02/20/2012 06:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Love After 50: Lessons On Long-Term Relationships And Middle-Aged Love From Real Couples

I don't mind fairy tales. I like them actually. But not the watered down, commercialized, PC-corrected, gutless ones.

The real, original stories in all their gritty, rough-and-tumble glory are rich with real life. They are stories of the soul. Ask psychologists such as Bruno Betelheim or Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

For innumerable reasons, I along with so many others, was angry about the Kardashian marriage-turned-media circus. The possibility of Kris Humphries unleashing an expose of "reality TV" is seductive. The sooner reality shows are exposed as having no relation to reality, the better.

So what is real then? Especially in this ephemeral thing we call love? What is a real fairy tale?

Coming out of our collective Valentine's haze, I took a hard look at what I learned in exploring love at midlife for I was investigating how long-term couples keep love fresh or how new midlife couples coming together manage their backstory and baggage. It was illuminating, and more inspiring than any fairy tale -- certainly more life-affirming, and love-affirming, than any celebrity media circus.

From Amy & Ken, I learned not to be afraid of fighting. And the importance of recognition! After 20 years of marriage, they know that conflict doesn't necessarily originate with each other:

We disagree, we fight, we argue, and honestly, most of that comes out of habit, comes out of our upbringing -- both our sets of parents argued, fought -- so we learned that, but we care for each other, take care of each other, allow each other our own feelings, experiences, truths.

From David & Gwen, I learned that doubting whether you can ever even be in a relationship doesn't make it true. Plus, meeting online can work and be romantic!

It's not that big an adjustment really when you're with someone who gets you. ... I adjust to the fact that I am really at home ... and we are in the world together now. [It's] a miracle to have found each other so late in life and it makes me feel much younger ... indeed we both feel like kids half the time.

From Jamie & Amy, I learned that differences can make you stronger but you have to work at them every day. That delicate balance has to be continually recalibrated. There's no room for complacency in a relationship built to last:

We have had some huge life ups and downs along with the racial issues [of being an interracial couple] and because of this we are stronger. We continue to make it through the tough times by always being partners. It's not about me, it's not about him -- it's about us. Communication, respect, compromise, kindness, passion, joy and generosity are what hold it all together. We work on making sure that all of those things are always part of our marriage and when they are we continue to grow as a couple year after year.

Christina & Yuri further affirmed that finding love at midlife has a myriad of pluses - health benefits, creative frisson!

We joke that we do everything together -- sometimes it seems that way because we are such good friends ... He lets me be who I am and it took me a long time to get to be who I want to be and not what others think I should be. ...

Maybe it's because we haven't had a lifetime together yet -- there's a lot of catching up to do.

From Keith & Marty: Working through issues along the way is the responsible, adult thing to do when you really care about someone -- and that the web of little interactions in daily life can form a startling unbreakable bond.

"[You] give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Even if he/she has done something that might seem hurtful, don't forget: this is the person who loves you; this person fundamentally has your back."

Sounds like hard work? To steal and paraphrase a little from that paean to true love, "The Princess Bride" (about to celebrate its 25th anniversary!): "Anyone who tells you differently is selling something."

But that lays the groundwork for the magical moments, like Keith & Marty's quiet kitchen slow dance. Both people are weaving the daily fabric of a loving life.

A textured bond leaves space for possibility and unexpected pleasures. Circling back to Amy & Ken:

"Let me tell you what he did for me for my 50th birthday. A big gigantic 'oh my God,' surprise. He hired a private chef, two massage therapists, had the entire bathroom (we have a huge, gorgeous bathroom!) lit with hundreds of votive candles and roses everywhere, and we each had massages, and then champagne and ... a spectacular dinner prepared and served. It was pure magic. Magic. Like a fairy tale."

See that. One comment on the the column "How to Find True Love After 40," which predicated this series, summed it all up: "The one thing I will take with me after reading this article: 'Remember: Life is on the side of love!'

It is, but sometimes we need reminders when most of what we hear is the opposite. Real fairy tales are far more like adventure tales, with fairy tale elements along the way -- the thrill of the unknown wrapped up in familiar package. Take that Kim & Kris, this is what you missed out on.

Gerit Quealy writes on Style & Substance at NBC's