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Our 40th wedding anniversary is only a few weeks away. This is one of life's more obscure milestones. Everyone knows about the big jubilees – the 25th is silver and the 50th is gold – but what about those in between? My wife and I used to get this information from a dishtowel which listed all the anniversary gift suggestions from 1 year (paper) to 10 years (tin) and beyond, but now, of course, we have Google. No need to rummage through the airing cupboard to discover that it takes only 8 years to achieve bronze, 15 for crystal, 30 for pearl, and of course 40 for ruby.

Wikipedia tells you more than you want to know. The flowers for next month's bouquet should be gladioli, though I suspect my wife would not appreciate their whiff of Dame Edna. Apparently most of the anniversary symbols, apart from gold and silver, were dreamed up by the American National Retail Jewellers Association in 1937. They decided that diamonds at 60 years should be followed by blue sapphires at 65 and platinum at 70, presumably in the hope that recklessness increases with age even if spending power doesn't. And they evidently had a graveyard sense of humour with the gift for the 80th anniversary being oak.

Fashions change

I know what you're thinking: how can anyone possibly be old enough to have been married for 40 years? Well, it's a generation thing. Back in the 1960s it was not uncommon for medical students to marry each other – though competition was fierce with only one woman to five men. By waiting until a year or two after graduation, my fiancée and I thought we were showing restraint but we were babes by today's standards, and indeed by those of the 19th century. My yellowing copy of the Drife family tree shows that most of my distant ancestors, all Scottish shepherds, were well into their 30s before tying the knot.

It's disconcerting to realise that your life choices are determined not by the planets but by social trends, documented by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). In 1970 the mean age at first marriage for men was approaching its all-time low of 24.4 years. So much for my self-image of rugged individualism: in 1973 I was only just above the national average. The figure then climbed to its present level of 32.1 years. The corresponding ages for women were 22.4 in 1970 and 30.0 in 2010. The antenatal clinic has changed a lot since we became clients in 1975, when the BMJ defined a woman over 35 as an ‘elderly primigravida’.

Whole-time equivalents

Some of the current figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are depressing: only 66% of marriages reach the crystal anniversary, and 20% of today's divorcees have already been divorced at least once. The ONS does not break down these data by social class, much less by medical specialty, but I have the clinical impression that obstetricians and gynaecologists tend to stay married. The only evidence I've found to back this up is a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM 1997;336:800–3). Among doctors who graduated from Johns Hopkins University between 1944 and 1960, the incidence of divorce by 30 years of marriage was highest among psychiatrists and lowest among paediatricians and pathologists. I guess OB/GYNs were among the ‘others’ in the middle. I know this has little relevance to the UK in the present day, but that's the norm for published evidence, isn't it?

“What's it like being married for 40 years?” I hear you ask. I don't feel qualified to answer because, really, we've cheated. At the start, each of us was resident on call for one night in two or three, so on average we slept together once a week – and sleep we did. As an obstetric registrar, I seem to remember living in hospital with the family visiting at weekends. After that, academic life meant going to conferences rather than doing the school run. By my reckoning we've accumulated enough credits for a china anniversary at most. The benefit of this out-dated lifestyle comes when you retire, and discover that you still like each other.

Diary check, dear

We're planning a quiet jubilee. Few restaurants are open on the date itself (a Sunday) or on Mondays, so it will be a Ruby Tuesday – very 1960s. We won't dress up in our kaftans, however, and it will be just the two of us. No flotilla on the river Thames, no firework display and (sorry, jewellers) no rubies. I offered, of course, but she says red isn't her colour. Thanks, love.