Handkerchief by Huger Embroidery; lettering by Sarah Barton.
We’re living in a time where it seems like more and more people are getting divorced. But are we really? According to a 2014 New York Times article, divorce rates have actually been declining since their peak in the 1970s and 1980s, and Virginia has one of the lowest rates of divorce in the country. We wrangled up a few local married couples who have been united from 20 to 70 years and asked why they decided to wed and their advice for staying together.
Sarabeth and Joe Kawugule, married 23 years
Their secret? R-E-S-P-E-C-T
“The idea of being 10,000 miles apart was unfathomable,” Sarabeth Kawugule says now, laughing. So she and her sweetheart Joe got married — six months after meeting. (Photo courtesy of Sarabeth Kawugule)
Sarabeth and Joe Kawugule met at a rugby game at Virginia Tech. At the time, Joe was finishing his studies and thinking about returning to his home country of Uganda. Sarabeth had a year of undergraduate study left.
“The idea of being 10,000 miles apart was unfathomable,” Sarabeth says now, laughing. So they got married — six months after meeting. Twenty-three years later, they’re still married. “We’ve grown up together,” Sarabeth observes.
At the time, Sarabeth says, “everybody” in both families expressed concern — because of their ages, Joe adds. Sarabeth’s father was worried she wouldn’t finish college.
Strangers have expressed displeasure with the match. The couple recalls that when they went for a marriage license in Christiansburg, Virginia, the first clerk they saw — who was white — turned her back and walked away. Years later, while eating out in Washington, D.C., a black woman declined to be seated next to them.
In conversation, it’s clear their skin color matters little to them. What matters is how they treat one another. “It’s about having adventures together,” Sarabeth says. “I knew we would never run out of things to talk about.”
The couple is also honest about the challenges of marriage. “We’ve tried to show our children” — three boys: twins who are 20 and a 16-year-old — “that we can disagree. I want them to know there are ups and downs,” Sarabeth says.
Joe says the couple’s use of marriage counseling at times was invaluable in helping them create better habits. “It’s a good idea, not just for big things,” he says. “We used it as a resource, to touch base,” Sarabeth adds.
Both agree marriage requires ongoing effort. “It’s great to say don’t ever go to bed mad, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” Sarabeth says. “Sometimes, you’re mad.” “A lot of the confusion comes from figuring out who’s doing what,” Joe adds. The secret, they agree, is to discuss the other’s expectations and “respect the spouse,” Joe says.
Tharon Giddens and Donna Sela-Gidden, married 33 years
"It Gets Better and Better"
“It’s cliché, I know,” Giddens says, “but it really was love at first sight. I saw her coming across the room and saw the sparkle in her eye and I knew she was the one.” (Photo courtesy of Tharon Giddens)
Tharon Giddens (who joined the Richmond magazine staff in July) and his wife, Donna Sela-Giddens, have the air of newlyweds. The tender way they say “I love you” (no matter who else is around), and the misty look in his eyes when describing her makes them seem newly smitten, though they’ve been married 33 years.
“It’s cliché, I know,” Giddens says, “but it really was love at first sight. I saw her coming across the room and saw the sparkle in her eye and I knew she was the one.”
“I was crashing a party at his house when we were in college,” Donna says, laughing. “We connected.”
Gidden’s career as a journalist kept the couple moving in the early years of their marriage. “We
moved as many times as someone in the military,” Sela-Giddens recalls. Through the Reagan era, three kids and several relocations, the couple’s bond only grew stronger.
What does it take to make a happy marriage? “Always listen, and be ready to work hard,” Giddens says.
“You make it sound like a chore!” Sela-Giddens says, and the couple laughs together.
Their vision for their marriage centered on commitment to each other — and they continue to make that vision a reality each day. “I knew I wanted to be with Donna through whatever came,” Giddens says. “Really, it gets better and better,” says Sela-Giddens.
George and Carolyn Gray, married 44 years
Still Like Teenagers
“I’ve been married over forty years, and at times I look at my wife and I’m like a teenager all over again,” George Gray says with a laugh. (Photo courtesy of George Gray)
George and Carolyn Gray of Ashland have been married 44 years. They met by chance, and have been inseparable ever since.
“I met her at Smith Madden Business College in Richmond, which doesn’t exist anymore,” George says. “Believe it or not, when I stopped by there on my lunch hour, I was looking for someone else.” While he was waiting, Carolyn walked by and they struck up a conversation. “He was very kind and sweet to me,” Carolyn recalls.
