One Thing to Look for in a Mate: Advice from Long-Married Elders

I’ve spent time over the past year talking with young people about their hopes for marriage. And the question that comes up more than any other is: “How do I know if the person is the right one for me?” Is there a way to tell if someone is likely to be a compatible long-term mate, or a difficult and contentious partner?

Sounds complicated, right? But in our interviews with hundreds of long-married couples about what works and what doesn’t for a long and satisfying relationship, one simple and straightforward answer emerged again and again. It turns out that our elders believe there’s something close to a “magic bullet” when it comes to deciding in a relationship: “Should I stay or should I go?” And it all comes down to similarity.

But first, let’s take a look at conventional wisdom. Popular opinion tells us that opposites attract. Look at Romeo and Juliet coming from two perpetually feuding families. Or Tony and Maria in “West Side Story,” one Polish-American, the other Puerto Rican, and as different as they are they can’t resist one another. We believe that such different types are magnetically drawn together.

But do they live happily ever after? Certainly not in those two examples, nor in many others. Even The Little Mermaid — the original Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, not the treacly Disney movie — winds up rejected by the handsome prince and dies. In literature and legend, at least, it’s tough to bring two different worlds together.

I’ve asked over 500 people married 40, 50 and more years what is most important for a long and happy marriage. To my surprise, their advice was nearly unanimous: Opposites may attract, but they don’t usually make for great and lasting marriages. Based on their long experiences both in and out of romantic relationships, the fundamental lesson is this: You are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar. And if you’re very different, the elders warn although that marriage can work, is likely to be much more difficult.

I can hear some of you saying: But it would be boring if two mates were exactly alike in interests and personality! Although it may sound paradoxical, long-married elders agree that some differences can spice up a relationship. But not all aspects are equally important. There are many ways partners can be similar, but the elders say that one dimension is absolutely necessary: Similarity in core values.

Now I have talked to many people entering into relationships over the years and I have heard all kinds of reasons for falling in love. Things like physical attractiveness, having a good sense of humor, making good money, being a nice person and physical attractiveness (okay, I said it already, but I hear it a lot). Searching my memory, I failed to come up with a single example of someone saying: “Oh, I’ve just met the most wonderful person. The best thing is — we share the same core values!”

The elders’ advice, however, is that alignment of values are precisely what we should look for if we want a long, happy marriage.

Take Emma, who at 87 has been married for 58 years. As she puts it, “It’s quite an achievement.”

“I didn’t know it when I got married, but in retrospect I know it’s important to have the same basic values. In other words, if you’re a free spender, marry somebody who understands that. If you’re frugal, you need to marry somebody who understands that, because money is one of the stumbling blocks in marriages. Fortunately we had the same values on most things.Because of this, we really didn’t argue. And we didn’t agonize over things. We came to our decisions by just realizing that we had usually the same goals.”

 The key phrases here are “we really didn’t argue,” and “we didn’t agonize over things.”

Arguments emerge over apparently trivial issues, the elders tell us, because they really reflect underlying values. Whether the wife purchases an expensive camera or the husband a new golf club is not the core issue in what can become a monumental fight, but rather the deeper attitude toward what money means, how it should be spent and whether the financial interests of the couple are more important than indulging an individual whim. Similarity in core values serves as a form of inoculation against fighting and arguing.

Keith, 78, told me:

“In my first marriage… we had whole different backgrounds, different perspectives. We came to the point where we asked: ‘What’s the point of this?’ I understood this in my second marriage, and it’s been wonderful for 24 years. It’s based this time on compatibility and understanding one another’s values. We’ve never had a fight. In other words, there’s no meanness, there’s no power struggles, no ‘my way is the right way,’ those kinds of things.”

Of course, to ensure shared values, there is a catch: Namely, you need to explore one another’s values while you are in the process of committing to a relationship. Ask the question: Do we believe the same things in life are important? The long-married elders recommend that you discuss this issue and to make sure core values are as similar as possible. A number of the elders offered this tip: Early in the relationship, each of you writes down your basic values or principles in areas like money, children, work, and sex — then share these statements with one another. Because value differences are likely to be at the heart many relationship problems, it’s much better to know them in advance of committing.

As a result of this kind of “values check,” people like April, 74, and her husband went into marriage knowing they were aligned on important issues:

We both had strong commitments in feeling that we owed something back…to the community, not only of resources but of time. We both loved to travel, and we had a sense of adventure. We liked the same people and I think that’s important. Very seldom did we disagree about friends. And parenting, of course. We had very similar values in terms of our kids and what we wanted for them.

The wisdom of the elders is very consistent with research findings over the past several decades. Social scientists who study marriage look for two things over the long term: marital stability (how long the marriage lasts) and marital quality (the sense of satisfaction and well-being partners experience).

