I heard a radio program recently with a woman who studies contemporary marriage. Her observation was that there is lots of unhappiness among modern marrieds. She thought that we might see couples developing more relaxed codes about sexual fidelity and intimacy to deal with that.

It's not like we haven't heard this before. Social scientists have been making a case for more flexible practices in the institution. Their theories are simply a reflection of the changing times in America. The divorce rate remains high, and those that survive the marital wars often report uneasy truces and lingering ugliness. Yet, despite the liberalization of traditional codes of behavior, can we truly say that we are in a better place for it? Is a happy marriage an oxymoron these days?

I listened to this discussion with interest because Charlene and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in June. This doesn't make me an expert on marriage -- far from it. These four decades of the ups and downs of a lifetime of love are still a great mystery to me. When I wrote a column about our 20th anniversary, I couldn't know that the next 10 years would be the most difficult for us. Job losses, raising a daughter, death of loved ones, growing and changing as people, disappointments, and the passing of youth and innocence. All of these and more came our way in various forms.

When I argued with my father in my teen years, he would often say, "You expect too much out of life." These knowing words came from a man who survived the Depression, served in WWII, raised seven children in a 50-year marriage and battled leukemia for the last 12 years of his life. No child finds it easy to listen to his father's wisdom. It feels like a putdown when the voice of experience is invoked. Yet Dad's words had both the weight of truth and the simplicity of poetry for me. Stubborn as I was, I couldn't deny them.

Every generation wants too much out of life. They may change from romantics to pragmatists in their view of love and marriage, but they all believe they are going to do it their way and finally get things right. I've noticed that the young seem to have a more practical approach to marriage today, but they still could use a reality check. They believe they deserve a fit, sexy, fascinating lover and a cheerful helpmate to equally share the cooking, housekeeping and childcare. They also expect to have good, rewarding jobs, great vacations, trendy pets, stylish wardrobes and a big house in the `burbs. Not too much to ask, is it?

At the risk of sounding like my father, I might say to them, "You want too much out of life."

What keeps any kind of long-term relationship together is patience, sacrifice, understanding, hard work and blind faith. The other things range from necessary to inconsequential. It's not just that marriage is difficult; life is difficult. Each generation eventually discovers this for itself and reluctantly accepts the wisdom of their fathers and mothers. Having the "right" life isn't the same as having a good life. When I was a young man, I thought a good life was a life without any hardship. Now I've come to understand that meeting challenges and overcoming difficulities together are what make a life good. Without them a marriage is just play acting in Eden. An untested love is hardly more than infatuation.

I don't subscribe to the idea of toughing out a dead marriage or staying in an abusive relationship because it's expected. But I do believe that as a society we lack realistic images of life and love. When trouble starts, people assume they've made a mistake and that another mate will make them happier. This may be true for some, but no relationship can escape the problems and tragedies that befall all humans. Why in the world would anyone expect marriage to be easy when it is the deepest and most real commitment that two people can make?

Why do some marriages survive in the midst of all the connubial wreckage? To be perfectly frank, I'm not really sure. Long-married couples don't endure because they are perfect. Charlene and I were two working-class kids, who trusted in our future together. We didn't know what lay before us and couldn't imagine the heartache and joy that is marriage. As young as we were, somehow we recognized we'd found the best in each other and never lost faith in the ultimate purpose of our relationship. If I could do it again, I would be a better man and just plain more fun to be around. But I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I may have been as green as grass, but I chose well in marriage.

For me the greatest gift is that special love between two people. This we have had in abundance and I have no real explanation for it. Its source is beyond my knowing and it is what truly moves me in life. Perhaps this is the blessing that wiser societies called upon God to give at the altar.

Forty years of marriage is certainly impressive, but the most important number in love is two. Staying together isn't just measured in decades, but in the small infinitudes of the heart where numbers fall away to the immensity of love.

Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" appears each Wednesday.