Four Tips for a Happy Wedding- From the Real Experts!

What do the oldest and wisest Americans – some married for 50 years or more – advise for a meaningful and enjoyable wedding? Here are four “trade secrets” they have learned for couples getting ready to tie the knot. There’s much more advice in the paperback edition of 30 Lessons for Loving, due to come out on December 1!30 Lessons for Loving.paperback

Be an Optimist as You Go to the Altar

The media often portray marriage as under threat, doomed, or dying. Therefore, many young people enter their marriages with a pessimistic attitude. The hundreds of long-married elders in the surveys provide a much more hopeful picture. They weathered the dry spells and difficulties, and made it to the finish line – and are very glad they did. Their lesson is that a long marriage is in fact sometimes hard: it takes drive, spirit, and determination to “hang in there when times get tough,” as one 94-year old declared. But in their view, a great lifelong marriage is possible – and they are living examples of that fact. And remember that research shows many marriages do last, and divorce rates are going down. So go into your new life together feeling positive about your chances at a lifetime together.

A “magic bullet” for resolving disagreements

Wedding discussions can breed conflict for two reasons. First, in some decisions couples can’t have it both ways – you can’t both get married in the college chapel and have a destination wedding in Aruba. Second, the decisions have deadlines – the guest list can’t wait weeks while you debate his old girlfriend can some or not.

Fortunately, the elders I interviewed offered a great tip to break an impasse. April, 74, suggested:

There was one thing that we came to early on that really stayed with us. If we were in some sort of struggle over something, we would stop and say, “Which one of us is this more important to?” And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go. But you have to consciously stop and figure it out.

In your next argument about some wedding feature, stop and ask: “Who cares more about this?” And if possible, let that person have his or her way. Grace, age 70, suggested a variation:  that each member of the couple gets to declare one thing they cannot live without in the wedding; everything else is negotiable.

Use the Wedding for Communication Practice

It’s no question that husbands and wives can experience tension around weddings. Juggling the cost (Can we really afford a live band?), the invitations (Do second cousins get to come?), and well-intentioned relatives (Can I hang up on my mother when she calls with one more worry?) lead to stress. Stop to remember: If this is the most stressful experience you have in your married life, you will be very lucky. Learn to use some good conflict resolution techniques recommended by people married a half century or more, including:

  • Let the other person have his or her say before interrupting.
  • Avoid letting anger lead you to contemptuous remarks, like insults or sarcasm
  • Take at time out if you need it – not everything needs to be discussed until resolved; drop a contentious issue and come back to it.

Why not take advantage of the golden opportunity to practice good communication early on?

People and Experiences over Things

The elders worry about young people focusing too much on “stuff” at weddings, and not enough about savoring the people and experiences that come with it. Psychologists make this distinction, finding that greater happiness comes from activities that are rewarding in and of themselves rather than acquiring material possessions.  When thinking about a wedding, you can be sure that 50 years from now, you will remember sharing the joy with friends and relatives and taking a great honeymoon trip than you will the cappuccino maker and the steak knives. When budgeting, thing about doing rather than getting. For example, having a wedding in a cheaper venue and lower-cost catering so you can invite more people you care about, in their view, is a good choice. And those gifts? Don’t forget to ask for help funding a trip that leaves life-long memories.

Lessons for a Long Marriage – Our Intern Reports!

It’s time for the second elder wisdom report from our summer interns! Rachel Tannenbaum is a senior Welcome-Interns-Signmajoring in Human Development at Cornell University. Here’s what she learned about marriage from a wise pair of elders:

I had the privilege of conducting the interview with Selma in person. Upon entering her home, I was greeted enthusiastically by Selma and her husband Arthur. Only minutes had passed before it become evident as to why they are considered “one of the sweetest and most genuine couples in the community.” Arthur sat by Selma’s side, ensuring that she was comfortable throughout our time together. I was truly looking forward to hearing their advice about maintaining a loving relationship.