The research findings are quite clear: marriages that are homogamous in terms of economic background, religion and closeness in age are the most stable and tend to be happier. Sharing core values has also been found to promote marital stability and happiness. So the elders are in the scientific mainstream when they urge you to seek a partner who is similar to you in important ways. But what should we do with this information?

In this advice, we come up against a dilemma. On the one hand, the elders agree that someone who is generally similar in upbringing, general orientation and especially values is the single most important thing in choosing a mate. On the other hand, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers and understanding and appreciation of differences. Is there a conflict here?

The message to take away from this lesson allows for both perspectives. People happily married for decades (and social scientists) don’t tell you unconditionally to avoid marrying someone who is different from you, but with whom you are deeply in love. They just want you to recognize that if you marry someone with values very different from yours, you are much more likely to face complex challenges in married life. According to the elders, in the face of objective differences (such as culture or economic background), shared values and outlook on life go a long way to promote both the quality and stability of a marriage.

(Interested in sharing your advice for marriage? Contribute your marriage lessons at the Marriage Advice Project.)

19 thoughts on “One Thing to Look for in a Mate: Advice from Long-Married Elders

  1. Wish I’d had this advice 7 years ago. I married someone with a different religion, different political views and different values on money, family, and work. I thought the same views on honesty and loyalty were important but I struggle every day because one thing we both agree on is keeping commitments. I also don’t want to be alone.

  2. This is interesting. My current boyfriend and I share similar economic values (both frugal), both want to have kids and be near our families when we are settled down, are similarly productive with chores and work hard while at work. We are both very nice and loyal people, although we differ in the fact that I am the more educated-book smart one and he more enjoys learning about things he can do with his hands (cars, tools, etc). We also differ in that he is rather mellow and doesn’t worry, lives in the present…whereas I tend to think way too much in the future and worry a ton. I think we balance each other well although sometimes I wish he could keep up with my level of intellectual conversation…Any thoughts from the “elders” on this point?

  3. Maria… have you figured anything out? I am in a similar predicament. We have a couple of core values in common, but he is a doer and I am a thinker. I have never been with someone who I cannot really relate to intellectually. I feel he cannot understand how my mind works so he cannot understand me. But he is so supportive, sweet, never quick to anger, hard working, stable, considerate. But in his simplicity, he also does not seem to try to work on himself for himself. He wants a woman, a partner. And as long as she is happy, he is happy. He has some very deep-rooted self-esteem issues that leak out in certain behaviors. I don’t want him to work on those things FOR me, though. I don’t know. I feel I need to be single, at least for a while… but is it foolish to let such a good man go?

  4. It’s funny because our boyfriends sound identical in the list of attributes that you listed off…except mine does try to work on himself often (teaching himself Spanish, learning how to garden, build things, etc.) We are still together and things are going well. I am not considering breaking it off with him over the one thing…just because I feel like I’ve been discovering more about him and am impressed. We still don’t have rivetting intellectual conversations, but at the end of the day it hasn’t been a “deal-breaker” for us. I am such an overly-analytical person I think it would be bad for my health to be with someone who is as well (ha,ha). In your case, it sounds like there is a little more of a problem since you know what’s its like to be intellectually compatible and that’s something you crave ( I haven’t found found this with many people so don’t really know what that’s like ) and that he has insecurity issues. Have you talked to him about the insecurity? It might be a good idea to broach it in a polite way and see if whether he is or isn’t willing to work on it himself..

  5. I am on the same boat…my bf is a very sweet, caring, thoughtful, hardworking, generous man who is a loving son and brother. We don’t have the same background or upbringing, which is concerning since it causes some differences in life perspectives. I grew up in fast Paced nyc where I went through the rat race with schools whereas he is a military brat who calls Alabama his home. I see professional development as my top priority before settling down where he thinks they are simultaneously compatible. Additionally, we don’t share highly intellectual conversations,..which is also bothersome since I wish to learn mentally from my significant other. It is not a deal breaker but i do wish I could share that side of my life with him. We share common core values and are grounded in our Christian faith. We have a lot of fun traveling together and being together…but I wonder if that justifies a foundation for a longterm relationship…

  6. Maria, Olivia and Rachel, I feel such a relief that you guys posted your stories! For I am in the exact same boat, he is present-oriented, and not intellectual at all, while I am future oriented and enjoy thinking and intellectual conversations. Other than that, he is a very good partner- caring, easy going and a great listener! I am 31 so I should be thinking of the marriage topic. Now I am in the middle of the “marry him” book by lori gottlieb to try to get an insight, but I am not sure whether I am just convincing myself to bite the bullet. Hope you share your stories more!

  7. “On the other hand, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers and understanding and appreciation of differences.”

    Appreciation of differences is great when each person can rely on the strengths of the other, but if those differences are core values, then each person is likely to reach an impasse in major disagreements.

    Our society has become pluralistic to the extent that the foundations are crumbling. That’s no model for a marriage.

