As wedding photographers, it was Liz and Ryan Bower's job to capture the fun and excitement of every union. They saw how much emphasis was put into the day of, but while coming to terms with Liz's parents' divorce, the married couple from Remington wondered: How much emphasis was put on the marriage?
"There just didn't seem to be that excitement and energy from the industry and on the internet for the marriage after, which really was what we felt was the most important," Ryan Bower said.
From that insight grew a project that resulted in the couple making a cross-country odyssey and writing a just-released book, "Amazing Life Together," that collects the tales of 76 couples — at least one from every state — whose married lives ranged from two weeks to six decades together.
There were the former drug dealers who became ministers, in Jonesboro, Ga. The newlyweds in Alaska. The Hawaii couple who married young and, over the past 15 years, had five children and overcome a serious illness.
The recollections and revelations capture a wide variety of experiences:
"We had to take a bus because he wasn't 16 yet," said a Montoursville, Pa., woman who has been married for more than 60 years.
"When [my wife] and I came together, we would agree that we were different. We could have said, 'This is my way. This is your way.' But you can't lean into just that. ... Just because we came from knowing it one way doesn't mean it's acceptable," a Columbus, Ohio man, married nearly four decades, told them.
"The biggest obstacle we have faced in our marriage is our own selves. Marriage is such a selfless thing. I have to put him first, apologize first, initiate first, love first, and serve first. As a selfish human being, that is hard. But what a JOY when we get it right from time to time," said a woman in Memphis, Tenn., who had been married just a year.
The project wasn't this ambitious at the start. With the hopes of photographing and interviewing at least 20 couples to show "how amazing marriage can be," the Bowers, who will have been married for 10 years in June, launched a website in early 2014, calling for married couples with inspiring stories. Within six months, they received around 60 entries from around the world.
"That kind of got us thinking that there's so many of these stories, someone should really go around to try and tell these stories and show that marriage is amazing, that there's so much to learn from it," said Ryan, 33, who along with Liz, 31, hoped to provide positive and realistic examples of marriage for the many couples they photographed on their wedding days.
The project was also an excuse to travel, Liz said, so they planned a journey around the country to collect at least one love story from every state.
They put their Federal Hill house up for rent, bought a new Winnebago View and set off in January 2015. Fifty states, 41,983 miles, and 98 interviews later, they returned with more than enough material to self-publish "Amazing Life Together."
The trip, funded with the help of more than $12,000 raised on crowd-funding website Indiegogo, was eye-opening, Liz said. They camped out in Wal-Mart parking lots by night and discovered the vastness and diversity of the United States while interviewing and photographing couples by day, flying back to Maryland in between to shoot weddings. (Amid all that, they also opened mobile wood-fired pizza kitchen Well Crafted Pizza.)
They were invited to couples' homes, communities and anniversary dinners, and though they scheduled many of the interviews beforehand, they met and spoke with couples at random.
"Every single couple is very unique. They share their own intimate stories, and it's not often that we get to sit down with couples and hear those intimate stories and really dig deep into what has shaped their relationship," Liz said.
For Christy and James Tyler of Chicago, who discussed their fertility problems for the book, the experience of interviewing with the Bowers was refreshing.
"We were pregnant with twins at the time. We kind of had a stressful summer, with going through all of the treatments and moving into the house at the same time," said Christy. "To talk about marriage and share our story, the more you reminisce about stuff, it helps you remember the good stuff and also the hard stuff you've been through. We actually really liked it. They left and we were like, 'Aw, that was really fun.'"
The Tylers, who have been married for nearly eight years, now have two healthy twin boys.
Allison Barnhill and husband, Tom, said despite being friends with the Bowers for nearly a decade, their interview was one of the first times they shared some of the hardships they experienced in their marriage with friends: A business failed, and their son Logan, now 12, was diagnosed with autism around the age of 2.
Today Tom has a successful business advising company and Logan has made strides, thanks to early intervention. The couple, who live in Annapolis, launched a foundation to promote autism awareness and promote early intervention services.
"Building back up and getting through all of that, we hadn't really shared that with anyone. ... They were pretty much the first people we told outside of our little circle, and then you know, it's going to be in a book," Allison Barnhill said with a laugh.
Highlighting the couples' challenges was an essential part of the book, Liz said.
"It's not all roses and sunshine. Some of these couples have gone through excruciating things," she said.
"Just being able to recognize that you have an example of a love story that you can look to where they made it through and they fought for it is inspiring. ... Sometimes you need those reminders that you're normal."
And with every couple, often came tidbits of advice that the Bowers hope will be useful to newlyweds and other couples in the future. Suggestions ranged from simple (always kiss before going to bed) to the more obscure (showering together was one couple's suggestion for bonding — and for conserving water).
Couples also stressed the importance of individual growth, being aware of personal strengths and weaknesses and having one's own interests and hobbies, Liz said.
"In a marriage, you're always trying to take care of the other person, but in reality, you should be the best for yourself," she said.
The resounding consensus was that "having an amazing marriage does not mean having a perfect marriage," but that spending life with one's best friend was one of the biggest payoffs, Ryan said.
"It was always coming back to friendship."
Christy Tyler said she's looking forward to seeing the final product, which she feels will reflect a different chapter in her life. She already has trouble remembering some of the details, she said.
"I think having it in print for us to look back on and for our boys to look back on will be really awesome," she said, adding that reading about the older couples who have been married for decades will be motivating.
"It's inspiring to think we can make it to that point if we keep chugging it along."
Tips from couples
Wisdom from the book's authors and the featured couples:
Communicate intention and expectations. One couple featured in "Amazing Life Together" talked about how different expectations of a trip to Target led to an argument. The husband thought the trip was for one item, while the wife wanted to go shop for other things. "They were talking about the simplicity of openly communicating and sharing with each other, not only in the day-to-day, but that also stems into big life issues and topics as well," author Liz Bower said.
Listen to your partner. Author Ryan Bower said he learned through the many interviews that listening to a spouse's problem first is more important than trying to fix it. "If there is a problem, my immediate reaction shouldn't be to fix it," he said. "It's not that the spouse wants you to fix it. They just want to be loved and listened to."
Always operate as a team. "As soon as you start thinking, 'How can we solve this together?' you've won half the battle," said subject Tom Barnhill. "Whenever you face adversity, you're never alone if you attack [your problem] together. You can overcome anything together."
About the book
"Amazing Life Together," $49.95, amazinglifetogether.com