Selma, age 88 and Arthur, age 90, have been married for 66 years. Selma was very excited to tell me about their relationship. To start, she shared what she considers a critical trait in a good partner:

One that respects you and treats you like a lady. We’re married for 66 years, and my husband still treats me as a lady and with a great deal of respect.

Selma continued to explain how they have managed to live happily together for so many years:

We lived a very good life – not monetarily, but we realized our limitations and we just lived that way. We learned not to expect things that are difficult for a husband or wife to achieve. Whatever my husband earned, that was okay, we made out.

Arthur added, “We had fun, we enjoyed life.” That is not to say that the two perceive marriage as an easy process. They do agree that marriage is tough, and that differences and complexities arise along the way. However, they have developed practices that have helped them successfully overcome these issues.

Arthur was eager to join our conversation and share what he believes has contributed to their strong marriage:

We started off by saying to each other that we resolve our arguments if we can, before the night comes, and try to wake up with a clean slate. If you take your arguments to bed, they become enlarged and the next morning you wake up and don’t remember what the argument was about but still retain your anger.

From the genuine interactions I witnessed between Selma and Arthur, it was clear that they continue to adhere to this practice. Many people have a tendency to leave conflicts unresolved and questions unanswered, hoping that “sleeping on them” will improve the situation. As Selma and Arthur have demonstrated, discussing even the most minor differences allows for a successful relationship!

Jeremiah’s Lesson for Living: Wisdom Gathered by our Summer Interns!

Our summer interns are back! Two great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older Welcome-Interns-Signpeople about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Margo Rieman, a junior attending Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, majoring in Management and Psychology and minoring in French. While conducting her interview, Margo learned the importance of thinking wisely, working hard and saving your money. Here’s her report:

When one is young, it can be difficult to make smart decisions and spend your time wisely because understanding and effectively anticipating the long-term costs and benefits associated with a given choice can be challenging. Many people rely on past experiences and invested costs when making life decisions. However, ignoring other factors – particularly the future – may result in a short-sighted perspective.

Jeremiah, a former World War II veteran and now a 99-year old New Yorker, had some wisdom to offer on this topic. Jeremiah made it clear that there are certain things in life that should be prioritized when making major life decisions, despite your immediate wants and needs. Jeremiah recants his experiences below and emphasizes the importance of thinking wisely, going to college, and saving your money.

I was a veteran in World War II. I could have gone to college on the G.I.’s Bill of Rights but I wanted to live, more or less. If you grew up in the 30’s you didn’t have the same opportunities as you do today because of the lack of money. So once you’re in service, and you accumulate some money, after you get discharged you have this money supposedly – what they call, “on the books” – coming to you, so you want to go out and buy a car, which is a mistake. I should have used it to go to college. I wasn’t a gambler or anything like that so I kind of accumulated quite a bit of money.

That perspective, the war, changed me, you know. Plus I had a high school education, and I wasn’t real smart, in fact I was below level but I could have went to college. I didn’t want to, I wanted to have a good time. Well, now I’m pushing 100. I never saved any of my money, and I’m broke. When you see on the television that you need hundreds of thousands of dollars for retirement, they’re not far off.

Jeremiah concluded:

Work hard, save your money. You’re always going to have stressful experiences, but if you know what you’re doing, you can do it. Be conservative. Be very dedicated to what you’re doing. You gotta have fun but it should be 20 percent of your efforts. The thing is if you do it when you’re young, you’ll be better off when you get older.

Jeremiah’s advice forewarned me of the importance of saving while I’m young and to work hard in all my endeavors. He gave me confidence that I will succeed if I am knowledgeable and experienced in the work I am pursuing.



Learn to Be Grateful

It’s World Gratitude Day today – and it’s a day we like to celebrate here at the Legacy Project!