Both smitten, they began their courtship as the country went to war in Vietnam. “I didn’t join the military,” George says, “but Vietnam was all everybody was talking about.” Within six months, they were engaged and married. After six years together, they welcomed their daughter, Sharnette.
The couple balanced their activities around the family. George began playing bass for The Traveling Jubilees, the band he would be a part of for 34 years. Carolyn worked as a secretary, while handling the responsibilities of motherhood. Through it all, they kept their focus on each other. “I’ve been married over forty years, and at times I look at my wife and I’m like a teenager all over again,” George says with a laugh.
As counsel to the newly- or soon-to-be-married, the Grays offer two of their wedding vows. “Don’t ever listen to what someone else tells you about something that’s going on in your family or marriage; you have to trust your spouse,” George says. “And, we never go to bed mad with each other, and that’s the truth.”
Michelle and Jalil ur Rahman, married 50 years
The Give and Take
“I don’t think there’s a couple anywhere where someone hasn’t thought of divorce or murder,” Michelle Ur Rahman says. “And that’s okay, as long as both aren’t thinking that at the same time.” (Photo courtesy Michelle Ur Rahman)
They met on a blind date in May 1964. She was Canadian and Jewish. He was Pakistani and Muslim.
They got married anyway, on Aug. 17, 1965, at lunch, without telling her parents.
Now, 50 years later, Michelle and Jalil ur Rahman say their different upbringings — the “unsolved mystery of religion,” as Jalil puts it — certainly influence the people they are, but never caused them to consider not being a couple.
“There’s a difference between the political piece and the religious piece,” Michelle notes. Jalil adds, “The traditions are very much alike. My parents were very open. They said, ‘They’ve got a prophet, they’ve got a book; we’ve got a prophet, we’ve got a book.’ ”
Sure, there have been differences of opinion over the years. “I don’t think there’s a couple anywhere where someone hasn’t thought of divorce or murder,” Michelle says. “And that’s okay, as long as both aren’t thinking that at the same time.”
Jalil jokes the key to their marital success was that for the first 25 years, Michelle said “yes” to everything, and for the second 25 years, he said “yes.” “You have to give respect in order to get respect,” he adds.
In raising their children, now 49, 46 and 43, Michelle and Jalil agreed they wanted to include all kinds of religious observances. “We wanted to bring them up to be good Christians — with a lower-case ‘c,’ ” Michelle says. “We wanted them to be good and kind and loving.” Jalil points to a bookshelf that holds, side by side, the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. “Everything you need,” he says.
When asked why their marriage works, each is thoughtful. “We are so connected, we don’t talk, we just do things,” Jalil says. “Without her, I’m totally lost. It’s not that I’m dependent, but I do depend on her.”
Michelle says from the beginning, she admired Jalil’s resilience and determination.
In the final analysis, Jalil says, marriage is a partnership: “It’s give and take, and sometimes, it’s give, give and give, too.”
Robert and Jerry Nash, married 60 years
A Lifetime of Memories
“People expect marriage to be perfect all the time, and it’s not,” Jerry Nash cautions. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Nash)
Married 60 years, Robert and Jerry Nash joke easily about the longevity of their marriage.
“I haven’t killed him yet, and he hasn’t killed me,” Jerry says. As for Robert: “I can’t afford a [darn] divorce,” he says.
Married May 20, 1955 — what Robert, 81, calls Jerry’s “lucky day” — the two have seen a lifetime of shared ups and downs. They experienced reproductive challenges, military service overseas for Robert, and ongoing and recent health issues. On the plus side, they are parents to two grown sons and three grandchildren, and still live on a Nash family farm in Hanover County. And they clearly enjoy one another’s company.
“It’s been pleasant and fulfilling,” Robert says. “But she is hard to like all the time.”
Jerry, 79, observes that the success of any marriage requires determination. “People expect marriage to be perfect all the time, and it’s not,” she says. Another aid to marital success: a poor memory. “There are a whole lot of things that went on that we’ve forgotten,” Robert says.
The two acknowledge one point of friction, for them as well as most other married couples: finances. “He was frugal,” Jerry says, noting that when Robert was in Korea early in their marriage, she lived with her mother, worked in a hospital as office staff, and saved his, and much of her, paycheck.
Robert acknowledges that watching his father manage his family during the Great Depression made an indelible impression. “You have to have good money management,” he says, noting that couples today have never experienced that kind of financial hardship and thus often don’t save enough.
Jerry notes that Robert’s approach has its advantages. “I never worked” after the children came. “I was always a stay-at-home-mom,” she says.
Their accumulated years, however, are clearly no burden. “I don’t remember arguing too much,” Robert says. Jerry adds, “It doesn’t seem like any time at all.”