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Annmarie Kelly & Joseph Eagle: Three decades together, five years at a time

The homework their therapist gave them remains a cornerstone of their marriage: a regular family meeting.

Annmarie Kelly and Joseph Eagle at their most recent wedding and the launch of their current marriage in 2018, at the Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast.
Annmarie Kelly and Joseph Eagle at their most recent wedding and the launch of their current marriage in 2018, at the Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast.Read moreJayne Toohey

The first time Joseph said he’d like to marry her, Annmarie was overwhelmed with dread.

She loved him. He loved her. A marriage could ruin everything!

They had met just before Thanksgiving 1985 at a Bryn Mawr reiki share — a gathering where people studying the alternative wellness technique lay their hands on one another to direct healing energy. Joseph was walking out when Annmarie walked back in — she had forgotten her purse. Would he like a ride to his car?

Within those blocks, Annmarie, who grew up in Havertown, and Joseph, born in Bristol, realized they lived just half a mile apart in Drexel Hill and exchanged numbers.

It started with more reiki, but soon, they were so often in each other’s company that others in their spiritual community began to ask if they were dating.

“No. We’re friends,” Annmarie would say.

By New Year’s, Joseph wanted more. “I had some sort of realization that I really liked her,” he said.

Annmarie liked him back, but she had decided years earlier that she did not need to be married. “Don’t get too serious, because I’m not getting serious about this relationship,” she warned him in February.

“That’s the only time in this entire relationship that she’s ever been wrong,” Joseph said with a laugh.

That summer, they booked a 10-day trip to Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg, and clairvoyant Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment.

Annmarie’s enlightenment: She was in love.

“We didn’t argue, we had a really good time, and I didn’t feel like I had to be someone I wasn’t,” she said.

Joseph had been patiently waiting for Annmarie’s heart to catch up to his. She was smart, kind, and thoughtful. The faith she had in him was contagious. Joseph had long dreamed of becoming a muscle therapist but didn’t think he could make that happen while working a demanding full-time job in the mental health field. “She said, ‘You can do this,’ and she helped me begin to think that maybe I could.”

He began floating marriage test balloons about a year after they met. Annmarie pretended not to notice.

Neither had been married, but at age 22, she had come close enough to pick a china pattern. This was the path her traditional family expected her to take, and she hadn’t questioned it. When the engagement ended, she was devastated. But a year a later, she had her real estate license and her own apartment. Despite the fact that her father didn’t talk to her for a year, Annmarie loved her unexpected independence and realized she wanted to pursue her own goals. By then, most of her friends were married, and few seemed to retain the joy they had when their husbands were boyfriends. “My girlfriends would all talk about how crazy busy they were and say, ‘I’m so tired! I need a wife!’ ” Annmarie said. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute! What does this say about being a wife?’ ”

The first time Joseph said directly that he wanted to marry her, Annmarie made a counterproposal: “Why don’t we buy a house together?”

Less than a year after they moved in, she asked her partner what he would like for his birthday. “I want to get married,” Joseph said. And no, he did not want a watch instead.

Annmarie asked for time. She thought, she prayed, and two weeks later told Joseph she did want to marry him — for five years. If it went well, they would marry again, for five more years, she said.

Joseph admired her creativity. He said yes for the same reason he had agreed to buy a home together: Once such a step was taken, it would be far easier to stick with it than get out of it, he thought.

Turns out the five-year marriage plan they have built is a lot more emotional work than he — or even she — thought it would be. But both credit it with building a relationship that has made them want to keep saying “I do,” while also helping them hone their personal goals.

Legally speaking, Joseph, who just turned 67, and Annmarie, who will only say she’s in her 60s, have been married for nearly 32 years: On Sept. 24, 1988, they took vows before 20 family members gathered in a friend’s backyard. Her mother was matron of honor.

Spiritually speaking, the couple say, they are about two years into their seventh marriage.

At every five-year mark since Wedding One, they take at least eight weeks to talk about what went right, what went wrong, and how the wrongs could be righted. They set personal goals and relationship goals for the next five years. Then they talk, for however long it takes.

“The important purpose of these meetings is we want to make sure that no one gets left behind,” Joseph said.

There has never been a divorce, but they close a metaphorical door on the old marriage to try to keep the past behind them. There is no blame for prior mistakes, but no one gets to slide by on years-old kindnesses, either.

Marriage One had them examining life as newlyweds and supporting each other through professional and financial challenges. Annmarie had become a trainer with her real estate firm, but her position was eliminated. Joseph supported them both while she established her own professional development company. Then she supported the household so he could study muscle therapy and launch his business, Ease-Up.

A crisis came midway into Marriage Two. Their conversations crumbled into arguments. Their connection seemed broken. This was not the life either wanted. Unable to bear it or fix it themselves, they sought couples therapy. Joseph saw his own counselor to deal with a discovered fear of abandonment stemming from his father leaving the family when he was a toddler and his family’s decision to send him to boarding school.

The homework their therapist gave them remains a cornerstone of their marriage: a regular family meeting. In non-COVID-19 times, these are held at a coffee shop or another public place, which makes it less likely that someone will raise their voice or leave the room.

None of this effort would have happened without their five-year promise, the couple agrees, because a “forever” comprised of such difficult days would have felt impossible. Both predicted at some point during the struggle that they would choose to divorce at the end of that five years. But by that time, they had regained their footing.

Marriages Three and Four were an intense period of professional growth. Annmarie wrote her first book, Victorious Woman, for which she interviewed women who have spun life challenges into great successes. (She now offers women-focused personal development courses through the Victorious Woman Project and holds an annual gala to fund a scholarship for midlife women earning undergraduate degrees in nursing or education at Neumann University.) Joseph’s business was blooming. Their marriage goals — and the never-far-off five-year review — reminded them to put each other’s needs higher than those of their clients.

During Marriage Five, their aging mothers needed more and more assistance, and then, end-of-life planning and care. Their fathers had passed years before. Their mothers died two years apart on Feb. 10. With so much to process, it took them six months to complete the evaluation of that marriage and set goals for the next.

In Marriage Six they faced and prepared for their own mortality. A focus of Marriage Seven — launched in 2018 with a wedding and reception for 20 at the Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast — is legacy. Annmarie’s book The Five Year Marriage was published in 2018. She and Joseph are working on web-based classes in which they will share what they’ve learned from their marriage experiences.

For Joseph, evaluating their commitment every five years has solidified the importance of never taking each other for granted. It also defines for each spouse exactly what support the other needs or wants, he said — no intuition required.

For Annmarie, the structure and the communication have provided the emotional security she needed to become Joseph’s spouse.

She still detests the word “wife.”