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'Happily Ever After' Begins With a 'V'

Any successful couple must create ways to resolve conflict. After 25 years of marriage, my husband, Jim, and I, both introverts disinclined to talk a lot, use a voting game with results that sometimes still astonish us.

On a hot day this August, we had backpacked on the Appalachian Trail, enjoying vistas and wildlife atop Rocky Ridge northwest of Gettysburg, Pa. Near evening, at an attractive campsite with a view, we shed the heavy packs and began searching for a water supply. Exhausted, both of us felt ready to pitch Peach, our reliable tent, and call it a night. But there was no spring, no stream, not a drop of water.

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Reviewing options, we agreed that our remaining quart-and-a-half of drinking water would suffice for the evening's stew, while breakfast could await the next water source. Then we each made the mistake of assuming that the other wanted to stop.

But in an inspired move, Jim proposed that we vote. Surprisingly, while he opted 55 percent for going ahead and 45 percent for staying, my vote was 60/40, with exactly the same preference. Although we both wanted to press on, we nearly stayed at this unsatisfactory spot because we thought that would please the other. In fact, our votes, cautiously close to 50 percent, were chosen with the other in mind, so if either really wanted to stay, the combined scores would produce that outcome.

HAVING discovered our agreement, we soon reached a perfect stream-side site with the added bonus of a romantic campfire - complete with sufficient water to douse it. For us, voting secretly and then sharing the results clarifies how strongly we feel about choices. Voting is especially useful when we disagree.

Earlier this summer, Jim's extended family had gathered for a rare reunion in northern Michigan. To save money, we concluded that he should attend alone. But when Jim kept remarking how much they all would miss me, I suggested we vote. Given the cost, my vote was 80 percent to stay home. Jim's preference differed greatly: 5 percent for my staying and 95 percent to accompany him. Since that added to 85 points for home alone and 115 for going together, I attended after all - and bonded better with his relatives than ever before.

We couldn't foresee how helpful this conflict-resolution game would be when we invented it 25 years ago. We were only 21 years old when we were married, and I could not fathom spending a quarter century with someone, not having even lived that long. Today we both better understand the rough-hewn engineer whom we filmed for a production on the Algoma Central Railroad in Northern Ontario. Noting our astonishment that he had worked there 50 years, he winked and replied, "Well, it's a long time when you're looking forward, but it's a short time looking back."

On this, our silver anniversary, Jim and I look back on 25 years, each more enjoyable than the one before. What will happen over the next 25? Let's vote.

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