Secrets to keeping love strong

Local couples and love experts share their advice for lasting relationships

Written by Julie Schillings | Photography by David Don Wallace Jr. and Tobie Andrews Imagery

According to the love experts – those who research love and those who are living examples of enduring relationships – successful marriages have a few common threads running throughout: respect, kindness and generosity.

Fawn Weaver, bestselling author of “Happy Wives Club,” traveled to 12 countries interviewing happily married couples about their secrets to success. After interviewing 10,000 couples, Weaver’s research identifies six practices that happy partners have in common, and the number one key to lasting relationships across the globe is mutual respect.

Marriage therapist and author David Hawkins agrees. “Mutual respect is a foundation for any relationship,” he said. “While infusing our relationships with respect may be challenging, and at times hard to define, it is critical for any healthy relationship.” Kindness is the glue that binds couples together.

Research conducted independently by both psychologist John Gottman and author Shaunti Feldhahn summarizes that kindness is the primary predictor of stability and satisfaction in a marriage. Gottman, a noted marriage researcher, found that successful couples say or do at least five positive things for each negative interaction with their partner.

Further evidence supports that the more a person receives kindness, the more kind he or she will be toward others. This reciprocity in the relationship leads to partners feeling validated and loved.

Researchers from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project studied the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women. Generosity was defined as “the virtue of giving good things to one’s spouse freely and abundantly.” Couples were quizzed on how frequently they behaved generously toward their partners.

Men and women with the highest scores on the generosity scale were far more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages.

“In marriage, we are expected to do our fair share when it comes to housework, child care and being faithful, but generosity is going above and beyond the ordinary expectations with small acts of service and making an extra effort to be affectionate,” explains the University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox, who led the research. “Living that spirit of generosity in a marriage does foster a virtuous cycle that leads to both spouses on average being happier in the marriage.”

In addition to the research from well respected professionals, local couples share their personal love stories and insight on what it takes to have a successful marriage.

Kathy and Eric Sexton

Married 25 years

“The strength of our marriage is the distance between us,” Eric says with a smile. Serving in public roles, Eric and Kathy Sexton share a common understanding and respect for the demands of one another’s career. Mutual respect is the foundation of their relationship.

Kathy is the city manager of Derby, and Eric is the athletic director at Wichita State University. The Sextons are actively involved and engaged in their community, which often includes complex scheduling and flexibility.

The couple met while they were students at WSU. Kathy worked on campus in the admissions office, and Eric’s senior project required research in the same building. Kathy’s co-workers were quick to point out that Eric’s trips past her desk were growing more frequent, and eventually he mustered the courage to ask Kathy on a date. The first date led to several more and eventually a proposal of marriage on the putting green of a local golf course.

One secret to their successful marriage was established early on, Eric said: “We do not micromanage each other.” For example, Kathy is in charge of the family budget, and he does not question her about the details.

“The strength of our marriage is that we know ourselves and what our needs are,” concluded Kathy. “We support each other and have a great partnership.”

Mary and Dale Felix

Married 68 years

5 children, 13 grandchildren, 7 great-grandchildren and counting

High school sweethearts Mary and Dale Felix, who grew up in the Original Sweetcorn Capital of the World, Hoopeston, Illinois, will celebrate their 69th wedding anniversary on April 1.

Mary admitted to having a crush on Dale long before he even noticed her. “Dale was the tallest boy in our English class, and I was the shortest girl.” Mary said. “We both chose seats in the front of the classroom, so I decided to make my move.” Soon Dale picked up on Mary’s signals, and their love story ensued.

Two pivotal moments in Dale’s life occurred on the same day: sharing the excitement from his first solo flight in May 1945 and the decision to make a lifelong commitment to Mary. On the couple’s way back to school after his solo, Dale turned to Mary: “Let’s get married or something.” She was quick to respond: “We’ll get married or NOTHING.” The clever banter remains a hallmark of the Felixes’ relationship.

Dale’s career as a pilot frequently moved his family across the the country. The Felix family lived in nine different states and eventually settled in Wichita, where Dale enjoyed a lengthy career as a test pilot for Boeing’s B-52 bomber. Mary proudly shared that Dale was recently inducted to the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame.

“Mary gets credit for our whole marriage, really,” Dale said. “We didn’t have one hundred bucks between us when we started out, and Mary never complained.” He commended Mary’s ability to manage their household and make a wonderful home for their family. The couple credits their mutual goals, trust, compromise and humor as keys to their successful marriage.

Mary smiled at Dale and said, “We got married for better or for worse, and thankfully, we’ve had mostly better.”

Jane and Bob Knight

Married 47 years

3 children, 8 grandchildren

Bob Knight, former mayor of Wichita, has been making his wife, Jane, laugh since their very first encounter. “For our first date, Bob called and invited me to a semi-formal tractor tire changing competition,” Jane said, laughing. “We spoke on the phone for quite a while. … I was in hysterics the whole conversation.”

Anyone who has met Bob knows him for his leg- pulling antics. Their first date was actually at the movies, and after a four-year courtship, the couple exchanged vows at Wichita’s First United Methodist Church.

“The main things that have kept us so close and bonded throughout our marriage is that we support and respect each other,” Jane said. Laughter also plays an important role in their family dynamic.

"The success in our marriage comes from our commitment to Jesus Christ and each other."
— Jane Knight

“Jane believed in me from the start,” Bob said. “She is probably the first person that I truly cared about who thought I could do great and exciting things with my life.” Bob’s career in public service began in 1979 as a member of the Wichita City Council. He was the first Wichita mayor elected by popular vote and served the city for five nonconsecutive terms between 1980 and 2003.

“Marriage is not about emotion,” Jane explained. “It’s about commitment. There is more good than bad and more joy than sadness — but even through the hard times, you stay committed through it all.”

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