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.)

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

  1. Me and my fiance seemed to have the perfect relationship. Athletic, hardworking, adventurous, travelers, love to go out and dance, watch the stars, talk all night about any and everything. We don’t have all the same thoughts which is good for debate. Later when we got serious he finally told me his story about his kids (which I didn’t know he had 4) and how he got so many with 2 different woman. It was at that point we were already moved In, he had already proposed that my feelings started to change. When he detailed his story about how they met and what he went through I lost respect for him. She is on drugs has 3 kids by him. He knew before he got her pregnant
    The 2bd time she had m ental problems, never worked, he paid for everything, and she cheated with the neighbor, ( who she is married to now) so why did you get her pregnant a 2bd time then a 3rd time? This is where I lost respect. Then 7 months later he is in a new relationship having another child trying to merry her. I list all respect and some of my love.

    Now I look at it like I am His 3rd quest he wants to be married raise a family and get married. I don’t mind but honestly I want to raise my own family not someone else’s, and I feel he is all used up I never wanted that type of man.

    People tell me its nothing wrong with having outside kids well to me its about who they are with and what goes along with that. I feel it is something wrong with people being dumb. Dumb by counting to produce children under false pretenses
    I want a child but honestly he is great but I don’t want a house full of kids or to be his 5th child with his 3rd attempt, it is all so frustrating. He has full custody of all his kids now which means the house I purchased for myself is now shared by all his kids and feels so fucking small!! I’m always irritated, I didn’t even get to know these kids before they moved in because their mother left Them over a friends house while she was in jail for prostituting In the police end up calling him.

    Now he is always broke because he pays a assortment of legal fees to get custody so far in 2 years he has spent 60k. And he has to get his kids counseling for issues related to the mother.
    He always keeps this from me and trys not to bring me into his big mess, because he knows I feel it should never have been this way to begin with.
    This is the part we differ in not going to have kids with you just because I love you it has to be more then that, I will not allow a person to use me, I won’t give you all of me and you give me nothing. This makes me have zero respect for him and I don’t know if our relationship is salvageable because I still don’t want to raise another persons kids who has a parent like their mother, the lies and calling police with false reports it’s just drama I never had to deal with.

    Yes he is sweet, nice, loving, a intelligent person, athletic, and attractive. I can talk with him for hours. But to be used and allowed himself to be used is so ……just not what I wanted to hear, then to make all these kids in the process it’s like…is he really that smart? It makes me feel like a fool for picking up this baggage.

    Financially it’s hard on him because all his money goes to court and kids with zero help from the mother and I invest my money that won’t change I will help a little but my future will not be disrupted based on unforeseen issues on his side I pay my Bill’s on time and save income I lose my job, but I will not give all for any reason.

    Most important to him his kids and me. Most important to me my family, career and him . A big part is I can’t look at his kids like mine… they do t carry my Morales or values nor ediqutt it’s like pulling teeth every day home dirty garbage run over, it’s just not what I want as a family….I feel bad for feeling this way it I can’t change it. I don’t even want to .make love to him anymore. He wants a chd with me I told him No because fro. His previous decision he seems not to know what he wants or has very low standards. Meaning a woman makes hi. A little happy and he is ready to get married and have kids = low standards.

  2. Jessica, as sad as your current fiancé’s situation is, it is not your responsibility. He has kept important information from you- waiting until he ‘had you’ to tell you these things. Better to be happy while single than unhappy with someone else. Free yourself from this situation and continue looking for someone more compatible.

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