Because marriage is an ever-evolving experience, we constantly shift, change and, in some cases, start over. In It’s No Secret, couples share thoughts about commitment and tell us what they have learned, revealing their secret to making it work. (Answers are edited for context and space.)
Who Mary Sebonia Rhodes, 54, and Matt Rhodes, 61.
Occupation The couple own MTR Metals, a steel distributing company in Chicago, where they live. Mr. Rhodes has one child from a previous marriage, Chloe, 27. Together they have two daughters, Sophie, 20, and Stella, 16, and a son, Sam, 18.
Their Marriage 21 years and counting
Through the Years
They were married Oct. 3, 1999 before 100 guests at Topo Gigio, an Italian restaurant in Chicago. “We hired a Cajun band because we got engaged in New Orleans,” Ms. Rhodes said. “Matt’s daughter and my sister’s daughter were our flower girls.” The couple danced to “Looking in the Eyes of Love,” by Alison Krauss and Union Station.
The two met in April 1998, when Ms. Rhodes’s childhood friend tried to set them up at her husband’s birthday party. She was 32 at the time; he was 38. “We were told to come alone, which I did,” she said. “Matt showed up with a date.” Both had been divorced. He had a daughter from his previous marriage and she had recently broken off an engagement and returned home to Chicago. “I wasn’t ready to start a relationship, but he was cute and there was something about him,” Ms. Rhodes said. “Seeing that he brought someone was disappointing.”
Ms. Sebonia had decided to gain his attention anyway, and as she danced with a friend, she caught Mr. Rhodes checking her out. He called her the following morning and invited her to breakfast. Dating was instantaneous. “I loved the smell of him, which is such a weird thing to remember,” she said. “We talked about everything. We were so honest with each other from the beginning about our history and who we were. I asked him why he brought a date and he said he forgot he wasn’t supposed to, which knowing Matt now makes total sense as he’s like an absent-minded professor.”
He proposed a year later while both were in New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Six months later they were married.
What They’ve Learned
Ms. Rhodes Matt is all soul. He’s been sober for 30 years. I have such admiration for how much work he’s done on himself. He’s a sweet, good guy who’s filled with integrity. He has big-picture wisdom that I don’t have. His viewpoint is always enlightening. He softens everything. I get worried about details; he grounds me. I’m more sarcastic and critical and he’s not. He’s where I feel I can be myself.
We went in fighting for this relationship to work. We went to therapy before we got married not because we had problems but because we wanted to get it right. We were married before to people who were not right for us. Our parents were divorced.
I’ve become more open, patient and compassionate. I’ve leaned not to judge harshly, to ride the waves. In the beginning you’re infatuated with someone. It’s, “I love how you chew gum.” Then years go by and it’s, “I hate how you chew gum.” I’ve learned the level of love you have after years changes. It’s different but stronger. That surprised me. He’s taught me to be less insecure. I had a double mastectomy. I lost part of my body and being a woman, but he sees me as beautiful.
We’ve struggled. There’s deep heartache and joy with teenagers. There’s the chaos of life. I have a bigger, better life than I imagined. Laying in the dark together with this person, when things are most difficult, remembering why I love him, let’s me know we’ll get through it.
Mr. Rhodes Mary is beautiful. She has a huge capacity for love and devotion. She shows up and gives unconditional love toward me, and our kids. Her bravery to beat breast cancer was amazing. Her ability to get past things is inspiring. She doesn’t see all the reasons I love her.
She’s the organizer. I’m hard-wired to be an extremist. I worry far more than she does, and about little things. She’s taught me how to be a more-present husband, to love unconditionally, to trust her. She’s helped me to look at my part in things, get to the other side, to stay, and how to strengthen our marriage. She’s taught me perspective and how to get through things I thought would destroy me. I’ve learned you can spend a life with someone and continue to grow and change. She’s learned to be more open and trusting with people. We’ve both learned the struggle is worth it.
I pushed her away in the beginning, but she stayed. She proved herself. Marriage is a commitment. You have to make compromises. I used to be a runner. If you hurt my feelings or made me angry, I was gone. That’s not a model for living. I don’t want to live that way anymore. I’ve learned to sit and work through things. Our ability to forgive each other is deep. I realized Mary is the person I want to spend my life with. I learned resiliency, to forgive and create a greater sense of love. Our marriage has strength and devotion. And we have each other.
Sheltering in Place
Like so many others, the couple and their children have been staying at home because of the coronavirus.
Ms. Rhodes In the beginning we tried to stay optimistic. We made home-cooked meals, bought puzzles, got a sewing machine. Sam made us buy a hot tub — that’s still not put together. Now we’re wondering how we will get through this? Winter is looming. School is remote. We don’t fight more, but we get stuck on the little things because there’s nothing else. How loud someone breathes is more annoying then it was before, but we’ve had amazing experiences and time to bond.
Mr. Rhodes I’ve been sober for 30 years. Covid made me fearful and I wanted to stay connected so I’ve been doing daily recovery meetings on Zoom. Now I go through waves of Covid burnout. I’ve realized how tightly I hold onto control with the kids. I’ve started demonstrating my love more and engaging them in conversation. We have a deeper appreciation for what we have. Everyone has been in their own corner of the house. We’ve shifted the business to home so Sophie can live in our condo, which is where we had our office. We’ve had dinner together every single night, which has been great.