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The Secrets of Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue's Loving, Lusty Marriage

It was love at first sight for Marlo Thomas in 1977, but the Friends actress shared with E! News how she and husband Phil Donahue have been making it work ever since.

By Natalie Finn Dec 10, 2023 3:00 PMTags
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Please bear with us, but Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue's love story is about to get super-corny.

"I know my husband loves corn on the cob," Thomas told E! News in an exclusive interview. "I mean, he would kill for corn on the cob."

Long story short, Thomas makes sure to have it in their home at all times, even during the winter, "so that he can enjoy it," the actress said. "I see him all lit up whenever it's served."

Better yet, Thomas doesn't even like corn all that much. But she adores her husband of 43 years.

"That's one of the ways of making somebody happy, to think what would they like," noted Thomas, who teamed up with Donahue to release the 2020 book What Makes a Marriage Last. "It's the little things like that."

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She'll even host some of the folks she's "not crazy about" but whom Donahue gets a kick out of at their penthouse duplex on New York's Upper East Side. (Alas, Thomas did not name names.)

Cindy Ord/WireImage

The That Girl icon does, however, love to entertain, and her tableware design collaborations with William Sonoma have been put to good use. "I love to set a table and make it beautiful," she shared, thoughts of her new tortoise-shell collection dancing in her head for the holidays. "My mother used to always say that the eyes eat before the stomach, so if you put everything out that's beautiful, it draws people right to the food."

And while she'd prefer to look around the table and be enamored with 100 percent of the guests, "these parties are also for him to enjoy," Thomas said of her spouse. "I want at the end of the night for him to say, 'That was fun, I really enjoyed so-and-so.'"

But again, looking out for your partner like that is just how you make it work, because it can't be love at first sight every day.

Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Although Thomas and Donahue have come close. They met in 1977 when she appeared on his eponymous daytime talk show to discuss a project, an experience she compared in their book to a shampoo commercial, "where everything suddenly goes into slow motion."

When Donahue (a divorcé who shared five children with his first wife) started quizzing her about her romantic history and whether she was seeing anybody, she realized she was basically on a first date.

They married in 1980 in front of 35 loved ones and they remain in it to win it, Thomas attributing their enduring happiness to "listening, love and lust." And like corncob holders, those are a packaged set.

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"You have to listen to each other," Thomas explained to E!. "It took me about 10 years to figure out that mostly what Phil wanted from me were not solutions, which I was too happy to give."

When Thomas would offer what she thought was a helpful solution, "I could see his eyes sort of glaze offer," she said. And when she finally asked him whether he, in fact, wanted her advice, "He said, 'No, I just want you to listen.' I said, 'Wow, well, that's easy.'"

Not that every dynamic is the same, Thomas acknowledged, "but that's what he wanted from me. I'm a fixer, and what he didn't want me to do is fix it. He wanted me to hear it."

The love part actually comes in handy during arguments, she continued, because it's helpful to remember you love the person so that you don't spend all night fighting.

Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

"I'd rather be making love or having a good sweet conversation, or snuggle up and watch television," Thomas said. "So you need to remind yourself of the love you have for the other person. And the lust is—I mean, it's fun to say it, but it really is an important part of your marriage. It's important when people talk about date nights. It's to remember that there's a wonderful personal, physical relationship that you have with your spouse that you don't have with anybody else on earth."

You take that lust, she added, and you "water it, nurture it, exercise it and enjoy it."

And while the Friends alum has acquired a treasure trove of decorative pieces during her travels with Donahue all over the world, she doesn't swoon over expensive presents from her husband.

"Time is the greatest gift you can give each other," Thomas advised. "I don't really give a damn about a piece of jewelry. On our first wedding anniversary, we said to each other, 'I don't really want any presents. Why don't we take the money that we'd spend on fabulous things and put it into a trip?' So for every single anniversary, we have taken time together and gone someplace."

Marlo Thomas/Instagram

But while their marriage has gone literal distance, navigating the theoretical long run isn't all cuddles and corn.

Another key, as it turns out, is remembering why you love this person.

"When you stop agonizing over what is not happening—'Oh, I wish I had that and I wish I had this, I wish he would do this, I wish he would do that, I wish he would say this'—remember that this is the person you love," Thomas said. "Make room for that person to be who they are, as opposed to who you want them to be."

"I mean, who did you marry?" she added. "That person, or the person you had in your mind that you wanted that person to be? Because if that's what you did, you're in trouble."

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