  8. I’ve given this topic a little more thought, and I’m beginning to see things a bit differently. Even though I am more intellectual, I tend to be really overly-analytical. It is nice to be with someone who does not need to analyze everything. It is also great that he is intelligent in the way that he can fix basically everything for me. ( I am not smart at all in that area, ha ha) I think as long as I can continue to have intellectual conversations with other people in my life… I feel OK with not having them with him.

  9. Well for a 60 year old man like me getting married again is very hard for me since meeting a good woman this time around is very difficult for me since my wife Cheated on me, and i was a very caring and loving husband that was very Committed to her as well but it wasn’t good enough for her. Being Single at my age as you can see is very difficult for me since i really do hate being all alone now, and i have no children either. Many people that are still married should be very thankful that they still have each other, and if i had a choice right now i certainly would love to be married again instead of being all alone and having no one at all.

  10. To all the lucky ladies, hold on tight to those good,sweet, loving,caring and hardworking men. Do you want an intellectual man that may be dissatisfied with your weaknesses, hold on to those hardworking men, I wish I could find one, it’s been seven years now for me searching for a good man, still hoping. To the sixty year old man who would love to be married that is so refreshing to hear that you haven’t been tainted by your ex’s betrayal. You are a smart man!!! Make sure to give a new woman your trust. It’s not because of you she cheated, it’s her own problem and a blessing for you she didn’t deserve you.

  11. Larz0: very well put!

    Maria, Olivia and a little bit Rachael: it’s funny, but I see something of the tv version of a happy couple in how you describe you and your partner’s cognitive differences. Unless your respective significant others are present-oriented to the point of being hedonistic, and/or you are so future-oriented to live in austerity, I don’t find your intellectual differences to be incompatible. Take this with a grain of salt, but it could be a good thing to have that difference in perspective in your relationships; it’s not good to have no thoughts to the future, nor is it good to be stuck in an ivory tower. In a word: balance. Compatible and complimentary in that you are both intelligent, just in different ways.

    Perhaps the want of self-improvement is a core value, I don’t know (boy, I wish there were a list somewhere).

    As for me: I am SO in Alice’s boat in that I wish I knew this 6 years ago. Maybe not though, because when you meet “The One,” you realize that your whole life, including every past bad relationship, was to prepare you for the big one. We are only 6 months in, but we both think we are the lucky one and consider each other too good for the other. We’re taking it slow, though, since we both have a failed relationship or 2 in our stories. Even though we have different religious and cultural backgrounds (she’s Southern Thai, I’m Alaskan), we have very similar values about education, raising children, money, and what’s important in life (“be excellent to each other”). I defer to the above article, though, in that we both come from loving, supportive families and a comfortable middle-class upbringing.

    This article is great and this project sounds like a wonderful resource. Thank you Cornell, for supporting it.

    Or, you could take the advice of my erudite cowboy of a grandpa; who, after a divorce of his first wife and outliving his second, has recently started seeing a new girl (and he’s in his mid-eighties!), put it: ‘Really, it’s just about finding someone willing to put up with ya.’

  12. I’m very very interested on someone at the moment who has the same personality type as me, pretty much. He’s an INFP and I’m an ENFP so the only difference is he’s more of an introvert, and I an extrovert. I’ve only known him a coupled months, but from the time that I met him I realized the majority of our values are exactly the same. We figured out that our previous relationships were almost identical and the effects were the same for both of us. The only different between us that really is noticeable is he’s into the “dark and creepy” things and stupid humor, where as I’m into more light and happy things and can’t stand stupid humor.
    The thing is, as much as I love him and want a good healthy long relationship with him, I’m terrified because everyone around me keeps saying “opposites attract” and “you two are cute but you won’t last long, your too similar.” I don’t know what to do, whether I should try it and hopd and work towards the best, or give up…any suggestions?

  13. Me and my boyfriend don’t seem to agree on marriage in a way. He thinks that marriage is just a piece of paper and the difference is just the woman’s last name changes. He says that there’s no difference in where we r now and being married. marriage and engagement shouldn’t matter if u love someone. I personally think there is a big difference between boyfriend/ girlfriend, fiances, and being married. We both have been married before and divorced. I know that when it comes to love there’s time but if 6 years go by and someone does not believe nor want to take that step of marriage I feel like I’m wasting my time cuz I believe in marriage so much. Maybe I’m wrong to feel that way and idk what to think anymore.

