Health & Fitness

Lifetime of loving — what long-married couples can teach us about relationships

MUTUAL RESPECT: Wesley and Margaret Bennett of Punta Gorda have been happily married for 51 years and they say their secret to a long marriage is having respect for each other.
MUTUAL RESPECT: Wesley and Margaret Bennett of Punta Gorda have been happily married for 51 years and they say their secret to a long marriage is having respect for each other. For the Miami Herald

Wesley and Margaret Bennett spent summers camping in the national parks and always valued each others’ respect.

Robert Levine survived the Normandy invasion with an amputated leg but always kept a positive attitude, something his wife Edith very much appreciated.

Russell and Edith White put their faith first and the rest followed.

Three couples, all married more than 50 years. Their stories are incorporated into a new book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice From the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage, by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.

Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor at Cornell University, began researching long-term couples four years ago, based on the assumption that older people can impart relationship wisdom to generations who follow them.

“R​esearch shows that older people are actually happier than younger people,’’ he said. “​People in their teens and early 20s are about as happy as old people.​ Th​e idea hit me: Do older people know things about living happy, healthy and more fulfilling lives that young people don’t?

“And could​ I find that out using surveys​ ​and distill it and make it available to young people​?​ ​T​he answer is yes.”

Here, then, are the lessons learned from the three couples:

Begun with bowling

The third time Wesley Bennett was stationed in Hawaii, he was assigned to a Naval shipyard at Pearl Harbor — 18 years after the bombing. There, he met Margaret, a secretary in his office. Their first date was at a bowling alley.

“We started bowling together after work and that’s when we started getting together,” said Wesley, now 87. “That was the beginning.”

Wesley flipped through an old photo album in a dimly lit one-bedroom apartment in an assisted-living facility in Punta Gorda on Florida’s West Coast. Margaret, his wife of 51 years, slept quietly in the next room.

“This was back in our garden. This is all our land here, these are all maple trees around here,” he said, pointing to photos of his backyard near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

In the 40-year-old picture, Margaret was tending to her vegetable garden, showing her prized zucchini, squash and tomatoes to a friend from Hawaii. Margaret, of Japanese descent, was born in Honolulu.

After getting married in 1963, they moved to San Diego for four years, where Wesley was stationed in the Navy. They joined a bowling league and bowled twice a week. By 1967, Wesley, then 39, retired from the Navy, ending his 22-year career.

In 1968, the duo bought a 100-acre farm in his home state of Pennsylvania. For 14 years, they raised a small number of Angus cattle, grew corn and canned vegetables. Margaret even learned how to make wine — and sauerkraut.

“We didn’t question whether we was going to make it or not, we figured we were and it’s still working out. She had never canned, in fact, she had never cooked much before she got married,” Wesley said. “I took care of everything outside and she handled everything inside. I was fortunate.”

So was Margaret. Wesley will never forget the words his mother-in-law, then 80, told her after they moved to their Pennsylvania farm: “I can go home and die now. I know you’re happy.”

Part of that happiness stemmed from traveling together. After he retired from the Navy, he drove a school bus and they invested in an RV. Thus began 30 summers of exploring national parks and the country.

“We would go on trips in the summer camping with our friends,” Wesley said. “We’ve been across the States several times and we both enjoyed that. We would go from two months at a time, go West. It’s a plus if it works out good like that.”

Together, they traveled more than 300,000 miles and visited every state except North Dakota, often camping in national parks. In fact, it was during a 2007 trip to Yosemite National Park in California that led to Margaret’s Parkinson’s diagnosis. She tripped and broke her pelvis at the park. When she returned home, doctors connected her fall with Parkinson’s.

Today, Margaret needs full-time care; Wesley is the chief caregiver.

“She’s not hurting, but she can’t partake in anything,” he said. “She can’t carry on a conversation with me.”

Margaret, who spends most of her days sleeping, stirred in the bedroom. Wesley hoisted her onto her four-wheeled walker, rolled her into the living room and repositioned her on the couch. He placed his arm around her small shoulder and squeezed.

“Look at circumstances,” he said. “We decided to move in here and it was the best way to go, out of respect for each other. We’re not going to leave each other in the lurch.”

He called respect the most important ingredient for making their 51-year marriage thrive.

“If you don’t respect each other, you aren’t going to make it,” Wesley said. “In order to get that respect, you have to give respect. If you give it, it will be returned to you, if that’s the right one.”

Even as their conversations have faded, Wesley said he never feels alone. He turned to her and asked if she agreed. She quietly said, “mmhmm.”

“You’re not alone; I’m with you,” he added.

A war story shared

Bob Levine said meeting his wife on a blind date was pure luck. He was a former prisoner of war looking for love and she was exactly what he wanted.

“You know when it’s right. Personalities has a lot to do with it.”

They grew up in the Bronx on the same block, went to the same elementary school and loved dogs. They had wire-haired Dachshunds for more than 29 years.

“It was all very fast. I met him in March and then we didn’t see each other again until May,” said 87-year-old Edith Levine, his wife of 64 years. Shortly after they reconnected, she went to Paris to visit her brother and his wife. Edith attributes their romance to writing “good letters from Europe.”

They married in November 1950, less than a year after they met. He was 25; she was 23.

