Archives for Love and Marriage

The Countdown Begins – For the New Book!

I have to admit – I wasn’t sure that anything could be as much fun as writing the first 30LL-book-cover-t53bi3book based on the Legacy Project – 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. There’s something special about “firsts” – and seeing my first book on our elders’ advice for living touch the lives of so many people has been incredibly rewarding.

But I learned that writing my second book was every bit as much fun as the first! I had heard from many readers that they loved the whole book, but there was one chapter that really grabbed them – the one on love and marriage. Some folks were buying the book just for that one chapter. Couples used it at rehearsal dinners and receptions, asking their guests to offer their lessons for the newlyweds.

I am glad I listened to them, because it led me on another journey – this time to find out what the oldest and wisest Americans advise the rest of us on how to have fulfilling and lifelong committed relationships. They  told me the good and the bad, offering 30 lessons for loving – and that became the title of the book.

30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage is almost here! It will be published and available in bookstores nationwide on January 8, 2015, and can be pre-ordered now. In the book, over 700 elders (some married for 60 years and more) talk honestly about the joys and difficulties of getting and staying married. They provide detailed advice that you  can use right away on questions like:

  • How do I know someone is right for me?
  • How can I improve communication with my partner?
  • How can we avoid and resolve conflicts?
  • How can we deal with stress – from jobs, kids, in-laws, chores, money?
  • How can we keep the spark alive – for a lifetime?

Please stay tuned, as over the next few months we”ll be highlighting findings and surprises from the marriage advice of the elders. We’ll be posting new videos – and as ever looking for your comments and feedback!

Love Advice from the Elders: Our Valentine’s Day Gift to You!

In the Legacy Project, we interviewed the oldest Americans about their advice for living (which led to 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans). We’re now asking hundreds of people married for 40, h50, 60 and more years about “trade secrets” for love and marriage. Here are ten tips to consider this Valentine’s Day.

1. Choose carefully. Marriage is perhaps the biggest decision any of us make. The elder view: many people are simply not careful enough. Don’t fall or drift into marriage without waiting until you know one another and you understand your reasons for getting married. Avoid making a commitment based on passion, panic at being left single, or inertia.

2. Keep an eye out for anger. The elders had trouble saying exactly what you should look for in a possible mate, but they are crystal clear on what to avoid: Someone with bursts of unreasonable and disproportionate anger, even if it’s not directed toward you. Many elders whose relationships failed say that they ignored a partner’s uncontrollable anger toward others, only to find it directed toward them later on.

3. Friendship is as important as romantic love. Most of the elders recommend that you marry someone who is also your good friend, who you enjoy being with. As one elder put it: “Your mate should be that kid you would have most wanted to play with on the playground in grade school!”

4. Don’t keep score. Marriage is a give and take proposition and sometimes circumstances will call for one partner to give more than the other. Happy couples don’t expect the give and take to balance out every day (or month, or year), but understand that at times you may be giving 90% and receiving 10% back, and other times your partner is in that role.

5. Talk to each other. Communication is absolutely the key to keeping a marriage on the right track. The elders say that the “strong silent type” may be attractive and mysterious, but if he or she stays clammed up about important issues, the relationship is probably doomed.

6. Be polite. In long marriages, people have learned the value of simple civility. They point out that we often talk to our spouses in ways we’d never talk to friends or co-workers: dismissively, insultingly, or disrespectfully. Simple politeness in spousal interaction, they say, can prevent many a spat or tiff.

7. Don’t just commit to your partner, commit to marriage itself. The elders confirm that all marriages go through tough times, but they stayed together through them because they took a vow and they respected the institution of marriage. This commitment forced them to work things out and come out better on the other side.

8. Find a partner who is a lot like you. Although we often say that opposites attract, over time fundamental differences can wear on a marriage. The elders say that you can have differences in backgrounds, but truly necessary are shared values. Check early on if your values on core issues (think money, sex, kids, religion, and work) are closely aligned.

9. They won’t change (much). What about taking a leap of faith and assuming you can change your partner after you are married? Many people do just that, and the elders basically think those people are idiots. Elder wisdom says that getting into a marriage with the goal of changing one’s partner is a fool’s errand, one that will doom the relationship before it really gets started. So if she’s always late or if he drinks a little too much, be sure you can accept it for a lifetime.

10. Don’t go to bed angry. It may be the biggest cliché around, but long-married people swear by it. Arguments should not be carried into the intimate space of the bed, and they are much more hurtful if they roll over to another day. Wrap it up, agree to disagree, or decide on another time to fight again. And even if anger is still there, they suggest you make some caring gesture before going to sleep that conveys: “I may not like you much right now, but I still love you.”

Different New Year’s Resolutions – from the Wisest (and Oldest) Americans

Are you tired of New Year’s resolutions lists by now? I am pretty much satiated with blogs and media telling me how to lose weight, start exercising, get rich, etc., in 2014. And I recall reading that only a tiny fraction of New Year’s resolutions are ever acted upon. Is there a better source of wisdom for the new year? I think there is.

