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Marlo Thomas, Phil Donahue share secrets of long marriage

Updated August 14, 2020 - 3:19 pm

She was the single feminist doing some promo work. He was a divorced talk show host raising four boys.

At first, she noticed his “thick white hair and killer blue eyes.” He couldn’t help but declare her “very bright, articulate and sexy.”

She even said the secret to success was good old-fashioned “gumption.” His thoughts exactly.

Marlo Thomas met Phil Donahue in 1977 on his eponymous talk show. Always well-spoken, she was tongue-tied.

“It was one of those shampoo commercials where everything suddenly goes into slow motion. Here I was this strong feminist, and everything that came out of my mouth included a girly giggle,” Thomas recalls.

He asked her out for the next night and they’ve been married for 40 years. The M-word is the topic of their new best-selling book, “What Makes a Marriage Last” (HarperOne). They interviewed 40 celebrity couples — including Viola Davis, Sting, Elton John, Michael J. Fox, Rob Reiner, Bryan Cranston and Melissa McCarthy — who share the secrets to their strong unions.

Review-Journal: How are you handling the pandemic?

Phil Donahue: We’ve been cooped up since March in our New York apartment. We haven’t gone to any restaurants. We’ve gone to the park. It’s a good thing we like to spend a lot of time together. I can’t imagine how couples who don’t get along cope with a pandemic. They say a lot of people will split up after COVID is over. This virus (gives) a new look at who you are with each other.

Marlo Thomas: We’re lucky we have an apartment where we have our own work space. But we really do enjoy having three meals a day together, and we never do that unless we’re on vacation. I’m usually eating lunch in an Uber. Now, we fix those meals ourselves and it has been really nice for us. A lot of people are suffering terribly now. We’ve been fortunate.

What advice in the book hit closest to home?

Donahue: James Carville said something that sounds bland and cliche, but it’s so true. He said, “When you find yourself going around and around on a very unimportant issue that’s causing a whole lot of arguing, just kick the can down the road. Behind every successful marriage is an alley of cans.”

Thomas: One day, we were having one of those dumb arguments that lasts for days. I said, “Let’s kick this can.” We both started laughing. Now, we just say “can.” It’s our new thing, and it really works.

What was your biggest challenge as newlyweds?

Thomas: The biggest challenge for me was that our romance had to take a backseat part of the time. I went from having two dogs to having four boys and a husband. I was worried that they might be too overwhelmed by the steaminess in the other room. Phil and the boys also had to adjust to having family meals together. They were used to eating in front of the TV set.

Donahue: I got to know the boys better when we started having those meals together. One of my sons said he liked it because Dad “didn’t have as many spazzes dealing with everything.” And the house was certainly more orderly.

Thomas: I still found four pizza boxes one day under a bed … and four more under the next bed. I said, “Oh, my God. These were from two weeks ago!” We changed that and, yes, I did color code the towels. I was lucky that the boys were darling about those changes.

Should you go to bed mad?

Thomas: Melissa McCarthy says you should. She told us, “I don’t want to sit up all night until somebody admits that they were wrong.” Most arguments are just petty misunderstandings. Kelly Ripa told us that her husband, Mark Consuelos, once made a joke at a party at her expense. She was upset and they agreed to talk about it the next day. She did go to bed mad but realized that the best time to have a discussion is not after you’ve had a few glasses of wine. And by the morning maybe you don’t care as much anymore about what happened.

Michael J. Fox’s marriage to Tracy Pollan is a testament to “in sickness and in health.”

Donahue: Michael was given a lifelong diagnosis three years into their marriage, which was already so good and so strong. They embraced that disease into their marriage, and they love each other through everything.

Overall, what secrets do all successful couples share?

Thomas: Half of us get divorced. Those whose marriages survive share in common that they didn’t run away from challenges. Yes, there are extreme hardships in a lifetime — drug addiction, severe illness, loss of money, loss of a child or infidelity. All of those things happened to our couples in this book, but none ran for the exit sign. What makes a marriage last is holding on and getting through the fire together.

Donahue: Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon lost a lot of money. Kyra told us that their marriage works because “when you get married there should be no Plan B.” It means something when you say for richer or for poorer. They didn’t wander away from their marriage.

Thomas: One of our couples not only wandered away from marriage, but had a child with someone else. His wife now says she has five children and her husband has six. I’d have thrown Phil out of the house.

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