An attitude of gratitude” is an expression that popped up frequently among the elders. Research shows that promoting a feeling of gratitude can lead to improved psychological well being. here are a few lessons from the elders that can help motivate you in a grateful direction:

Be grateful for every day you have. I’m serious about that. Just be grateful of every day you have and enjoy. (Purnima, 81)

It’s an everyday thing, because I like to be thankful, I like to be thankful for what I have and my good health. And the blessings that the Lord gives us from day to day we should be thankful for. And another thing is to try to live your life daily, one day at a time. Look ahead but still make the most of each day. (Tanya, 79)

Take time to replenish yourself – sleep, quiet time, music, reading, enjoying nature. It’s difficult to keep going when you are running on empty. Be grateful in your everyday life for the small stuff. (Rudy, 84)

And my favorite, from Becky, 89:

In spite of growing up and attending college in the Depression years, the “good life” for me began in earliest childhood when I was raised in a loving and encouraging family and enriched by many inspiring role models. Then, fortunately, our marriage was a happy and rewarding one that enabled us to meet ups and downs together.  For both of us, gratitude and giving thanks to our parents and others along the way was simply a way of life.  I am not sure the importance of a simple “Thank you” or caring gesture is stressed enough today.

From Lee Woodruff: “What My Mother-in-Law Taught Me”

Spending the summer in Scotland, I think often of my mother-in-law, Clare. She was a funny, woodrufffamily2bfeisty, kind, loving woman, who immigrated to the U. S. from Scotland shortly before my wife was born. She became a second mother to me after my own died too young.  In the seven years since she left us, I still miss Clare greatly. I am reminded of daily of her here, when I hear the Scottish accent and  the familiar expressions she used (most frequently, to me, “Don’t be daft, laddie!”), and visit her home town, Glasgow.

So I am delighted to post this guest blog by the wonderful Lee Woodruff, who writes eloquently about family and many other issues (check out Lee’s blog here). She beautifully sums up the wisdom she learned from her mother-in-law – it’s really a tribute to mothers-in-law everywhere.

What I Learned from My Mother-in-Law, by Lee Woodruff

These are some of the things I know to be true about my mother-in law:

