Sometimes it's the little things that make a marriage work. For Denis and Sharon Durnan, it's the husband eliminating negativity or the wife changing her tendency to nag and interrupt.

So, while Mr. Durnan once complained that the top of the refrigerator was dirty after his wife spent the whole day cleaning the parts she could reach, he now makes the top part his job. And instead of asking him four times to build a new shelf in the linen closet, Mrs. Durnan built one herself.

For Michael and Bernadette Bonanno, it's about anticipating needs: buying the milk, warming up the car, making the coffee. And they don't take anything too seriously.

In their November pastoral letter on marriage, the U.S. bishops called this "existing for each other." Marriage, they wrote, "is a call to give oneself to one's spouse as fully as Christ gave Himself to the Church."

The Durnans, parishioners of Immaculate Conception parish in Glenville and married for 52 years, say that's exactly what they do. They always ask for forgiveness if someone's feelings are hurt; they appreciate each other; they learn to change instead of asking the other to change and they embrace each other's flaws.

"God has brought us through a number of experiences that have tremendously helped us preserve our marriage, strengthen our marriage and grow in love," Mr. Durnan said.

When Mr. Durnan found himself becoming a workaholic as a new father in the 1970s, a marriage retreat helped him change. When an arthritic knee put Mrs. Durnan out of commission last summer, they learned that God is full of surprises and one spouse may have to pick up the slack.

The Bonannos attended Our Lady of Mercy parish in Colonie, which merged with St. Francis de Sales in Loudonville to form Christ Our Light parish. They find the bishops' phrase "existing for each other" slightly strong.

They know about serving each other, and not just because Mrs. Bonanno has been her husband's administrative assistant at his financial planning office for 10 years.

Domestic center
They say their 27-year marriage has always been the most important relationship in their house. "The healthier our relationship was, the healthier our four boys were," Mrs. Bonanno said.

Mrs. Bonanno always imagined she would use her teaching degree, but when their first child was born in the middle of earning her master's degree in counseling, she decided staying home would be best for their children and marriage.

Similarly, Mr. Bonanno would rather spend time with his family after work than join community organizations.

"I want to be the 80-year-old guy waddling down the street with Bernadette," he said. "I have a vision of us growing old together. Now, it's not going to just happen. You have to work toward it."

House of faith
Another point in the pastoral letter, which is part of a multi-year initiative to promote and preserve marriage, is that the family is called a "domestic church" because it "reflects the life of the Church so as to provide a kind of summary of it."

The Dur-nans still pray over their now-adult children, who also call with pray-er requests.

The Bonan-nos raised their boys to respect and help others, work to-gether and share - all values they say the Church teaches. Both couples say it's important to maintain a prayer life together and make God the foundation of a marital relationship.

Called as one
The bishops explain that marriage is a type of vocation or divine call. In other words, it's meant to be.

Mr. Durnan agreed. "I think God picked her out for me a long time ago," he said of Mrs. Durnan.

They met in junior high school in Blaine, Wash., were in touch over the years and were a long-distance couple during college and as he cruised Europe with the Navy ROTC every summer.

Mrs. Durnan was a Methodist. Mr. Durnan came home from a cruise ready to break up with her, but she announced her decision to convert. "Once she said she was going to be Catholic, we knew we were going to marry," he recalled.

They surprised their relatives with the news in a note they wedged in a test tube and stuck in the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner.

Mary Fay, associate director of marriage ministry for the Albany Diocese, offered her own advice for preserving marriages: Find things you like to do together.

For the Bonannos, it's making red wine, falling asleep on the couch watching movies, walking two miles in the park daily, playing music, cooking and eating. They taught pre-Cana classes to about six couples a year for 17 years; they help with a Hudson Falls group now.

Likewise, the Durnans teach pre-Cana in Glenville. They also deliver dinner to a homebound couple, serve as eucharistic ministers at their parish, and take every phone call together - all grounded in faith.

Said Mrs. Durnan: "Prayer better be part of your marriage or you're denying yourself the greatest help you can get."