Real Living: Meet the love experts

What makes a relationship work? Lesley Steyn asks two couples, who have clocked up nearly 80 years of marriage between them, for their Valentine secrets
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Michael (65) and Sandra Mann (64) married in 1959. Michael is a retired director from the British Standards Institute and Sandra is a magistrate. They live in Milton Keynes and have two sons. Lionel (61) and Gloria Refson (60) have been married for 38 years. Lionel works as a sales executive for a furniture company and Gloria is a medical secretary. They have two daughters and two grandchildren and live in London.

Journalist: What first drew you together?

Gloria: Lionel and I met when I was 10 and he was 11. We were part of the same small crowd at religion school but didn't start going out until we were 14, 15. I went out with a couple of others before I got to Lionel and - I don't know...

Lionel: ...we just seemed to get on. We were both always very punctual, I remember. If Gloria said half past eight outside the cinema I knew she'd be there, unlike some of the other young ladies who kept me standing in the rain with my collar up.

Gloria: Mind you, I don't know if I'd have married Lionel if my parents hadn't been so against it. They actually moved us away because they thought I was too young and Lionel wasn't a professional. For years we had to meet in secret but I was determined to prove them wrong.

Lionel: Typical you.

Sandra: Michael and I met in our mid-twenties when we were both leaders at a youth club. Michael was the club Lothario and all the girls were in love with him. I was this big fat dumpy thing...

Michael: ...that's your perception. My memory of the first time I saw Sandy is crystal clear. She was at the end of the hall, this very attractive girl with a super figure wearing a blue jumper, pleated skirt with a wide belt and high heels. I said to myself then, "That's the nicest girl here."

Sandra: One weekend we went on a camping trip and after we'd settled the youngsters to bed we went off for a walk. When we got back we were accosted by the leader who accused us of setting the children a bad example, so Michael had to say, "Actually, we're getting engaged."

Journalist: Would living together unmarried have been an option?

All: No way.

Sandra: Being married means a great deal to me. My parents divorced and my mother and stepfather lived together for 40 years before marrying (my stepfather could not divorce his previous wife) and the stigma for my mother was awful. When they eventually married she said it felt so different because the option of leaving was no longer hanging over them. I always knew when I married it would be for life.

Journalist: But how can any two people live together year after year? Don't you sometimes hate each other?

Gloria: I hate it when I ask Lionel what he wants to do and he says "I don't mind". Or when I tell him about something interesting I'm reading and he says, "I know, I've read it," and I say, "Well, why didn't you tell me?"

Sandra: Of course you argue. When I hear couples say, "Forty years and never a cross word", I think, how awful, one of them must have always given way to the other.

Michael: The point about the long-term is that you don't expect to buy your way out of it. You're married and that's that. You can't just say, as people do nowadays, I fancy something else. If leaving is an option in your mind, then whenever you have a disagreement you push it to its final point where you're going to walk out that door. But if it isn't an option you think, how am I going to make this work?

Journalist: And how do you do it?

Lionel: For me it means not hiding things. If something's wrong Gloria senses it the minute I walk through the door and drags it out of me.

Gloria: Mind you, I didn't when you were made redundant. You hid that for a whole night.

Lionel: Yes, but a few months ago I was feeling rotten inside and I came right out and told you all about it and why.

Michael: In the early years Sandy and I bottled up problems but as time goes by you become freer.

Journalist: How long does it take?

Sandra: A good five, 10 years. You're building up trust and learning about yourself, about your partner and about marriage all at once. It's a lot. I'm a terrible sulker. If I was upset I always used to go off and not speak to Michael...

Michael: ...and I hate having fights, so it wasn't a good mix. But eventually Sandy learned that sulking wasn't going to get anywhere and I learned that if I stormed out of the house I'd eventually have to come back and have it out. In early marriage, rows are part of the way of finding out about each other. But you need them less as you grow to understand where the other is coming from.

