Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue share marriage advice in new book

Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas were married on May 21, 1980. Contributed by Harper Collins
Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas were married on May 21, 1980. Contributed by Harper Collins

To observe their own 40th anniversary, Thomas and Donahue interviewed 40 well-known couples for their new book, including former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.

If you’ve been hitched a good while, say, 41 years (like me), and you devour this fat new book (as I did), from the long-marrieds Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, while reading it, you’re likely to behave like one of those bobblehead toys, ceaselessly nodding your head up and down.

Because you get it, you’ve been there, heard it, done it, soldiered through and survived — and, lo, come morning, that awful argument the night before now seems a little dopey.

RELATED: AJC BOOKSHELF: Comforting books to read

“What Makes a Marriage Last” is this power couple’s first-ever collaboration.

It’s a hot ticket for anyone looking for buckets full of marital insight. Make that barrels full — no, boatloads full.

But first, a refresher: Thomas and Donahue met and could hardly deny their chemistry when in 1977 she (TV’s “That Girl” from 1966-1971), appeared on his trailblazing Chicago-based “Donahue” show to discuss “Free to Be… You and Me,” her multi-faceted project (book, album, more). At the time, she remained unflinchingly single at 38. Donahue was then 41 and divorced, with four sons under his roof (and a daughter living with her mom).

“What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life,” by Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue (Harper One/Harper Collins, $29.99).
“What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life,” by Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue (Harper One/Harper Collins, $29.99).

In a foreword, Thomas calls herself “the girl who never wanted any part” of marriage. She “always had some cheeky remark” on the subject, such as: “Marriage is like living with a jailer you have to please.”

But then she met the dapper talk-show host (whose show enjoyed a 29-year run), with “that thick white hair, those killer blue eyes — it was like one of those shampoo commercials where everything suddenly goes into slow motion.” They said “I do” three years later, when they were 42 and 44.

May 21 will mark their 40th anniversary. They consider this 610-page book their gift to each other. To assemble it, they spent last year flying all over the country, to get up close with 40 “celebrated couples,” from President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter (married 73 years), to Alan and Arlene Alda (63 years), and from LL COOL J and Simone I. Smith (25 years) to Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner (married since 2013, though together since the 1970s).

Thomas and Donahue (always “Marlo” and “Phil” in the book), spent hours with each couple in a thoughtful and lively conversation.

“We were not like reporters with a set of questions or a clipboard,” Thomas told us. “We wanted it to be like we were on a double date and could just start talking.”

Retired football star Rodney Peete and actress Holly Robinson Peete will celebrate their 25th anniversary on June 10. When they became serious as a couple, it excited Rodney that Holly was an independent woman, rather than “someone just waiting for me to come home.” Contributed by Harper One/Harper Collins
Retired football star Rodney Peete and actress Holly Robinson Peete will celebrate their 25th anniversary on June 10. When they became serious as a couple, it excited Rodney that Holly was an independent woman, rather than “someone just waiting for me to come home.” Contributed by Harper One/Harper Collins

Still, they gently dug in deep to dissect each couple’s union: its strengths, joys and challenges — everything from petty gripes and managing fights to proudest moments.

As one dynamic conversation after another unfolds, readers feel like lucky eavesdroppers inside so many lovely homes and apartments.

Couples interviewed include Billy and Janice Crystal; Viola Davis and Julius Tennon; Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon; Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos; Rev. Jesse and Jacqueline Jackson; Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan; Capt. Chelsey “Sully” and Lorrie Sullenberger; John McEnroe and Patty Smyth; Sir Elton John and David Furnish; Rodney and Holly Robinson Peete; Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone; James Carville and Mary Matalin; and Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

The majority of pairs featured — one meaty chapter for each — said their vows more than 25 years ago. But also included: several gay couples not allowed to wed earlier, and, in order to hear from a younger generation, the likes of McCarthy and Falcone (who have been married for 15 years and met with the authors at their Atlanta home).

A good marriage, as contemplated by most couples in the book, is a solid partnership, where one spouse does not dominate. The Manhattan-based authors also kept hearing that these things help keep a marriage humming: complete trust; enjoying hanging out together more than with anybody else; really listening to each other; never taking a partner for granted; the desire and ability to never stop working on the relationship; and giving one another space and encouragement to be individuals with separate goals, dreams, pursuits.

“Jimmy always thought I could do anything,” Rosalynn Carter said when the authors sat down with Georgia’s No. 1 couple at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center.

“It was apparent that they have been in love a long time and are still very much in love,” Thomas said of the Carters. “They are such an authentically married couple. I loved everything about them and was very surprised at how unguarded they are. They didn’t even seem afraid of being misunderstood.”

President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on their July 7, 1956, wedding day in Plains, Georiga. “I fell in love with a photograph of him,” Rosalynn said. “My mother said it must have been his white uniform.” Contributed by Harper One/Harper Collins
President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on their July 7, 1956, wedding day in Plains, Georiga. “I fell in love with a photograph of him,” Rosalynn said. “My mother said it must have been his white uniform.” Contributed by Harper One/Harper Collins

Donahue’s takeaway: “I guess I may have once thought of her as a Southern cookie baker. But what I learned is that she is a very strong feminist.”

Thomas: “Did you know she sat in on his Cabinet meetings? She was the first First Lady to ever do that. She was — and is — his closest advisor. Here he was, the president, and his closest advisor was his wife. That says so much.”

Plenty of couples mentioned the importance of sex. (George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth always end their fights by having sex.)

When Donahue asked Rob Reiner for his No. 1 piece of advice for a young couple contemplating marriage, here’s the film director’s response: “Find a best friend you can have sex with.” Photographer Michele Singer, Reiner’s wife of 31 years, piped up with “Works for me.”

Reiner met Singer while he was filming “When Harry Met Sally.” During a lunch out with a group of those involved in the production, Reiner overheard Singer bragging about her vichyssoise. His first impression: “Jesus, what a b—! But I’m also really attracted to her!” They married seven months later.

That’s the sort of fun fodder laced throughout “What Makes a Marriage Last.” Juicy gravy with all the serious meat.

Many couples offered similar advice, but “Judge Judy” Sheindlin put it best: “Don’t marry someone thinking you’re going to change them. I did that. Like they say, don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work, and it just annoys the pig.” She married fellow judge Jerry Sheindlin in 1978, divorced him in 1990, then remarried him in 1991, having decided they were better as a couple than as individuals.

RELATED: Nic Stone, author of ‘Dear Martin,’ discusses her new book

The word “compromise” pops up often in this book.

“But ‘compromise’ can involve resentment,” Thomas said. “I think what we found is that the better idea is ‘accommodation.’ You need to realize that your spouse is a different person. No matter how hard you’re going to try, he is never going to be you and you will never be him. I’ll be the one jumping in to share this and that about us, and Phil will be the one sitting back. He’s the pouter.”

“A lot is my fault because I am a pouter,” Phil said. “A pouter is a person who stops talking.”

“But, Phil, you’ve gotten a lot better about that,” Marlo said.

“I’ve gotten better,” he agreed.

And a happy 40th anniversary to them.