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What were your first impressions of your spouse what helped your marriage thrive? Maureen Pratt

A priest blesses a couple during their wedding ceremony. (CNS photo/Juan Carlos Ulate, Reuters)

We know the story by heart: A couple meets, sparks fly and it’s happily ever after.

Or is it?

I asked four long-married couples about their first impressions and what (or who) has helped their marriages thrive.

Martha Gonzalez and Chris Fuller, married 28 years, met at UCLA’s University Catholic Center and took the same statistics class. But romance was not obvious for the outgoing Martha and more introverted Chris.

“Every class, he’d ask me, ‘Do you have an extra pencil?'” said Martha. “That’s all he would say. We were in (the Catholic center) choir together, he never spoke to me. I didn’t think he liked me.”

Then, at a wintery, Catholic center sponsored retreat, the couple engaged in the classic “ice breaker”: a snowball fight. The following weekend, they had their first date. Love and deep friendship built on shared faith.

“We have always marched together in faith,” said Martha. “And friendship is an integral part of marriage. Chris is my husband, we have children, we’re best friends, too.”

Shirley and Sal Bertucci, married 43 years, knew about each other long before they married.

“When I was 5 or 6 years old,” said Shirley, “I remember going to Sal’s grandfather’s restaurant. I’d watch his grandpa open oysters.”

As adults, Shirley and Sal attended the same parish near New Orleans, and Shirley taught at the same school as Sal’s mother. But, despite their connections, romance needed a little intervention.

“The kids played matchmaker,” Sal said. “Shirley was working in my mother’s booth at the fair, and I was running CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). The CYO kids said, ‘We have the perfect gal for you.'”

The youth told Shirley that Sal was “perfect” for her, too. Later that day, she said, “I laughed to Sal, ‘We’ll have to talk about the wedding later.'”

The good-natured fun led to outings with the CYO youth, family and friends. Today, family, faith, laughter and community remain central to their marriage.

“We laugh a lot,” said Shirley. “We count our blessings.”

“It’s the people you surround yourself with that’s the big part,” said Sal.

Julie and Marty Hanlon Rubio, married 28 years, met at Yale. Seemingly ordinary activities helped them understand each other’s special qualities.

“When we washed dishes together in our college cafeteria,” said Marty, “I noticed she worked hard at everything, laughed a lot, and loved to talk politics and religion.”

“I loved his sense of fun and his California vibe,” said Julie. “Also, I could see he was a good person to his core. And he loved his big family.”

Despite their busy professional lives, sharing daily activities, like cooking and eating dinner together, remain important, as are Sunday family video calls with their grown children.

“It really has helped us stay close,” said Julie.

Tom and Becki Racunas, married 47 years, met at college.

“When Becki would walk into the student union, I noticed her happy smile and the way people responded to her,” said Tom.

Becki’s impressions of Tom were positive, too — almost too much so!

“When my sister came to visit me at college,” she said, “I fixed her up with Tom because he was the only nice guy I knew.”

The good qualities they first noticed in each other have held true.

“People truly love being with her,” said Tom. “I love that about her.”

“Tom is my best friend,” said Becki. “And of course, I have always thought that Tom was cute.”

Attraction, friendship, family, faith — after the hype of Valentine’s Day, real love continues growing, a blessing for the couples who nurture it and for we who know them!

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Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.