’ve mentored many women in marriage and motherhood and gratefully learned much from those who’ve mentored me.  I approached Lynn in that spirit as we mingled after dinner. Thinking of the pain in my friends’ relationships, I wondered, how do Paul and Lynn repair marital rifts that tear other marriages apart? What keeps love flickering and then roaring back to life when human weakness, failings, and sin threaten to smother it? What’s the secret to a marriage like theirs?

So I asked Lynn.  She paused, but only for a few seconds, and said.

“It’s simple, but it’s not easy...

“It’s what’s in your heart. You’ve got to LOVE each other. We’re happy because I do things for him and he does things for me. That’s what love means… I do things for him and he does things for me.”

It was how they lived their life: I do things for him and he does things for me.

As she talked, it became clear that the “things” they’ve done for one another were way beyond the “pick-up-his-socks” and “surprise-her-by doing-the dishes” things suggested in typical marriage columns. Their mutual “doing” carried them across parched deserts and through tumultuous rapids—past the dangerous places where marriages die. It was no easy feat.

They were married at 18, had four kids, moved many times, and endured years of penny-pinching.  At times, Paul worked two jobs and Lynn did double duty at home.  And when he was unemployed, she worked and he scrimped. They survived teenage turmoil without turning on each other and avoided the blame game for their money troubles.

This attitude of heart--I do things for him and he does things for me—was woven into the fabric of their life, carrying them through new trials even at later stages. With children launched, finances eased.  But life challenged them anew. A once in a lifetime business venture to secure their retirement carried high costs: a move to a different continent, selling everything and leaving adult kids and grandkids behind.

It tested them mightily. Lynn was miserable. She missed her family, friends, church, and the familiarity of life stateside. She wanted to leave. And Paul listened. She had come there for him and he’d move now for her. While leaving the country was not possible yet, moving within the city was. Lynn would choose. They moved from the city apartment that was perfect for Paul, close to work, to a village near the sea, where Lynn could create a home, find friends and a place to worship.  And two years later, they would return to the U.S., back to family and friends.

As in times past, their common pledge--that simple secret--kept them going. I do things for him and he does things for me.

“It takes work,” Lynn said. “If you’re gonna love each other, you’ve got to ask what the other person needs. And then give it.  You’re in this together. That’s why I say, I do things for him and he does things for me.”

Fifty years had stoked their passion and fifty years had burnt away selfishness. Deep inside their hearts, an everlasting ember gave off sparks of joy, delight, warmth, and affection at regular intervals. Theirs is a mutual love that says, I do things for him and he does things for me.

For me, I’ve learned a new shorthand for the theological truths of “mutual self-gift,” “sacrificial love,” and “finding fulfillment by giving yourself to another in love.”

“I do things for him and he does things for me.”

Much more memorable, don’t you think? And that’s the secret of a good marriage.

© 2011 Mary Rice Hasson