As the audience settled in at last month’s L.A. premiere of Country Strong, Faith Hill leaned on leading man Tim McGraw‘s shoulder. Then, when the house lights dimmed, McGraw snuck her a quick kiss. It was a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign of affection, but it’s a big reason why the superstar couple is still going, well, country strong. “I’ll never do better than I’ve done with Faith, and I live every day by that credo,” he says. “We’ll be together forever.”
Easy to say; hard to do in showbiz: Consider the parade of celebrity marriages that have imploded in the 14 years McGraw, 43, and Hill, 43, have been wed. “That’s 82 years in rock-star time,” jokes McGraw, whose latest hit, “Felt Good on My Lips,” is No. 1 on the country charts. But despite the stresses of fame, the Nashville icons-parents of Gracie, 13, Maggie, 12, and Audrey, 9-are still committed to each other. And, just as importantly, they put in the effort to keep it that way. “Marriage takes work, but it’s a labor of love,” says Hill. McGraw agrees, saying: “Love and fame can’t [coexist] if fame has the power, but love has the power in our house. We talked about it from the beginning: This is not something we’ll quit.”
Balancing an A-list household requires ongoing negotiation, especially in 2011 as Hill readies for her first all-original studio album in six years, and McGraw films Safe House with Denzel Washington in South Africa this spring. “The key is Faith and I both had solid careers before we met,” he says. Nighttime Coke floats don’t hurt either. McGraw shared the relationship secrets, both sweet and serious, that help make their union last:
1. Put family first.
“Our girls’ school schedules go on our calendar first, then birthdays and school events,” he says. “It’s what makes us happy.” With work, “our rule is to try not to be three days apart,” says McGraw, whose clan will visit his South African movie set.
2. If one career is in high gear, the other takes a backseat.
“Faith has sacrificed so I can work, even though she’s still on top of her game,” he says. “There is no way around that. But it’s what she wants, to be home with the kids.”
3. Be your spouse’s biggest cheerleader.
“We don’t get jealous of each other’s careers, we get defensive for each other,” he says. “I think she’s the best out there, so if her record doesn’t go straight to No. 1, I don’t believe it.”
4. Learn from each other.
He credits Hill with helping him get sober almost three years ago. For his part, he tempers what he calls Hill’s “type A” personality. “She’s so hard on herself,” he says. “I try to make her take a break.”
5. Fess up to mistakes.
“Sometimes I say the wrong thing or discredit her feelings by trying to fix things instead of listening,” he says. “But if the other person was right, you say so.”
6. Don’t jump to the divorce place.
“Our arguments-over the bathroom, picking stuff up, the kids-are like anybody’s,” he says. “But early on we agreed we can fight over real stuff and not think it’s about the state of our relationship. ‘Should we be together?’ shouldn’t be your first thought.”
7. Grand gestures are great …
For Hill’s 40th birthday, McGraw surprised her by renting the Onassis yacht in Greece. “I want her to be happy, so if I have a good idea, I do it,” he says.
8… . But so are everyday ones.
McGraw finds their weekday movie matinees, “guilty pleasure” late-night Coke floats or dinners out with the kids just as romantic. Echoes Hill: “We still have fun-you can never lose that.”
But no action speaks louder than the L-word. “He’s my best friend-I love being with him,” says Hill. Says McGraw with a grin: “We’re so lucky to have a great relationship. I love my life. I have exactly the one I want.”