Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue Open Up About the Secret to Their 40-Year Marriage

Gillian Telling

In the April/May issue of AARP the Magazine, married couple Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue are sharing the secrets to marital success — not just their own 40-year union, but also advice they gleaned from other longterm couples for their new book.

For the upcoming project, What Makes a Marriage Last: 40 Celebrated Couples Share with Us the Secrets to a Happy Life, the That Girl actress, 82, and the talk-show host, 84, spent nine months interviewing celebrity couples whose relationships they’ve admired to find out what works and what doesn’t.

“We started to wonder if there really is a secret sauce to a successful marriage. And that’s when we decided to break an ironclad rule of our marriage – for the first time, ever – and decided to work on a project together,” they told the magazine, which has excerpted stories from their book, including tips from couples like Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Chip and Joanna Gaines, and Viola Davis and Julius Tennon.

“As different as these couples’ stories are, they share a common plotline: that of two people joining hands and stepping up to the most challenging, invigorating, inspiring, infuriating, thrilling, terrifying, delightful and heavenly job on earth — making a marriage last,” Thomas and Donahue added.

AARP Magazine

As for their own marriage secrets? Communication of course — and the simple idea that nothing could really ever break them up.

“Through the years you learn that everything is not that big a deal, and this isn’t going to break us up no matter what, so you get used to saying, Ok, let’s just talk it out,” says Thomas in a video promoting the issue on AARP’s YouTube channel.

“The secret of good communication? Screaming helps,” joked Donahue. “At least then you know if whether the person you’re screaming at is listening. Then go in the other room and count to ten.”

He adds, “A little humor certainly in a marriage goes a long way.”

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The couple first met in 1977 when Thomas was a guest on Donahue’s talk show, and they later described the meeting as “love at first sight.” When they wed in 1980, it was the first marriage for Thomas, then 40, who became a stepmother to Donahue’s five children from his first marriage.

Thomas says during the course of their research for the book, she expected to uncover a lot of “tips” as to how to make a marriage last. “But the more we got into it, we realized, it’s what is it that makes it last.”

Donahue says, “If there’s any common theme to the [interviews] we had, it’s that you have to want to have a long marriage.”

Thomas says that it’s how couples handled breaking points — deaths of loves ones, infidelity, loss of money — that proved most couples’ strengths.

“What makes a marriage last is what you do when you’re confronted with the really big stuff,” she says.