Do you know any Emotionally Fit Couples? The story of John and Mary Jane Tucker

Recently, husband John and I climbed out  of our casually casual beach clothes and made our way to a charming seaside church in Avalon, NJ to attend the upbeat and moving funeral for our dear friend. Husband, Father, Pop-pop and world renowned otolaryngologist, Dr. John Tucker was accurately praised as a man of honor and deep accomplishment.  

As I listened to children, grandchildren and colleagues describe their admiration and, yes, awe, for this deeply respected physician, I began to reflect on the courage and sprightliness with which his wife, Mary Jane Tucker, had managed the slow decline in John’s functioning from Parkinson’s disease.  Through our regular and lengthy phone calls and meetings, I watched Mary Jane keep her sanity and her ebullient good will through horrendous turns in health that required full time caretaking of the most stressful kind, day after day, year after year, until a quiet and honorable death enabled John to find the peace he deserved. 

During the ordeal, I stayed in touch with my very special friends and, as a trusted insider to the sometimes funny, sometimes frightening events; I knew how this couple managed deeply concerning life events. I heard Mary Jane as she learned to maneuver wheel chairs up the ramp to the cozy beach cottage across from the ocean in Avalon, New Jersey, where the two enjoyed a family filled retirement. I taught John to do deep breathing to allay the anxiety that comes with a sudden physical decline from impressive athleticism into limited mobility and wheel chair living. 

In her predictable fashion, Mary Jane made it a point to thank me publically for helping John breathe as the disease took its toll. As is her way, she automatically honors the relationship between her and a friend or family member through hugs, acknowledgements and laughter. John, sinking slowly into immense disability from the illness that ravaged his physical and emotional prowess, remained gentle, polite, and friendly throughout.  When I popped in often to say hello, he would look up from his wheel chair at the table, where he might be doing a puzzle to keep his brain alert, smile earnestly, and say slowly, “It is so good to see you. Thank you for coming.” As Parkinson’s took hold of his body, his intellect and kindness shone through. The spirit of John refused to be compromised by mere mortal illness. Each and every time I visited John, he greeted me with a smile and a gracious appreciation of my skills and friendship.



As I reflected on my quarter of a century friendship with these two remarkable people, I recognized them as an example of the emotionally fit couples that work with me to achieve. In my clinical psychology practice, couple after couple has elected to improve life satisfaction through learning emotional fitness skills for nearly 40 years. Mary Jane and John  provide admirable models of the emotionally fit couple moving gracefully through many marital decades together, exercising brilliant careers in real estate and medicine, birthing and loving children and step children, and rejoicing as grandchildren and dogs came to visit month after month after month.

I met the very impressive otolaryngologist, Dr. John Tucker, in 1985: dapper, aloof, well informed, he took great pride in his research, his surgery, and his passion for medicine.  Modest by nature, the depth of his knowledge became evident in a moment of conversation. Dedicated to his patients, John became a surgeon’s surgeon during a half century career. He contributed in major ways to both research and patient care in many Philadelphia medical institutions, including Children’s Hospital (CHOP) ,  St Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and Temple University Hospital Loyal to Penn since his days as an undergraduate and as a Medical Resident, John later became the Otolaryngology departmental historian at Perelman Medical Center of the University of Pennsylvania  Dr. Tucker was deeply concerned and connected to his young patients, who often called him Pop Pop in his later years of practice. The combination of superb medical knowledge, interest in teaching and research and humane and good-humored clinical service produced a Doctor’s Doctor: that was simply who John was.

John and Mary Jane Tucker were a stunningly attractive couple.  Blond, well dressed, and at ease in the casual elegance of academic circles or the Yacht Club of Stone Harbor, John bored easily of cocktail chatter and could be found joking with husband John, while Mary Jane made the rounds of social pleasantries. Her stunning career in residential real estate sales is a perfect match for the caring she feels towards those whose homes she shepherds. Her quick wit and warmth combine to produce long term clients wherever she goes.

In our many decades loving Stone Harbor, New Jersey and Society Hill, Philadelphia, husband John and I  welcomed the frequent invitations to weddings, parties and casual drop-byes, all done with the elegance and understated intelligence.  Of all the men John knows, John Tucker was one of a few soul mates: high intelligence and understated power became both men. The caring and respect between them was deep and mutual.

As individuals Mary Jane and John complemented each other in many ways.  Talkative and ready with a quick smile, Mary Jane is outgoing, quick to problem solve life issues you wish you didn’t have, and kind.  John’s generosity, quite depth, great capacity to find humor in tricky situations, and quick smile were his hallmarks. As a couple, John and Mary Jane were the embodiment of the kind of emotional couple’s fitness that we teach at the Coche Center, LLC. Their long marriage allowed them to refine skills learned in earlier marriages before Mary Jane’s young widowhood.  Whether packing a cottage full of family for a superbly prepared Thanksgiving dinner, or walking the beach in Avalon, or dancing the night away at the Yacht Club of Stone Harbor, or traversing the globe for John’s many international presentations to colleagues, the couple routinely managed one tricky situation after another, deftly travelling from their Gwynnd Home to their beach cottage and back, all the time maintaining two demanding professional careers. 

Much like physical fitness, emotional fitness is a way to honor interpersonal health, and prevent interpersonal decline into aggression and ill will between loving partners.  For nearly 40 years, couples have been coming to The Coche Center, LLC to get stronger and more able to learn and practice principles of emotional fitness. Just as we go to a gym to work out, couples come to our clinical psychology practice to work from the inside out to attain optimal emotional and interpersonal fitness.

In my search to recommend a book for interested readers, I came across a colleague who has outlined these ideas.  Dr. Bart Goldsmith, in Santa Barbara, California, also teaches emotional fitness for couples. I am pleased that, as do I for couples in Philadelphia and at the very beautiful beach resort of Stone Harbor, NJ.  , other clinicians use and honor the principles of “working in “to achieve emotional fitness in couples. 

Here, 5 simple, key ideas to “working in” to achieve emotional coupled fitness:  

1.  Plan and execute token acts of love. Create safety in the relationship by compiling and executing alist of loving acts you might relish, including a foot rub or a big hug first thing in the morning.  Bring home flowers or fresh honey, surprise with a fresh bakery croissant; offer a back rub for no special reason. Create romantic moments that appeal to each and to both of you

2. Celebrate bed time. Sleep and play in bed together. Talk, cuddle, love, rub, pat, discuss, have coffee, read, share the news….enjoy the many activities with a love mate that make bed a special place for couples.

3. Make your Self happy. Research tells us that multiple acts of pleasure create happiness in each of us from day to day. Note what you appreciate about the other and tell them frequently. Thank openly for kindnesses and affection. Celebrate each other. 

4. Take good care of your Self.  A well cared for self is the backbone of a solid relationship. You can only be as intimate with another as you can be with yourself.  Get the exercise you need, eat correctly and sleep as much as needed. Develop self-care muscles.

5. Talk things through. Use your together time to talk about what hurts, what feels fabulous, and how to make needed relationship changes. This ability is the central facet of an emotionally fit couple.

 To Consider: There is no time like right now to learn from the wonderful lessons that Dr. John and Mary Jane Tucker lived for over a quarter of a century.  Why not start by reading this blog post to the person you partner with and concoct your own version of emotional fitness for the two of you? Will you be glad you did?  You Betcha!

To Read: Dr. Barton Goldsmith. Emotional Fitness for Couples. New Harbinger Publications, 2005

Norris Clark