- The overwhelmingly positive, bipartisan response to the passing of Barbara Bush points to the reality that she and her husband shared something that most people still desire: lasting marital happiness. Tweet This
- The longest marriage in U.S. presidential history has a lot to teach us about love and family. Tweet This
Perhaps the most common word used to describe the marriage of former president George H.W. Bush to his wife Barbara is “storybook.” And storybook it was. They met at a dance in their teens, exchanged love letters throughout World War II, and most importantly, stay married until she died on Tuesday. They were married for 72 years.
A marriage that long is worth examining even if it was ordinary, but theirs was anything but. He was a United States president for a term, their son was one for two, another was a candidate for the presidency, and two were governors. Their marriage was the longest in U.S. presidential history, and the passing of Barbara—long considered one of America’s matriarchs by those on both sides of the political aisle—offers a moment to reflect on a few of the lessons it can teach us.
1. The little things add up. Of note in the countless articles about their enduring marriage is the fact that George and Barbara Bush stayed very much in love. Often, they attributed it to the little things that became a sustaining habit in their relationship. Most notably, they ended every night by saying "I love you." They exchanged love letters and kept them. The contents of one letter the family shared with the public has gone viral: the New York Post wrote, “The internet can’t get enough of this love letter George H.W. Bush sent to Barbara.” The letter’s popularity is a testament to the reality that affection needn’t be displayed in elaborate or expensive ways. Simple affirming words are a powerful marital reinforce.
In fact, in his research on marriage, psychologist John Gottman found that it was the little things that make all the difference in determining marital happiness. Positive responses to a spouse’s “emotional bids,” he found, which can be as little as engaging one’s spouse on a newsy topic or reaching for a small moment of physical intimacy, were the single most determinant factor in whether or not a marriage would last. For the Bush’s it would seem, 72 years of little things like saying ‘I love you,’ counted for something.
2. Strong women support and raise strong men. Think what you may about the politics of the Bush politicians, but no one can deny that they were strong men of character. George H.W. was a navy hero whose career included stints as CIA director, ambassador to the U.N., and chair of the RNC, in addition to serving as Vice President and President. Their son, George W. led the United States through the deadliest terrorist attack in history as president. Praised for her “independent spirit” and her “wit,” Barbara was hardly the caricature of a wilting First Lady. She campaigned actively for her husband and was the second-ever wife to speak at the national convention, something that eventually became routine for candidate’s wives. When Wellesley students protested her as a commencement speaker in the 1990s because of her domestic role, Barbara leaned in and reinforced the importance of marriage and family in her speech, but then famously joked, “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president's spouse," Barbara told the graduates. "I wish him well!” Jokes aside, that she was the backbone of a legendary American family is hardly a secret.
3. You have to take turns being strong. Though Barbara will long be remembered for her strength, she wasn’t afraid to lean on George. When she went through a bout of depression in the 70s, she said of her husband, “Night after night, George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings. I almost wonder why he didn't leave me.” As one pop psychologist put it, “A strong marriage rarely has two strong people at the same time. It’s usually a husband and wife taking turns being strong for the other.” No doubt that sounds familiar to anyone who is happily married.
4. Humor is essential. Barbara said that one of the reasons she married George “is because he made me laugh. It’s true, sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears…but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds.” Something tells me that Barbara, who “held her own against David Letterman,” as Vanity Fair put it, did more than her fair share of bringing humorous buoyancy to her marriage that enabled it to last as long as it did.
5. Faith fortifies. The Bush’s openly talked about their faith as an important component of their marriage. She once told C-SPAN that she and George prayed nightly together and joked that they on occasion even “fight over whose turn it is.” She said she didn’t fear death for herself or her husband, because, “I know there is a great God, and I’m not worried.” I’ve written here about the correlation between family prayer and family cohesion, and Brad Wilcox has written about the connection between religious attendance and marital longevity.
The overwhelmingly positive, bipartisan response to the passing of Barbara Bush points to the reality that she and her husband shared something that most people still deeply desire: lasting marital happiness.
In her Wellesley commencement speech, Barbara was funny but also to the point. She said:
Whether you are talking about education, career or service, you are talking about life … and life really must have joy. It’s supposed to be fun!... At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.
She also admonished the women to “find the joy in life.”
Barbara Bush certainly found joy in her life and her marriage, and we are grateful for her enduring example to us all.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).
Photo credit: Archives New Zealand