  • She believed without a doubt that her four sons were perfect.  And even if they weren’t, she never said otherwise in public.
  • She taught me to set up the coffee maker in the evening so all you had to do was push a button in the morning.
  • The definition of a 1950’s era lady, she wore her Revlon Moonrise Pink lipstick at all times.  Like most of us, she was never fully satisfied with her hairdo.
  • Her signature saying, “It only takes a minute,” applied as equally to doing four loads of laundry or whipping up a steak dinner, as it did to driving from Detroit to New York to visit her grandchildren.
  • It was her personal philosophy to never say a bad word publically about other people.
  • Homemade chocolate chip cookies were her calling card.  They had verifiable magic powers to change the course of an illness, heal a broken heart, brighten up a new home, refresh a friendship, thank people, wish a Merry Christmas or just simply say “hi.”  To know Frannie Woodruff was to have eaten one of her ultra thin and crispy chocolate chips, the secret of which she liberally shared — extra butter and cake flour.
  • She was an early convert to “transition” glasses, which meant her Jackie-O size  lenses were usually a shade of dark purple, even when indoors.  Although her sons teased her, I now realize it was a clever way to have “eyes in the back of her head.”
  • No matter what she ordered at a restaurant (usually Fettuccine Alfredo), when it came, 90% of the time, before she even tasted it, she remarked that she should have ordered what we did.
  • I’ve tried to imagine all the places she went in the pairs of white and black formal gloves that she gave to my daughters for dress-up, including one elegant opera length kid leather pair smelling faintly of smoke.
  • She knew bank tellers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, hairdressers, T.J. Maxx employees and just about everyone else by their first names.
  • Raising four boys in the 70’s who played every sport imaginable, she inexplicably cooked only one package of frozen corn at dinner, causing them to develop a lifelong habit of eating too fast.
  • She knew the names of every one of our neighbors in all of the cities we ever lived and kept up with some of them—adding them to her Christmas card list– long after we’d moved.
  • She worshipped butter, whole milk, and cream sauces.  Her sister Lynnie bought a framed poster of a stick of butter and Frannie coveted it so much that she dragged Lynn to every Homegoods store in the greater Detroit metro area looking for its duplicate.  In the end—they agreed to share it.
  • She could not have told you what NPR stood for and did not listen to it.
  • She danced the Charleston like she had rubber bands for legs and enthusiastically taught my children how.
  • She was an avid reader of mass-market fiction.  We both shared a secret love of Sidney Sheldon.
  • Bob and I moved to nine places in 25 years of marriage (seven were domestic) and she was physically there for all seven.   In each house she would unfailing set up the kitchen (my version of plunging toilets after an intestinal virus) and unpack boxes with me from dawn until long after the kids went to bed.  I always gave up first.
  • She was such an enthusiastic and regular patron of TJ Maxx and Marshalls that on her 70thbirthday, her local store had a nametag made for her.
  • She never spent a second worrying that she needed to fulfill herself, find her passion or broaden her horizons, and she could not have accurately defined the word “feminist.”  She was 100% happy being a wife, mother and the “World’s Best Grandma,” although she never would have worn the T-shirt out of the house.
  • Never once in my presence was she able to work the TV controller, program the VCR or operate the cable box.  She did, however, have a grasp on the volume button.
  • She set a gold standard, real life example of the word “devotion.”  Watching her move through the world, I learned many important things that go into the secret sauce of being a wife, mother and good girlfriend —  not just in the placid times, but when the going gets choppy.
  • She taught me you could drive a car with your left leg up on the console, a coffee cup balanced on the dashboard and the seat belt alarm circumvented by clever buckling.
  • She was the oldest sister of three girls (like me) and two brothers.  Watching her interact with her siblings was my preview for how that bond would further strengthen, long after the kids are grown and flown.
  • The famous story of Frannie — one Pappagallo shoe on the flank of their black lab as she extruded a long stream of black plastic garbage bag out of the dog’s butt (he had escaped and eaten a neighbor’s garbage AND the bag)  — became an iconic metaphor in our house for some event, issue or what-have-you that just won’t end.
  • Her cornflower blue eyes and signature dark “Dawson” brows and lashes were passed on to her lucky, lucky boys. (Why is it always the boys who get this gene?)
  • She was fortunate enough to die exactly the way she would have wanted — in her own home, in her own bed, surrounded by her devoted husband and her beloved boys, and the repeated assurances (not that she needed them) that she was the most loved, most wonderful Mom in the world.  And she was.

Rest in Peace Frances Dawson Woodruff – 1933 — 2013

Follow Lee Woodruff on Twitter: @LeeMWoodruff

Check out Lee’s website:



Vacation: A Time to Learn from Your Family’s Elders

In these last weeks of summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great time for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Genevieve, 77, advises young people to learn history (and ways of living better) from their older relatives. She prepared this letter for children everywhere. Perhaps yours can act on it when visiting with Grandma or Grandpa (or other older relatives)?

Dear Children,

            For you the world began only a few years ago. All of what happened before that is a jumble. The grandpa you never knew who died in The War – was it Vietnam or World War II? I know it doesn’t seem to matter. You look to the future. The past, whether of family, friends, country, or the world, doesn’t matter because you are planning to change everything for the better.

            I choose to believe that you will change at least some of everything for the better. But, you need a solid foundation on which to stand first. The Greek scientist Archimedes knew this; he said he would move the world if he had both a lever and a place to stand.

            Without a foundation in the past and present, you could shift ‘everything’ out of our grasp or even send it crashing backwards. There is a way you can make sense of past and present and avoid future problems.

            Find time to ask Mother, Father, Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts and other family members about their lives before you were born. Get them to tell you stories of the funny, foolish things they did as well as the things in which they take pride. Try to learn about friends and relatives they remember that you will never know. Some of them will be thrilled you asked about their lives; you may have to coax others but it is worthwhile.

            When relatives tell you these tales, pay attention and ask questions. You may find out why they moved to a particular place, took a certain job, what they thought would happen in the country at that time, and how events and people changed their lives. We all, even you, live in a moving world, not a static one. If you want to change the world, you must also know how the world changes you.

