The Carters' Advice for a Successful Marriage Is So Simple, Many People Will Never Understand Its Depth

(AP Photo/Branden Camp, File)

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalyn Carter sat down for an interview with ABC News recently to discuss a new documentary on their lives together and their time serving others.

In one clip with the Habitat for Humanity legends, ABC’s Steve Osunsami asked the Carters about the secret to the longevity of their 75-year marriage. If you are engaged to be married or have yet to find that special someone, please pay attention to President Carter’s words here and write them on your heart. You will receive no better advice than this.

First of all – choose the right person.

This may seem like simple advice. Even easy advice. Do not let the stark truth of this get lost in the simplicity.

Many years ago I recall reading an interview with actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her mother Blythe Danner. Paltrow asked her mother how she and producer husband Bruce Paltrow had sustained their nearly 45-year marriage before his death in 2002. Danner answered, “We never wanted to get divorced at the same time.”

The best marriage advice is the simplest. Too many people desperate for the loving partnership of icons like the Carters don’t understand that the best marriages take work from the beginning, and part of that work is making the right choice in the first place. In the modern West, we don’t arrange marriages anymore for the most part. We marry for love, and while that is preferable in many ways, it can sometimes rob us of good sense in the early, heady days of a relationship.

You cannot choose a marriage partner based on being in love with them.

It sounds counterintuitive to our modern ears, but that is perhaps a big reason why arranged marriages statistically last longer than love matches. In an arranged marriage, both partners are going into the union with low emotional expectations. They do not have to make demands about romance or sex. Theirs is an arrangement decided by older (and presumably wiser) people who have a lot more experience in the dynamics of a successful relationship. Rather than beginning in love, they begin in practicality, and then love grows out of that. Certainly, some cultures abuse the idea, but I think the reader can see what I’m getting at.

Being in love is not just the easy part, it’s the shiny but thin veneer over a deeper truth. It’s the front of the dress on that pretty model in the magazine. It fits perfectly, it’s glamorous, and she looks absolutely perfect in that dress. However, if you get a look at the model from behind, you will see that dress is just precariously held together with clips and ties, adjusted to make it seem as though it is a custom fit, as though it were built just for that model.

Being in love is an involuntary act. That is why we call it “falling” in love. You have no control over it, but it looks perfect on you in the mirror anyway.

Loving someone is what happens when the clips of the dress bust, and the glamorous exterior falls away, revealing undergarments that don’t seem nearly as attractive as the original dress. And then you choose to keep loving that person anyway.

Being in love is not a good enough gauge of whether or not to marry someone. It costs nothing to fall in love and wallow in that bliss.

Love is a choice.

That choice has to start at the start — to put it as simply as the Carters frame their own marriage. You don’t choose who you fall in love with, but you can choose whom to marry and too many people make bad choices when it comes to the start. A marriage based on a bad choice is going to be a tough road to travel. It can be done, but it will be painful and costly. If you can learn to be discerning before you walk down the aisle, you will spare yourself a lot of heartache down the road.

So how do you “choose” the right person to marry? That answer is not so simple, and obviously, it is as subjective as the subjects involved. But there are a few things to consider as you try to decide if the person you’re in love with will make a good life partner.

Will they be a good parent?

That is subjective, as well. What you deem as “good parenting” may differ greatly from what others do. It doesn’t matter. The parenting discussion is something you should have long before you put those rings on. If you decide to procreate, it will be the biggest decision of your life together and probably one of the things you will argue over most. Make sure you’re on the same page. This can be a topic that will lead to divorce if you aren’t going into it in agreement over the proper way to raise children. You must at least agree to learn from each other on the issue.

Will they support you?

Women, will you be working to support this man (if so, please run)? Men, will you allow your wife to stay home with children, or to go out and thrive in a career if that is her desire? Do you both have a shared vision? Do you support each other’s individual visions? Support isn’t someone kissing you deeply and telling you that you’re the best. Support will involve sacrifice at some point. Will your partner sacrifice their own comfort for your life’s goals?

Do they see divorce as an option? 

People get divorced for all kinds of reasons and it is not up to us to judge another’s relationship. But going into a marriage with the idea of divorce as an escape hatch is a major red flag. If you have it in the back of your mind as you begin, believe me…at some point, it will enter the front of your mind. Even when you don’t consider it an option it will still haunt you from time to time. If you give divorce that foothold in your mindset from the start, you will doom the effort it takes to push through some of the truly difficult times you will most assuredly run into during your union. Make sure you’re both on the same page about how you view divorce as a way out. For my relationship, divorce is never and was never on the table. That doesn’t mean either of us hasn’t wished it were, or hasn’t contemplated leaving for one reason or another. It just means that the option is never on the table. We have to work it out. We have to choose love, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. And like Blythe Danner, if you marry the right person, your resolves (or lack thereof) will rotate in perfection. You won’t ever want that divorce at the same time. And sometimes it really is as simple as that.

Is there love?

It’s cliche but there is no better test for what true and lasting love — not IN LOVE, but genuine, enduring love — is than 1Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres

Is your partner patient? Does he treat you and others kindly? Is she arrogant or boastful? Is he honest? Is she often selfish or does she anger easily and treat others poorly? Does your partner hold a grudge? Is he able to rejoice in the successes of others or does he instead get a kick out of when bad things happen to successful people? Does your partner choose trust, choose hope, choose perseverance?

These are the simple but foolproof measures of a love that can survive a 75-year marriage.

Don’t be fooled by the quiet sweetness of the Carter marriage. Behind those eyes is a story that is much more exciting, filled with many more pitfalls, fights, and tears than any of us have a right to know. Behind that success story is day after day after day after day of choices…mostly mundane.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking being in love is the test of a successful marriage. It’s only the first (and frankly the weakest) step of a thriving marital journey.

Listen to the Carter family. Choose the right person, and if you’re not sure the person you’re engaged to is actually the right person to sustain a lifetime commitment…well, you have your answer.