Sparks flew when D.J. and Audrey Hubbard met on a college summer trip in Europe 50 years ago.
But D.J. had a girlfriend to whom he was pinned back in Kansas, so D.J. and Audrey never dated during their whirlwind travels. They stayed in touch once they returned. Eventually, D.J.’s girlfriend found another suitor.
He moved to Iowa to begin graduate school. Audrey was in her final year of college at Kansas State when their friendship finally took a romantic turn.
For three years, they exchanged near daily letters. They continued while she went to graduate school and then to teach in New York.
"You have the thrill of a letter appearing in the mailbox," Audrey recalled. "You would save it. You would relish it. You would read it at night."
D.J. would race home at noon when the letter carrier arrived to see if he brought word from his long-distance sweetheart.
Once in a while, he saved and splurged on a long-distance phone call.
"It was kind of extravagant at the time," he said.
They got married in a small church in rural Kansas in 1965. He earned his doctoral degree, and they had two children. This is typically when the story ends with the vivacious couple living happily ever after.
But that’s not exactly how it happens.
"We knew we had a good marriage, but we weren’t without problems," Audrey said.
More than a decade into their marriage, they confronted a common realization in long-term, committed relationships: They didn’t really know how to deal with the conflicts that naturally come up in married life.
Lisa and Kurt Buchmeier are younger than the Hubbards’ children. Their romance followed a path more typical for their generation.
Lisa, a high school teacher, asked her best friend’s husband to set her up with someone. Kurt works as a technician at a power plant. He didn’t know his co-worker very well when he approached him and asked: Would you be interested in being fixed up with a friend of my wife’s?
But Kurt went for it.
A few months into dating, Kurt gave Lisa a rose. He said he was going to eventually give her a dozen roses, along with a question with each rose. His first question: Will you promise me a lifetime of being honest with me? Five months into their courtship, he and Lisa moved in together.
Over the course of two years, other roses and questions followed. With the last one, he asked her to close her eyes. He told her a story about his father, who was a businessman but always chose to put his family first. Kurt promised Lisa a lifetime of love and security. She opened her eyes and saw the 12th rose. Kurt asked her to marry him.
"That’s what I always wanted in a man," Lisa said.
Seven years into marriage, they came to a familiar bump in the road: "There wasn’t anything majorly wrong in our marriage," Lisa said. "But I was tired of having the same fights."
Both couples eventually found their way to the same place, a nonprofit organization called Better Marriages dedicated to improving good marriages.
In both cases, the wives encouraged their reluctant husbands to join a group outside their comfort zones. The goal was the same: Learn how to communicate better with each other.
When Audrey and D.J. had a disagreement, they tended to respond the way they had seen their own parents respond growing up. Audrey wanted to hash it out right away, while D.J. said he preferred to retreat into a different room and emerge as if nothing had happened.
"My way was to hibernate until it blew over," he said.
Lisa had a similar strategy when she got upset.
"I would get quiet. … I wanted to talk to (Kurt), but I didn’t know how without getting angry or shutting down," she said.
For the past 30 years, volunteers with Better Marriages have worked to teach couples precisely these communication skills. It’s not an organization designed to help couples in crisis. It’s not counseling or group therapy. Rather, they host retreats to teach a specific ways of actively listening and sharing intimate thoughts and feelings. There are small monthly Marriage Enrichment Groups so couples can practice the skills they’ve learned. Twice a year, the chapter conducts a basic communication skills training workshop. The small groups consist of four to six couples each and rotate meeting once a month in one another’s homes to use those skills in discussing their own topics.
Bob Mosby, a retired marriage and family therapist from Kirkwood, started the local chapter with his wife. They have trained probably a thousand people through workshops at held a various local churches and organizations. About 400 couples have been through the program, he said.
"Instead of doing traditional marriage counseling, we wanted to teach people how to be independent and teach them skills," he said.
Audrey, 72, and D.J., 73, have stayed involved with the organization since the chapter began three decades ago. Kurt, 38, and Lisa, 36, have participated in meetings for more than three years.
Both couples have seen their marriage evolve and grow as a result of the work they’ve done together.
"I don’t have to run and hide anymore" when they have a disagreement, Kurt said, with a laugh.
"I’m a different woman than the one he married when it comes to communication," Lisa said. And, her husband, who lacked ways of expressing his feelings before is now much more comfortable having those conversations.
The Hubbards say the years of training gave them a structure for resolving issues that inevitably come up. It has also kept their relationship and commitment to each other a top priority.
"You have to keep reinventing your life," Audrey said.
They’ve been married 47 years and found a happily ever after.
For more information, check out bettermarriagesstl.org
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