            When you can, keep a diary whether on computer, on tape, or in a book. Include things that are happening in  your own life. Put in it lots of events and names of friends and family. You may not think so now, but someday after many years your mind will be so cluttered up that memories and names you think you’ll know forever will simply start to drop out and disappear.

            When you are grown and have children, pass on to them, in turn, as many as you can of these stories heard and lives lived. You will be giving your children a great gift that they too will learn to appreciate as time moves on.

Older People and Sex: Prepare to Be Surprised

I’d like to share a revelation with you. It took me months of pondering my interview data from hundreds of
long-loving couplemarried elders, but I finally got it. It’s about sex and older people – not something younger folks think about a lot. However, when I have given talks to 20- and 30-somethings about my book of advice from people married a half-century or more, I know there is one question in the back of their minds, even if they don’t come out and say it:

How can sex possibly stay interesting for a lifetime?

I have good news for you. I’m going to allay your worst fears and help you to relax about the idea of sex in the later years of marriage. I will tell you the spoiler right now. The message from our elders is: don’t waste your time worrying about sex in later life, because its pretty good. But first, here’s the revelation. Ready?

The reason you are worried about this issue is because sex between people a lot older than you always seems kind of gross. I don’t know if this characteristic is bred into us through evolution, if it is the product of ageist stereotypes, or some other reason.

The problem I discovered with younger people thinking about sex in later life is that they envision themselves now, at their age, somehow with an 80-year old. But the revelation is this: Its just fine when you have grown old together. You’ve learned what your partner is like (and likes), you are comfortable with one another – and you’re older, too. The beauty of staying married for a long time is that you enjoy each other and giving each other pleasure is fun. And there is absolutely nothing yucky about it.

Alfredo, age 77, captured this phenomenon succinctly. He pointed out that when you are aging together, a lot of things just seem pretty much the same:

Somehow as you get older you kind of get blind to the infirmities that affect the other party. And you always see them the way they were. You don’t see aging. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know if the brain is wired for that, but that’s the way it is. You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it. We’re in our mid-70s, and we still have a fine sexual relationship, it’s wonderful. You make do with what you’ve got, basically.

And the elders assure you that you are likely to feel the same way.

I have some credibility on this issue, because I don’t know anyone who over the past few years has talked to as many very old people about sex as I have. At first it was awkward, but after the first two or three elders eagerly embraced the topic, I was no longer embarrassed. It’s something they have thought about a lot and still think about. And indeed, they have some lessons for you about it.

First, let’s be clear: many elders continue to have sex, and most believe that it is important to keep up a sexual relationship. Although younger people often hold a negative image of the “sexless older years,” research shows that in marriages (or long-term committed relationships), rates of sexual activity are actually quite high. Indeed, for married people whose health does not interfere with intimacy, the vast majority of people age 65 and over are sexually active.

And that’s what the elders will tell you. Diane, age 74, speaks for many of the elders:

I think sex is very important because it’s kind of the glue that keeps the spark alive in a marriage. The one special expression that a married couple has is through sex—sexual intercourse—through keeping your bond just very close and very tight. It’s that expression that makes your spouse know that they’re loved and well cared for and you put all the other things with it.

To be sure, there are elders – just as there are people at any age – who are sexually incompatible or for whom their sex life is contentious or unfulfilling. In some cases, physical illness leads to lack of sexual interest or ability, causing distress for one or both partners (and again, such maladies can occur at any age). But the majority of the elders in long marriages found that sexuality can remain interesting and fulfilling into the ninth and tenth decades of life. Indeed, they believe that young people are just plain mistaken when they worry about “the sexless older years.”

As Rachel, age 86, told me:

If you’re really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is! I don’t know whether young people hear that kind of thing. They think, you know, when you get to have gray hair that the sex just removes itself from your life, but that’s not true. Not at all.