Their first few years of married life, Edith recalled, revolved around getting to know each other.

“It wasn’t all a bowl of roses. I remember when things were tough and I would say, ‘The kids had the measles, mumps and chicken pox, the roof was leaking, the basement was flooded, we couldn’t pay the bills,’” Edith said. “But Bob would say, ‘No one’s shooting at you, take a shower.’ That was his mantra.”

Bob, now 89, learned not to sweat the small stuff after being wounded in World War II. He took part in the Normandy invasion in 1944 as a member of the 90th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He was injured during the invasion, strafed by shrapnel, leaving a broken leg and a crushed right foot.

He woke up lying on a table in a Normandy farmhouse. He said he never expected to see the next day. He was Jewish, injured and captured by the Germans. But a German doctor saved his life by amputating his right leg.

“It was pretty scary to say the least. There was nothing I could do, but stay in bed. It shaped my whole future, the way I looked at life,” he said. “I was able to overcome some difficult days because I had this perspective of having serious problems before.”

Bob was lucky. He landed in a German-run military hospital in Rennes, France, that treated Allied POWs. The staff consisted of French, American and British medical personnel, he said. Three months later, the Americans liberated the hospital and Bob returned home.

The experience, Edith said, made him the person she fell in love with: a sweet, upbeat guy.

“That has been what made my life easier. I’m a worrier and he is so positive all the time,” Edith said. “I was very blessed.”

Years later, they would travel to France and find the German doctor. The doctor had left a note in Bob’s pocket, explaining why he amputated the leg. With the help of a French historian, they located German records that verified the doctor’s name.

They stayed in his house and later hosted the German doctor’s grandchildren when they visited the United States.

“It was the weekend the 90th Infantry Division liberated this little town of Périers,” Edith said. “It was a life-changing moment for us.”

One rule they’ve always kept in their marriage: Don’t go to bed angry.

“A long time ago I heard some guy say the secret to a successful marriage. He would say, ‘I was wrong’ and that helped quite a bit,” Bob said. “I didn’t argue too much. I would just say ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’ and that worked.”

Decades later, their love remains effervescent. They cherish their three grandchildren and two grand dogs.

“I was just looking for comfort and support and that’s what I got from Edith,” he said. “Like everything in life, it’s luck.”

They’re spending their golden years in a senior living residence in northern New Jersey.

“We’re almost like one person, we know each other so well. It’s just really amazing,” he added. “There’s no him and her, it’s us.”

Bending the rules

They met in high school, but never thought of each other as relationship material until college.

“He was one of the gang. I really wasn’t attracted to him,” said Edith White, now 86, and living in Venice, Florida.

Russell, however, recalled they both acted in their school’s senior play. They were from a small town — Sharon, Massachusetts — 17 miles south of Boston. They both were Class of 1946.

They reconnected over Christmas 1948, their junior year of college. Edith’s church had a dance and she needed a date. “Ask Russell White,” her mom said. She called him and he agreed.

“I’d always joked I’d never forgive her mother for that,” said Russell, 86, laughing.

The dance sparked an off-and-on relationship for the next year and a half. By the summer of 1949, they were more serious. “In the evenings, he used to walk me home. We used to hold hands. I don’t remember dating, we just did,” Edith said.

They enjoyed ballroom dancing and the theater. And they wanted the same thing: children, a stable home and their families nearby. By June 1950, the Korean War had broken out. They had just graduated from college and discussed an engagement, but there was one stumbling block.

“My father and mother had a rule that I was not to get married until I had worked one year and made my own money and kept my own checkbook,” Edith said. “That was a rule I had to go by. And then when it looked like Russ would probably be drafted, we got married earlier than we planned.”

They married the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, 1950.

“We both felt compatible and comfortable with each other,” said Russell, a retired engineer. “We knew each others’ families.”

The transition from casual dating to marriage was easy. The couple agreed on most matters.

“Always from the beginning, we had one account,” Russell said. “We both felt honest with each other that she wouldn’t blow it all one weekend. We weren’t wealthy. We had to be careful and put money aside.”

He also joined her church, the First Congregational Church of Sharon. Then in 1952, their first child was born, to be followed by three more. The decision for Edith to quit her job was never an issue.

“We didn’t think of it as abnormal,” said Edith, who didn’t return to teaching until their youngest daughter, born in 1959, was in the fourth grade, nearly 12 years later. “It was what everybody did. It’s such a different life.”

Russell’s job took them to Holland for two years. Edith learned Dutch with with a woman at her church. The kids, still young, went to Sunday school at an American airbase and spent off time traveling around Europe.

“We had a lot of good times,” Russell said.

It wasn’t until a medical scare in the late 1990s that the couple reconsidered their living arrangement. While out shopping in 1998, Edith suffered a blood clot in her brain that left her paralyzed on the right side of her body. “That was a big challenge,” she said.

“They only gave her a 15 percent chance that night,” Russell said. “But we survived it.”

The couple moved to Venice, near Sarasota, in 1999. They eventually moved into an assisted-living facility there.

This year they’ll celebrate 65 years of marriage. They have four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Russell compiled their family history into a 347-page book.

The secret of their marriage? Talking honestly with each other.

“It’s important for people to be open with each other and know the rules,” Russell said.

Added Edith: “He was a very serious and honest man.”