Lionel: And you recognise the limits. I've learned that if you disagree you don't need to insist on winning your point. You might still think you're right but you don't have to prove it at the expense of the other person's feelings.

Sandra: Yes - sometimes you can just choose to let it go. The modern way is to get out every feeling but if you say something really hurtful you can never take it back. Politeness matters more than people realise.

Lionel: I can remember us rowing over the silliest things like the baby's bottle - how many spoonfuls of milk precisely should go in, how hot.

Gloria: You go through life thinking trivial things are so important and then something awful happens - like a bereavement - and it puts it in perspective. You draw strength from each other that makes the losses and bad times bearable. That's what love's about.

Lionel: Yes, it's not a sudden dewy-eyed thing that hits you out of the blue. It's a shared history built out of all those minute-by-minute, day- by-day experiences. And when you've invested all that, you don't want to lose it.

Journalist: How do you avoid boredom?

Sandra: Someone once told me the secret of a good marriage is routine. On Monday you do the washing, Tuesday the vacuuming ... I thought, I wouldn't want to be alive if it got like that. Of course there was a period when the children were young and life revolved around getting them to school, feeding them, and we couldn't be bothered to talk about anything else.

Gloria: When our children left I felt we were back together again as a couple. It was lovely. But you have to make things to look forward to. We always took Tuesdays off to make up for Lionel having to work on a Saturday and did something together.

Sandra: When you get out of your environment all the humdrum irritations get into perspective. One thing that does disappoint me, mind you, is that Michael isn't more of a romantic. He never buys me flowers or Valentine's cards. For our wedding present he bought me a suitcase.

All: A suitcase!

Michael: Look, I don't believe in all that card stuff. The money that will be spent on that rubbish over the next few days would be enough to feed most of the poor in Africa.

Sandra: You only read that yesterday - what's your excuse for the past 40 years?

Lionel: Well I think these touches are important. I like receiving cards and I've never missed giving Gloria a birthday, anniversary or Valentine...

Sandra: Could I marry you please?

Journalist: Was money ever an issue?

Sandra: Right from the start our money has been our money. And I do find it odd when I hear a husband and wife say to each other, "You owe me pounds 10", as if they're keeping an account on each other.

Lionel: These prenuptial contracts seem sad to me. People are handling money as if, at the back of their minds, they know they're going to have to divide it up again.

Michael: I suppose people don't like the idea of losing their independence financially. I can understand that, but marriage is all about letting yourself need each other. Sometimes you have to take risks. Like when I was 40 and unhappy in my job. Sandy encouraged me to go for a change but she knew if it didn't work we wouldn't have any money for food.

Gloria: I think many people now start off with too much as individuals and so haven't got enough to aim for and achieve together.

Sandra: I think that's true sexually as well. Every magazine now is telling you you've got to have multiple orgasms and if he doesn't do this there's something wrong...

Michael: ...they never tell men how to have multiple orgasms, I note.

Sandra: We had to experiment as we went along and wonder about other people. Whereas nowadays it's all written down that people should be getting this and that so if they're not, they feel deprived.

Journalist: Is fidelity essential?

(Long pause)

Sandra: Well, we had one or two little "experiments" in the Sixties.

Gloria: Us too.

Sandra: You have to eventually be able to talk about it and understand that if one of you has gone off and had a little adventure it's not so important that it's going to break up your marriage. When you first fall in love things like sexual attraction are at the forefront but as you get older the priority shifts to friendship.

Lionel: And what makes a good friend?

Sandra: You need to have lots in common.

Michael: Hmm, but look at us. I like playing with cars and computers. You are hopeless with those.

Sandra: What I really mean by friendship is being completely relaxed with someone.

Gloria: For me it's about sharing.

Michael: Yes. I remember going on business trips to exotic places but it wasn't the same standing in front of the Niagra Falls without Sandy.

Journalist: What are you most looking forward to about growing old together?

Lionel: Being together.

Michael: Yes. What matters is that I'm going to have my friend with me.