So for many, sexual activity doesn’t stop. But there’s even better news: As you grow older, the idea of sex expands. It grows to include – and even to emphasize – a much wider range of loving and romantic behaviors. Over and over, the elders used the term intimacy, which they believe goes beyond sexual intercourse itself. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner of many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew – or a tasty side dish, as Gertrude, age 73, says:

How important is sex? Well when I was young, I thought it was 90 per cent! But at 71, it’s a very lovely side dish. And I do think it’s important—yes, I do. At our age, it’s not as much the hot romance kind of thing as it is for young people. But there’s a certain wonderful friendship that exists if you have the basic foundation for it; if you’ve made that, you’ve got each other. And it’s quite nice! Of course this is a woman’s viewpoint, but the comfort of touch: a hug, a kiss . . . those are things that mean I love you.

Or as Beverly, age 69, put it: “The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!”

Given my own stereotypes, I was surprised to hear many of the elders describe intimacy in later life as satisfying as (or even better than) when they were younger. They tried to convey – sometimes with difficulty – the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years. Mason, age 77, described his feelings, based on his 40-year marriage, in a way I found deeply moving:

I think what happens is the spark changes.  You know, initially there’s a lot of physical attraction and that continues. But it changes over time so that the romance or whatever you want to call it becomes actually much more profound.  It’s less, what’s the word – frenetic maybe. For me anyway it’s really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I’ll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever.  There’s a kind of a quietness there that’s quite deep. It’s very fulfilling.   You feel a peaceful intimacy that’s in a way really more meaningful than the frenetic thing.

So here’s the lesson to carry with you, whether you are a 25-year old pondering marriage or a 60-year old wondering about the future. According to the elders, the sexual side of things – barring a troubled history or serious physical problems – is going to be at least good enough to keep you happy, and may be much better than that. There are lots of things to worry about in life. But fretting about sexless later years isn’t one of them.

Advice From Wanda, 84: “It All Boils Down To Choices”

Wanda worries that young people won’t be interested in her life lessons. I think she’s wrong about that, choicesbecause her hard-won lessons for living are ones we all can use.

I write poetry for children and for the old. The media generation escapes me. I really would like to know what is going on, but it all seems as alien as the planet Mars. What could I tell them out of my experience that would have any meaning for them? In my 84-year-old case, I feel that I have lost their attention. If I could re-capture it for fifteen minutes, I would say this:

It all boils down to choices. Make a bad one in a few seconds, and live with the consequences for the rest of your life. When you are young, lots of the choices have to do with sex and relationships. Use your head, and go carefully.

If you have a chance, get as much education as you can, because it gives you options you would not have otherwise. Find out what your strong suite is, and follow up on it. Don’t be afraid to seek advice . If words are your thing, and you think you might make a writer, don’t wait until you are 70 years old as I did.

Those who make a plan for their lives have an advantage over those who just float merrily along. This, in fact, is what I did, and I had a wonderful ride – but if someone had asked me “What do you want to do with your life? You’re only going to get one.” I might have focused more, and perhaps made a difference . But no one ever did. Too late for regrets!

One must make a living, and it is not easy these days. But don’t insist on being a millionaire. Focus on making enough money to bring up your children, educate them, save and invest anything extra for your old age.

If you have children, spend time with them, doing “stuff” like going on beach picnics, going to the zoo , reading poetry and stories at bed time, making cookies, at Christmas, singing with them, using art materials( Kids clean up well.) These are things they will remember in later life.

I think I’ll stop here. If I get preachy, no young person is going to listen.

Seven Things Elders Want to Tell You About Marriage

Many young people today find the issue of love, relationships, and marriage to be complex, difficult, and marriage pic.2confusing. But in spite of the negative reports you read in the media, they still believe in marriage. Recent surveys show that almost everyone in their 20s and 30s plans to get married, hopes it will last forever, and expects to be faithful to their partner.

But where can they get the advice they need to reach those goals? Five years ago, I went on a search to answer the question: What can people do to have a happy, fulfilling, lifelong marriage? I sought out an unusual source of information, however. I didn’t ask psychologists or consult self-help gurus. Instead, I decided to go to the people with the most experience: older Americans who have been married 50, 60, 70 years and more (described in my recent book). I believed that the view from the finish line of marriage would be uniquely valuable.

