Marlo Thomas Shares Her ‘Secret’ to 39 Years of Happy Marriage With Phil Donahue

August 5, 2019 Updated: August 6, 2019

These days, it seems like marriage means less and less. People get married, separate, divorce, and remarry with startling rapidity, and “’til death do us part,” doesn’t seem to mean what it used to.

But for actress Marlo Thomas and her husband and the “king of daytime talk” Phil Donahue, once they found each other, they haven’t let go.

What have these two entertainment luminaries done to make their relationship last where so many others have failed?

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As it happened, Thomas and Donahue weren’t the most likely couple. In fact, Thomas had a very dim view of marriage before they met. As she wrote for AARP, “Marriage is like a vacuum cleaner, I used to say. You stick it to your ear and it sucks out all your energy and ambition.”

Meanwhile, Donahue had gone through a difficult divorce himself with his first wife, Marge Cooney. Getting married again wasn’t first and foremost on his mind either. At the time they met, Thomas was doing a mixture of TV, theater, and film acting. She was much loved for her role as Ann Marie in That Girl (1967–1971).

When she and Donahue met on his groundbreaking talk show, she was impressed by this “handsome, charming Irishman.” As they got to know each other, they were able to enjoy each other’s company naturally. Pretty soon, their romance had both of them reconsidering their attitudes toward marriage and family.

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Thomas wrote that finding love when they both already had some experience actually helped. “Looking back, I think one of the reasons our relationship blossomed into more than either of us had thought it would—including marriage, three years later—is that we weren’t burdened by the pressure felt by younger people looking for mates.”

Things weren’t easy, especially because Phil Donahue’s show was based in Chicago at the time and Thomas was living in New York and often working on or off Broadway. Donahue also had four children with his first wife. But they followed their hearts and stuck together.

In her article for AARP, Thomas explained, “had Phil and I been younger, we might have been more impatient and missed each other. But being older—me in my late 30s, Phil in his early 40s—we trusted our hearts and made the effort. For many, love really is better the second time around, but for me, the first time has been just fine.”

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But what has sustained them throughout the years? Thomas and Donahue didn’t just start their lives out having fun, doing new things, and exploring the world—they’ve never stopped. “For us, it is always about finding new adventures together,” Thomas told Closer.

The couple has also been strong enough to allow each of them to focus on their own lives and careers. She also shared with Closer that “the secret to our relationship is we do a lot of stuff by ourselves. We look forward to being together just the two of us, and having our alone time.”

When either of them is on screen or stage, the other is simply there to be supportive. They don’t tell their partner how to do things but just enjoy watching them succeed. “That’s how we’ve been married for 35 years, you don’t give critiques,” she said to TODAY.

After 39 years, Thomas and Donahue keep going strong and enjoying each other’s company. “It just keeps getting better,” Thomas told Closer. One thing has stayed the same though: “we’re in love and we listen to each other.”

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