  14. We are both from the same religion, same country, same upbringing with parents’ love and care as well as education. Yet, we seem not to have a long conversation, especially something involved in working process or organization I’m working for. We are currently going through different directions to future: He expects to have a peaceful life, which means husband will go outside to earn money for family, and especially he must be good at working, and also in higher position than his wife; I’m different, I do respect others’ dreams, I do wanna study abroad to expand my overview of cultures and lifestyles, or mindset; he does not expect me to study abroad and just care me as a little girl, or at least I think like that. He’s too much caring to me, though sometimes just through words, but at least when I share them with my friends, they comment like that way. Sometimes, it’s stuck at my mind that leaving him, I cannot imagine those days after, but sometimes it urges me. He’s too good, I’m afraid that I cannot find someone like that, or even can, I’m not sure when? Sometimes I feel tired, he seems to fight against my expectation to moving on my works, but then afterwards, we’re fine since finally he agrees (I confirmed I had to do, and my mom got involved to persuade him). But it’s too tired, since we have to convince all the time.

  15. I WOULD say that the best mate would be of the four legged type, dog or cat. Married almost 48 years and our marriage has been one big waste of time. In all these years we have done nothing together, we haven’t talked in decades. He eats and sleeps in his new garage and I have the house, thats our marriage. We hate each other, I do my own thing he does his. To old to care any more so that’s what we’ve like all these years.

  16. My boyfriend of five years and the father of my daughter have different religions, upbringing, views on money. Somehow i am just so unhappy with him and i feel like something is wrong although i cannot always explain why. I just feel unhappy like i am not my best self with him.

  17. I believe this information in my heart to be true. I was married once and when it failed I was devastated. I have been in a relationship now for two years and it has been up and down. Mainly down as my partner has not been truthful at times. I now find it hard to trust. I have a faith background and he does not. We disagree a lot and sadly I do not think we could marry as I do not trust him like I should. I do not like to give up easily in relationships but do not want to spend the rest of my life worrying about him texing and being in the company of other women when I am at work. This has happened numerous times and when I ask him about it he gets very angry. I feel sad and betrayed. What kind of relationship
    Is this. I hope for it to change but do not know what to do but find the courage to leave this if he cannot stop doing this… I just want to be happy, want him to be too but wonder why he does this when he knows it upsets me and hides it.

  18. Olivia
    I would be interested in what you decided. I’ve had two relationships , both of 18 years duration. The first – he was violent. I fell madly in love with someone else but over the years he became controlling and took me for granted. I am 62 but still feel young. I now have met an old boyfriend who – in his words – ” is only happy if you are ” . He’s kind , adores me but I just don’t feel happy. If I say jump he’d say “how high ? ” to quote an oft used phrase.
    Should I go it alone? Release him? Break his heart ? Or spend what could be my last 18 years ! With somebody who is kind but ” pipe and slippers ? ” I’m not financially dependent on him. Any advice ( not just Olivia ) would be appreciated.

  19. I am currently in a relationship of seven months with a man 10 years older, I am 24, he is 34. We met through friends and during an acitvity we both love dancing/music.

    I believe we have had similar upbringings (upper middle class, highly educated parents, similar social economic backgrounds and both our parents valued education. We also both grew up in homes without religion (except I became a christian in my early twenties, I still belive deeply In God identify proudly as spiritual, he on the other hand does not. He thinks the idea of God is equal to the idea of Magic and struggles being respectful of my conviction otherwise. He identifies as a Libertarian ( he was raised in a Republic household) and more of an Independent (raised in a Deomocratic household) I feel a great responsibility towards social justice, but he does not, he cares more about the free market etc ( I believe this comes from internalized values) . We seem to have similar political views regarding most things (which is why I think we are both more centrist than we admit) nonethess, this and the fact he does not believe in God did worry me at first.
    I think this is why in the beigning we use to argue a lot more frequently than either of us were accustomed to, but little by little things have gotten so much sweeter, calmer and harmonious. Recently, we have reached a deeper level and we both feel much more secure and happy than we have. His family adores me and I love them, also my family is awe with him as well.

    Now of course 7 months in and he says he still has reservations about if this will work out long term, i.e. marriage. He says its the closest he’s ever felt to it , that he loves me more than any woman he has ever dated, I am the second woman he has said “I love you” to, but I am the first woman he means it with. He has a lot more experience dating that I have, but I have been in love once before, whereas this is his frist experience. Although there is no manual and last time I was dead wrong about “the love of my life”. Shouldn’t he know at 7 months if I am the one or not? I mean he’s 34….he’s been “shopping around ” for quite some time. What is the normal duration of time for one to know that ? I worry that I am wasting my time, I know i want to start a family young and that I can see myself with him. Sure it is normal to have reservations, but until when? I suppose I have some too, but they barley cross my mind anymore. He says his only doubts come from the aruguing, he worries we have so much fire/passion it would burn us. I understand his perspective but I seem to come from the belief that when you experience this type of moving love, you go with it, and the kinks will work themselves out as they are already working out organiclaly. I have no gut feeling as to end it or continue trying, but if at 34 years old, 7 months in a relationship with the first woman he really loves should I not concerned that he has doubts? Shouldn’t he have none?

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