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How one woman's stroke breathed life into her marriage, and how you can keep love alive this Valentine's Day

SALT LAKE CITY — George Shannon is quick to point out a particular personal shortcoming that still causes him some regret: Though he was a great provider to his wife, Carol, after 41 years together, habit, not passion, drove their union. Whenever an adjustment was needed in the relationship, Carol deferred to him. He almost always got his way.

Then, in 2010, an event that nearly killed her was the death of that well-established pattern.

Carol was 63 when the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, couple were vacationing in Cabo San Lucas and she had a stroke. Though she couldn't talk or eat or probably understand what was going on at first, he thought he could read a message in the pretty blue eyes that fixed so seriously on him: “I know I am in trouble and I trust that you will fix it.”

As George pondered their new future, which was sure to include difficult, even frightening moments, that message pierced him deeply, and he decided he’d spend the rest of their life together meeting her needs. “I was going to do everything I could to make every day she had the best day of her life,” he recently told the Deseret News.

Carol Shannon hugs her husband, George, who became her caregiver after she suffered a devastating stroke at age 63.
Carol Shannon hugs her husband, George, who became her caregiver after she suffered a devastating stroke at age 63.
Family photo

The stroke and subsequent health challenges stole many things from Carol, including her independence and privacy. But it gave her back something she’d missed: a devoted, loving husband.

Many couples who have found their relationship stagnating after decades together find their way back to passion without the impetus of a devastating medical crisis. Many don't. Experts say there’s no question some long-term relationships are dulled by routine, and people together for years may take each other for granted. In an age when divorce overall in America has gone down or stabilized among most age groups, the exception is older couples. Divorce among those 50 and older — so-called “gray divorce” — has roughly doubled in the past 25 years, according to Pew Research Center. Baby boomers lead the way.

Aaron Thorup, Pew Research Center

For some older couples, though — including the Shannons — time can strengthen marriage. After Carol's death in 2017, George and his middle son, Chad, set out to write a book about caregiving, but their book morphed instead into the elder Shannons' love story. "The Best Seven Years of My Life: The Story of an Unlikely Caregiver" was published in December.

Love, said George Shannon, can grow bigger than it was when it began.

The Deseret News interviewed several long-married couples and relationship experts to learn some strategies for helping marriages thrive over the course of decades. Like George Shannon, many of them learned in the laboratory of their own marriages.

Fanning the sparks

Damon Nailer, a life coach and author from Monroe, Louisiana, thinks it would be easy to let things get stale, but adds he’s stayed happily married for 21 years by fanning the sparks.

First, he said, he genuinely likes and admires his wife Necole. They are deliberate in caring for each other with both strategic and impromptu action. They flirt, are publicly affectionate and take care to stay physically attractive to each other, something many couples let wane. They prioritize intimacy — and that, he said, will “truly strengthen the marriage bond and overall unity of the relationship.” They date, spending undistracted time together. They vacation and "maintain a honeymoon perspective."

They also tend to mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of their bond.

“If your partner’s physical attributes change, you will still have other strong components to help maintain and sustain the marriage,” said Nailer, also a biblical scholar and author of "Revelation Rightly Revealed: R3."

Monte Drenner’s three decades as a licensed counselor, life coach and certified addictions professional in Orlando, Florida, pale compared with his marriage to his wife, Sandy. They are 36 years strong together because they allowed themselves to grow individually strong, too.

“It’s amazing that couples will remodel their house, but not remodel their marriage. I encourage people to find new interests, new hobbies, go to new places and challenge old beliefs with new ideas," he said.

“Our remodel involved getting a lot of help. We realized that what we built would not last.” Starting about seven years into marriage, he said, they worked on communication and tossed outdated practices like being disrespectful with each other and not trying to understand each other’s perspective. “It’s hard to keep the spark alive when we were angry with each other,” he said.

Richard Matzkin, author of “Loving Promises: The Master Class for Creating Magnificent Relationship,” said he and wife, Alice, are “madly, madly in love” after 36 years wed. Their success hinges on vows to themselves, about how they’d behave and treat each other. “Loving actions revolve around kindness, consideration and integrity. When these qualities are present in a marriage, love and romance can remain fresh and vital. Without them, it can easily stagnate.”