And I wasn’t disappointed. America’s elders provided a treasure trove of lessons, tips, and advice for how to find the right mate and keep the spark alive over decades.

Here are seven things they would like younger people to know – from those who are looking for a relationships to those who are in one and striving to make it last “as long as you both shall live.”

  1. Marriage is hard. Even though this is not on the minds of couples getting engaged or standing at the altar, the elders want you to know that marriage is hard. It’s tough – both because of the range of stresses and problems that confront all couples, but also because of the fundamental difficulty of merging two separate and different people into one single life. I learned that they see marriage as a discipline, like becoming an athlete or a musician – you never reach perfection, you are constantly learning, and you sacrifice short-term gain for something more rewarding later on.
  2. But marriage for a lifetime is worth it. Being with someone for a half century or more, they told me, is incredibly good. It is a sublime experience, a connection to another person unlike any other relationship. The elders describe it as the experience of a lifetime. For people who make it, it even beats the heart-pounding passion of falling in love for the first time. So making a marriage last may be hard, but the elders also want young people to know that it’s worth the effort.
  3. Marry someone a lot like you. There’s a powerful theme in American romantic culture – that opposites attract and make good mates. The idea is that two very different people from divergent backgrounds come together and love conquers all. Not so much, say the elders. Their strongest recommendation is to marry someone who is generally similar to you. Marriage is difficult for anyone, but it’s much easier with someone who shares your interests, background, and orientation.
  4. Think small. What can you do to keep the spark alive and the marriage interesting for decades? The elders advise you to think small. The view from the end tells you that a marriage is made up of hundreds of daily interactions. In each of those you have a chance to be positive, to be cheerful, to be supportive. They suggest that you make a habit of doing small, positive things. One idea that came up often is doing your partner’s chore. Say it’s 6 AM on a cold, rainy morning, the dog is scratching on the bedroom door, and it’s your partner’s turn to walk him – but you get up and do it. That’s money in the bank for the relationship.
  5. Talk, Talk, Talk. The elders believe that many marital problems can be solved through open communication. One man put it colorfully: “Keep yapping at one another.” According to the elders, the strong, silent type may be initially attractive – but probably doesn’t make the best marriage partner. As one 80-something told me: “If you can’t communicate, you’re just two dead ducks.”
  6. Stop trying to change your partner. When you are getting serious about someone, the elders say you must accept your partner as is, or don’t get married. You should never say to yourself: “After we’re married, she or he will lose weight/get a job/like my family/change heart about having kids” – or any other behavior or attitude you don’t like. Instead, ask yourself: “Can I live with this trait for a lifetime. And at any point in a relationship, making your partner a do-it-yourself project only leads to anger and disappointment.
  7. Are we hungry? Here’s one that surprised me. When a couple is having an argument that threatens to become a truly major blow-up, the elders suggest that what you may need is – a sandwich. That’s right: these long-married folks say that you should never argue on an empty stomach. Offer your partner something to eat when he or she is about to fly off the handle. According to the elders, rather than a therapist you may sometimes need a pastrami sandwich or a piece of pie. It’s cheaper and more fun!

And if you want more wisdom – ask the elders in your own life what makes a marriage work!

Four Warnings from the Elders that Your Marriage May Be In Trouble

We;ve interviewed over 700 older people about love, relationships, and marriage (described in a new book on the topic). Sifting through hundreds of responses, I learned about three warning signs that should make you very concerned a relationship. Most people know these signs are wrong – but hope that they can change their partner or that they won’t matter. The elders say this self-delusion is a huge mistake. The elders have the view from the finish line of marriage, and they offer diagnostic tool for deciding whether your marriage needs a fix (or an exit strategy).

Warning Sign # 1: Violence toward you of any kind

Yes, this point may seem obvious. But I have to put it first and foremost, because entering marriage after experiencing dating violence is still shockingly common, despite decades of warnings from researchers, physicians, and counselors.

