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Staying Healthy: Maintaining a healthy marriage

Tips on building a meaningful, happy and thriving relationship
Longtime Pleasanton residents Bradley and Sandra Hirst reflect on their over 60 years of marriage.

In December of 1957, a shy girl from the town of Turlock asked a gregarious boy from Los Angeles to the Fresno State University Queen's Ball.

Both only children, the young man and woman were told their budding relationship was doomed, but she found herself enamored with his manners while he said she brought out the best in him. Just over two years into their courtship, Bradley Hirst asked for Sandra Gross' hand in marriage and three months later, on Jun. 8, 1960, they wed.

"We had a lot of things in common: our family values, Christian faith, desire to have a limited number of children and political views," Bradley Hirst said of the Pleasanton couple's 60-plus year union, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Hirst came from a broken home. His mother married five times and he promised himself he would only say "I do" once. That commitment has helped keep the father of two and grandfather of four grounded and dedicated to his beloved.

According to Chandrama Anderson, a licensed marriage and family therapist out of Menlo Park and author of the upcoming "graphic medicine" (graphic novels exploring healthcare) series called "I Do, I Don't: How to Build a Better Marriage," couples typically seek therapy for issues relating to sex, money or power with the underlying problem being attachment or lack thereof.

Anderson said that in secure attachment, "Your well-being comes second to none. You're confided in first. Your opinion matters most. You feel admired and protected. Your need for closeness is rewarded with even more closeness. You seek comfort in sex from each other and you create a home that's a haven so you can do all the other things you have to do in life. Your marriage has to be top priority, is a way of simplifying all of those things."

Without making the marital relationship a top priority -- even that over the relationship with a child -- the marriage will suffer, Anderson said, adding that negative self-talk, generational trauma and the intention and impact of statements all contribute to problems within a marriage.

"There are three parties in every marriage: you, me and the marriage," Anderson said. "Think about what's best for the marriage, which doesn't mean giving yourself away."

By taking an "if it's important to you, it's important to me" mindset and finding ways to support their spouse, individuals can do what's best for their marriage.

Other ways include avoiding "you" statements, which escalate arguments. "If you're upset, say, 'when blank happened, I felt blank, blank and blank. I wish or I need blank," Anderson said, adding that both men and women have trouble giving empathy, but it's important to understand each other's feelings.

Early in their marriage, the Hirsts made a promise never to fight in front of their children, and often played tennis together or golfed, which kept them close.

Additionally, they share a love of sports (he's a Los Angeles Rams fan, while she is faithful to the San Francisco 49ers), have maintained a mutual respect for each other, sustained a healthy division of chores and learned when to keep their mouths shut.

And, although Sandra Hirst joked that dirty looks have gone a long way in their marriage, they continue to make time for one another. The Hirsts often fall asleep holding hands, and connect daily by sitting down together between 5 and 6 p.m., having a drink and talking about their day.

"We've had our ups and downs," Bradley Hirst said. "No marriage is perfect. It takes work."

Anderson said there are also a handful of simple things that can be done to create stronger bonds. Greeting partners at the door and before children, always saying goodbye and hello, setting aside time for each other, only speaking to partners when eye contact can be maintained and participating in two minutes of eye-gazing a day can all help build emotional connections and intimacy.

Additionally, Anderson said, unless each person is their authentic self, their needs will never get met.

"You can only do your own work," she said. "You can ask for healthy change, but you can't change anyone. Everyone needs to work on your relationship after saying 'I do'."

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