When it comes to love and marriage, here are two things we know from both research and everyday experience.
First, many young people today find the whole issue of committed relationships to be complex, difficult, and confusing.
Second, despite that fact, they still believe in marriage. In fact, surveys show that the vast majority of people in their 20s and 30s plan to get married, hope it will last forever, and expect to be faithful to their partner.
The question is: Where can they get information and advice to reach those goals? As a family sociologist, a few years ago the idea hit me: Why not go to the oldest people in our society and ask their advice for love and marriage? It struck me that people looking back from the finish line of marriage might have useful insights for younger folks. And I wasn’t disappointed: As described in my book 30 Lessons for Loving, our elders have advice that is fresh, unexpected, and most of all useful.
The following are some “expert” tips for finding the right person and staying together happily for decades.
1. Look for someone a lot like you. There’s a powerful theme in 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.
2. Do small, positive things every day. 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.
3. Keep talking. 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.” And men: yes, this means you. The elders don’t allow for excuses like “I’m a guy – we don’t talk about feelings.” Older men advise you to learn how – they did, and it was worth it.
4. Accept your partner as is. 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.
5. Don’t be a “white knight.” Many elders pointed out a behavior they view as a “communication killer.” And the problem with this behavior is that it usually stems from people’s best intentions: love and concern for their partner. Sometimes someone simply wishes to be listened to while expressing sadness, stress, or upset. However, in an effort to help, her mate jumps in immediately to try to solve the problem. .What your partner wants most, according to the elders, is to be heard and helped to come to her own solution. In such cases, a spouse’s desire to “fix things” is seen as unwelcome and shuts down the conversation. The elders tell you to tamp down the urge to be a fixer. Instead, control the white knight impulse and simply be there for your partner when she needs it.
6. 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.
7. But marriage for a lifetime is worth it. Being with someone for a half century or more, the elders 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 – even better than the heart-throbbing passion of meeting someone new. 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.