On this issue, the elders are unequivocal: If your partner hits you or tries to hurt you in any way, get out. If it happens while you are dating, they firmly state, it will happen in your marriage. As Joan, age 84, put it

Don’t ever, ever get involved with somebody who is abusive at all physically, because you are asking for trouble. They may say that they are going to change and you may think that you will change them – News flash: you are not going to. I tried changing him and I gave up and left. I don’t care how many times person tells you they’re sorry and they’re never going to do that again. I think you find that they do.

I could spend a long time offering you detailed accounts from the elders who made the mistake of marrying someone who had been violent toward them, only to have the physical abuse escalate after marriage. But you probably know it already – make sure to act on it.

Warning Sign # 2: Explosive and Unexplained Anger

The elders assert that a huge warning sign is explosive and disproportionate anger. They tell you to beware of a person who seems to “get angry over nothing” or “has a bad temper” – anyone whose anger is disproportionate to the situation.

They want you especially to be aware of angry outbursts while you are dating. Because initially, these outbursts initially may not be directed toward you. During courtship, the elders say, people are can keep their anger toward their prospective partner under control. Therefore, you need to look carefully at how he or she responds to frustrating situations and to other people.

Annette, 76, dodged a bullet with a man she was getting serious about. She told me:

I dated someone and I was in the subway with him in the city, and we missed the train because we were on the wrong side of the platform. We were walking up the stairs and he took a whole bunch of change out of his pocket and he said some terrible things and threw all of his money down the stairs because he was very angry that we had missed the train.  And when that happened, I looked at that person and I said: “This is not a person I want to spend my life with!”

It only was a minute, but you know, it was very telling. You can tell what kind of a person a person is if you miss your plane, if you lose your luggage, if you are caught outside on a rainy day, or something like that. In those stressful situations if they’re going to just stand there and curse up a storm or throw something, ask yourself if want to spend your life with a person with those coping skills.

In fiction and film, someone like this can be attractive in a dangerous way. But in the elders’ long experience, anger that can’t be explained or controlled – even if directed toward others or toward inanimate objects – is a warning sign that can’t be ignored.

Warning Sign 3: Dishonesty – in Things Large and Small

Everyone tells little white lies (in answer to things like “Do these pants make me look fat?”). But the elders say pay careful attention to someone who is dishonest. Clearly, dishonesty to you is a probably deal-breaker. As Pamela, 91, warns:

All the sudden not coming home. Lying about where they’ve been or been with or what they’ve been doing. Secret phone calls. All kinds of things like that. Trust is a big issue and once you lose that, it’s very difficult to regain. You might put it on the back burner but you’re always going to be suspicious.

But the elders also suggest you look for dishonesty in your potential mate, even in small ways. Does he or she cheat on tests? Take small items from work? Routinely lie his or her way out of situations? They believe that these are all warning signs of dishonesty that will spill eventually into your relationship.

Warning Sign 4: Sarcasm and Teasing

The problem with these two behaviors is that they are often portrayed as “just in fun.” When you get angry in response, you are accused of “not having a sense of humor.” The elders advise you to beware of anyone who engages in mean-spirited sarcasm or whose teasing crosses the border into aggression.

Barbara, age 70, left her first husband after a few years because she sensed the dark side that lurked behind his sarcasm:

Pay attention to behavioral signs. Somebody who is persistently, consistently, always sarcastic and critical, that should have been a warning sign to me that I was dealing with somebody who couldn’t function very well in the world. So I think that’s something that a young person can look for – this profound kind of sarcasm.

Margaret, age 90, had to reach an agreement with her husband to end teasing in their relationship. She told me:

Teasing is very dangerous. Teasing is like bullying. It demeans the other person, that kind of mocking behavior. It’s supposed to be kidding, but it’s a good warning sign, because it really devalues the other person.

Sometimes love and marriage seem incredibly complicated. But a great thing about talking with the elders is they make it simple and crystal clear: Far too many people make a dumb decision in choosing a mate, and live to regret it for years. By avoiding these four dangerous traps, you can make an intelligent decision – and one that increases your chances of living happily ever after.