I reviewed the data we gathered from more than 1,200 elders in the Legacy Project, who shared their lessons for living for future generations. Based on the surveys and interviews, here are  resolutions in five areas of life that are worth a try. These suggestions from the oldest Americans may serve you better than the typical ones we make (and break) each year.

Work. “Ask yourself: Are you glad to get up in the morning?” When it comes to your job, the elders propose a diagnostic test: How do you feel when you get up on a workday morning? You may be ambivalent about your job and have your ups and downs. But when it comes down to it, how do you feel when you are having that first cup of coffee?

Are you at least in a tolerable mood, looking forward to something about work? If instead you feel dread and foot-dragging, the elders say it may be time for a change. As Albert, 80, put it: “It’s a long day if you don’t like what you’re doing. You better get another job because there’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.”

Marriage. “Let your partner have his or her say.” From marriages lasting 40, 50, 60 or more years, the elders find that deliberately showing your partner that you are listening is a major way to defuse conflict. Natalie, 89, told me: “I learned that when you’re communicating, to really listen to what the other person is saying. When I got married, instead of listening to my husband, I would be thinking what to say in reply, to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.”

April, 70, offered a specific technique: “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.”

Child-rearing. “Abandon perfection.” The elders we surveyed raised over 3,000 children, and from that experience they had a clear lesson: Resist the temptation to seek perfection, both in your kids and in your parenting. We logically recognize the futility of creating perfect children, but emotionally we often hold ourselves up to a perfect standard. The elders, in contrast, are the first to tell you: No one has perfect children. They admit that each of their kids experienced difficulty, a period of unhappiness, a wrong turn. They suggest we lighten up regarding our children and assume that failure is inevitable at times. Gertrude, 76, said: “We were going to have perfect children, and we were going to be perfect parents. It doesn’t work that way.”

Aging. “Accept it.” Unless you’ve been living in a bomb shelter over the past decade, you’ve seen the barrage of advertising for “anti-aging medicine.” There’s a whole subculture of practitioners promising to defeat the aging process. To this the elders say: Forget about it! Instead, they encourage you to accept the aging process and to adapt activities to your changing physical abilities and circumstances. The very active Clayton, 81, noted: “You kind of grow into it. You realize that if you can’t be running this fast, well, you just go slower, but you keep on running. Do what you’re able to do and accept that there might be some limitations.” And don’t waste a penny on “anti-aging” products.

Regrets. “Go easy on yourself.” I recently was asked to do a post for CNN on the topic of how to avoid having regrets later in life. The elders do in fact have some good suggestions on that topic. But there’s another point they make: The goal of living a regret-free life is unrealistic. Their recommendation: Go easy on yourself regarding the mistakes and bad choices you have made. Alice, 85, pointed out: “What I have learned from the mistakes that I’ve made is that you can’t change what’s happened in the past. You have to accept yourself, warts and all. Once a decision is made, you don’t get anywhere by looking back and second-guessing it. As somebody taught me years ago: “if you’ve bought a pair of shoes, don’t look at the shoes in the next store window!”

And a last resolution: don’t forget to seek advice from elders you know. They have practical tips for living a more fulfilling life. Happy New Year!

It’s Never Too Late – Vera’s Outlook on Life

We are delighted to publish a post from our summer intern, Cornell University student Austin Lee. Austin learned valuable lessons from Vera, whom he interviewed for the Legacy Project.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera and learned from her about the unpredictable nature of life; nothing is set in stone and there are endless opportunities for new adventures.

Read the rest of this entry »

Faith – and Poetry – at the End of Life

Peggy, 89,  found her religious faith to be an enormous help when her husband, Larry, died suddenly several years ago. And she found release for her sorrow in writing poetry.

Peggy and Larry deeply loved one another and shared many interests and an intense closeness for over 60 years of marriage. For Peggy, her spiritual beliefs were intertwined with themarriage: “Well the basis for my understanding about what marriage is about is my faith, the idea of God before others and others before you. My faith has supported me constantly. Knowing and learning the hymns and reading the bible, all these times. There’s always something that comes to mind so you know that the spirit is leading you.”

I met Larry when I was fifteen and he was twenty. He had just been invited to come to our church by my cousin. And we had a Halloween party and I was dressed like a colonial maiden and he was dressed like a French gentleman. After the party he went to my cousin and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

They were married for a year and a half when Larry enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to fight in World War II. They stuck together “through the ups and downs” of a long married life, running a business and raising four children. In his eighties, Larry developed a series of health problems but remained mentally intact. So Peggy was not prepared for what happened one day:

He sat there late one morning  and I had gotten him to do the crossword puzzles which I’d done for years, and I got him involved with them. And he was doing the crossword puzzle, had his breakfast, then went over and sat on the couch and he said, “Peggy,would you come here and rub my back?”  And so I went over and rubbed his back and he said, “Oh that was fine that’s enough.”  And I went back, walked back right here, and I heard two loud sighs, and he was gone.