Samantha Morrison recommends dancing as a “great way to keep the spark going.” Morrison, a health and wellness expert for Glacier Wellness in Woodmere, New York, notes the intimacy as “eyes connect as you work together to create a seamless display of romance which elegantly expresses your deep passion and love.”

Small gestures can add years of joy to relationship, according to Justin Lavelle, chief communication director for Relationships that go the distance are built not just on big gestures, but little ones, too: Knowing what makes your partner happy — maybe breakfast in bed or a Sunday afternoon to read or nap, for example. Conversations that are deeper than one word-answers. Spontaneous moments and showing genuine interest in your partner’s day. They all add zest.

Author Carol Gee has been married 46 years, a fact her husband Ronnie credits in part to the element of surprise. “I never know what you are going to do one minute from the next, and I’ve found I like that,” he recently told Gee, who wrote “Random Notes (About Life, ‘Stuff’ and Finally Learning to Exhale).” She makes sure even trips to the doctor include lunch out and a good time together, making it a date, not drudgery. She’s always planning something fun, like a trip or even a stay at a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, where they live, that features theme rooms.

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, licensed clinical professional counselor and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist in Baltimore, Maryland, and his wife Rivka founded Staying connected can be surprisingly simple, if people remember to create moments of “meaningful connection.” Look into each other’s eyes, he said. Travel. Return to a place where you used to date. Grow together by taking a class that’s fun and interesting and will “create new neural pathways.” Surprise and celebrate each other, Rabbi Slatkin said, and always show your appreciation.

George and Carol

George Shannon had to learn to adjust to Carol's condition. But he found himself falling for her all over again — and genuinely liking himself better, too.

He was a junior at Youngstown State University when he met Carol by chance at a restaurant during a weekend visit home. They married a year and a half later. He worked in sales, then sales management before being wooed into executive positions, ending up as an executive vice president of two different companies. They had three sons three years apart each: First Sean, then Chad, then Matthew.

George Shannon and his son Chad wrote a book, "The Best Seven Years of My Life," about his relationship with wife Carol after her stroke. He became especially attentive and loving after she became ill.
George Shannon and his son Chad wrote a book, "The Best Seven Years of My Life," about his relationship with wife Carol after her stroke. He became especially attentive and loving after she became ill.
Family photo

Decades later, working together on her rehabilitation, his needs were crowded out by hers, but George found — perhaps a bit to his surprise — that he didn’t mind. “My heart opened up. I fell madly in love with her. We had a connection and it ran really deep.”

Doctors predicted Carol could live a year or two. George kept her alive for seven, despite her growing health challenges, including a more damaging stroke, hip replacements and heart surgery. She held tight to life, said middle child Chad Shannon, now 44.

“And the more tenacious she was, the more he responded, determined to keep her alive an extra day if that’s what she wanted,” said Chad.

Life for the Shannons would divide into before the stroke and after. And with the clouds came the proverbial, if unexpected, silver linings. “I saw this wonderful cyclical thing where my dad slowed down. He was always Type A. … He slowed down and focused on who my mom was and what she wanted,” Chad told the Deseret News.

That focus meant learning about her medical condition and the health care system as a whole. He had to figure it all out, George said, to become her advocate. “I had to be in the moment every moment because there was so much danger around Carol and me. I had to focus all the time.

George and Carol Shannon. After she had a stroke and other serious medical issues, George became what he calls "an unlikely caregiver."
George and Carol Shannon. After she had a stroke and other serious medical issues, George became what he calls "an unlikely caregiver."
Shannon family photo

Being “in the moment,” several experts told the Deseret News, is an excellent way to nurture love at any stage.

After Carol died two years ago, at age 70, George took a necklace he'd given her, featuring a caged heart, from around her neck and now wears it himself. He and Chad decided to write a book giving caregivers advice on navigating the complexities of care. George, especially, had learned a lot about that. But a different story kept taking over. What George and Carol had been through was really a love story. So they wrote that story, instead.

George puzzled over the title, and Chad told him he'd know it when it occurred to him. One day a woman told George she was sorry for all that he had to go through. “Don’t be,” he assured her. “It was the best seven years of my life.”

George Shannon had his book title.