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Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue explore what makes marriages last

David Wilson for The Boston Globe

In “What Makes a Marriage Last,” Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue — themselves wed for 40 years now — spoke with 40 other long-married couples to see if they could discover what Thomas called “the secret sauce” that makes for strong and enduring matrimonial bonds.

The couples — everyone from Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter to LL Cool J and his wife, Simone L. Smith — sat down with Donahue and Thomas for several hours at a time. The process was less an interview, Thomas said, than “a kind of double date,” in which both couples talked openly about the challenges and strengths of their long marriages. What they found, Thomas said, was that “everyone really wanted the same things. They wanted a partner they could trust and count on, a best friend — as Rob Reiner said, a best friend they could have sex with.” She went on, “Everybody wants a safe place. When you say the word ‘home,‘ when you open that door, there’s somebody there that’s invested in your happiness, in your dreams.”

With so many marriages ending in divorce, Donahue added, he wanted to learn what makes the others endure. “There’s no such thing as a marriage that just sails through with no distractions, all peaks and no valleys. It just doesn’t exist,” he said. “Marriages that last are between two people who really want to be married.”


Thomas agreed. “We ended up with even more respect for marriage than we started out with.” After all, she said, “The exit sign is always there. It’s not that difficult to walk through it. What’s difficult is to stay with it.”

Marriage is always changing, Donahue added. “I think the pandemic has influenced our marriage.” Thomas agreed, noting that the couple has begun cooking three meals a day together in quarantine. “We realize what a gift it is to find somebody that you love and like.”


Thomas and Donahue will read at a virtual event at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 29, hosted by Brookline Booksmith. Visit the bookstore’s website at brooklinebooksmith.com/events for more information.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.