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.

Our Graduation Gift to You: Advice from the Wisest Americans

What would the wisest Americans like to tell today’s college and high school graduates? From our surveys of over 1200 older people (most in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond) here are a few gems for those heading out to college or to the “real world.” Like the elders themselves, their advice is by turns serious and funny. Pass these on to the graduates in your lives. Continue reading

For Veteran’s Day: Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

As we think of our veterans today, let’s remember one of the 20th century’s amazing stories: the Tuskeegee Airmen.
TUSKEGEE-AIRMEN

Documented in the film “Red Tails,” the Tuskeegee Airmen became the first African-American aviators in the U. S. military and despite unremitting discrimination, they flew missions with great heroism, shot down German planes, and garnered a slew of medals. The also struck a massive blow to the forces of segregation and racial prejudice in the Armed Forces. Continue reading

Advice for the Bachelorette – One Thing to Know about Choosing a Mate

Yes, the reality show The Bachelorette premieres tonight, and the nation will be treated to the suspense over who will get to hand out that last rose: Britt or Kaitlyn?

The question occurred to me:  Is there one thing every young woman should know about picking a life partner (even if it’s in a more conventional way and not on TV?). I decided to ask the real experts: Elders who have been married 50, 60, even 70 years (Imagine Britt/Kaitlyn looking back over married life from 2085). What would older women tell younger women about picking a mate? Continue reading

The 50th Birthday Gift: Elder Wisdom!

One of the best things about writing a book is hearing from readers – it just never gets old. A little while ago, I received a message from Karen. Here’s what she said:

 I am married to a wonderful man named Brian.  Brian is the type of guy  who will get up out of bed when he is off, on a freezing Feb. morning to start my car because I have a 7:30 a.m. meeting an hour away, or stop to help old ladies who are having car trouble. He is pretty special; he is also turning 50 this March. When we first got married and thought about milestones like this. Paris was our mindset, but now with kids and mortgages and bills that is on the 60th celebration agenda. Anyway, I found your books, and I think they are going to make a special gift for him and I was wondering if you would be willing to sign them! I was just hoping to make it extra special.  I appreciate your time.

Continue reading

Young and Old Together Sharing Wisdom: Doesn’t Get Much Better than This!

I’m a firm believer in the power of older people sharing their wisdom and advice for living with younger folks. But rarely do I get to see it in action the way I did at the University of Rhoda Island a few weeks ago. It was a powerful testament to the way the generations can come together both to share important ideas – and to enjoy each other’s company.

Continue reading