The loss was devastating, but Peggy adjusted.” In the end I thought it was a blessing, that Larry didn’t suffer. He didn’t want to go to a nursing home. And he would say, ‘Peggy, don’t you ever die before me or I’ll kill you.’

How does one cope with the loss of a partner after a life that began at a magical costume party and lasted over six decades? For Peggy, it is her deep religious faith. A poet, she used her writing to convey the experience.

Larry and I both decided to donate our bodies to the university here. Larry’s body was sent there and we’d have the ashes. When we went for the ashes, which they only had Larry’s body for about a month, sometimes they have them for three years. The doctor told me that they used his body for a very special lesson, so I was happy.

We took the ashes and we went to a park which has a place where Roy and I used to stop called Poet’s Garden and he was a poet and I was a poet. So I sat I wrote this in the garden of poets:

I’m thinking of you constantly as through the days I go

Aware of love eternal this I surely know,

That mingling with the wildflowers  the ashes that are you

Are waiting for the time that I will be there too.

The May apple, the umbrella that shields you from the rain

The scent of valley lilies softens any pain,

Waiting for our union which indeed will come,

When the Father of the Universe sees fit to call me home.

Love Stories: ABC News Report on Our Marriage Advice Project

We have embarked on the next stage of the Legacy Project: Interviewing hundreds of elders across the country for their advice about love and marriage. The Harrisburg ABC affiliate did a great story about my interviews at several Country Meadows retirement communities. Thanks to reporter Megan Healey for a sensitive and uplifting report.

 Below is the article that accompanied the broadcast. And you can enjoy the video here.  

Alma Bobb has been a widow for more than 30 years and when she talks about her late husband Jim, it’s obvious how much she still loves him.
 
“He was very special and I still miss him,” she said.
 
At nearly 100 years old, Alma has always had a lust for life and love. She met Jim seven years before she agreed to marry him, and says her time spent away from home as professional dancer in Europe helped her realize where she truly belonged — in Hershey with the love of her life.
 
“We were married and I quit my career cold turkey,” she said. “We were married for 44 years — too short. Some people are making it to their 60th anniversary these days.”
 
“You might call this the triumph of hope over experience,” Dr. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, said.
Pillemer says people like Alma are walking Encyclopedias on love and marriage, so he’s using their advice to spread the good, the bad and the downright ugly truths of relationships by interviewing seniors all over the United States. He met Alma while conducting interviews at Country Meadows of Hershey.
 
“We’re trying to convey it’s lessons for loving from the people I call the wisest Americans who are the oldest Americans,” he said.
Pillemer used that idea as inspiration for his first book “30 Lessons for Living,” in which he spoke with thousands of people, ages 65 plus, about their life successes and biggest regrets. He says this project was inspired by questions that popped up from the book.
“Lots of young people said ‘what I’d really like to know more about is how do people stay married for 60-70 years, happily?’ So they really like guidance.”
 
Sometimes, Pillemer says, the guidance may surprise you.
 
“I might get some flack for this, but not to just marry the first man who came along just because she wants children badly,” Alma said during her interview.
 
Pillemer says he often hears things that seem obvious, but so often don’t happen in relationship.
 
“To have different experiences before you’re married, to see what kind of person they are — if they stand up to responsibility,” Alma said.
 
Alma says she hopes her marriage advice isn’t outdated.
 
“I’m sure that young people today have different questions,” she said.
 
Pillemer says while that may be true with specifics, when it comes to the big picture, a 99-year-old like Alma is just perfect.
 
“I think really a lot of us are hungry for more positive images of aging and this is one way of getting it,” he said. “You can see beyond ‘oh that just looks like an old person who doesn’t seem useful to me,’ if you start asking them their advice about living.”
 
Pillemer’s book “Lessons for Loving” is expected to hit shelves in the fall of 2014. For more information on his research, go to http://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/.

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.)

Happy Marriage, Happy Children: Advice from Geraldine (New Video!)

Over the course of their lives, the elders in the Legacy Project raised over 3000 children, and had a total of around 40,000 years of married life! So they have some very good advice. Geraldine offers tips based on her long and happy marriage, and her experience as a parent and foster parent.

Four Tips from the Elders for “Fighting Fair” in Marriage

What makes or breaks a marriage? To uncover the answer to that question, I have been interviewing the individuals I believe are the true experts: older people who have been married for decades. In hundreds of discussions with America’s elders (described in my recent book), one answer is surprisingly clear.

In looking at your marriage, they suggest you ask one key question: Can you talk with your spouse? And further: Can you talk with him or her about anything or are there “hot-spots” that are off-limits for conversation as a couple? It may work out if one partner declares a minor topic as off-limits (new phone apps, shoe sales or any interactive video game, for example). But as a rule, the elders in long marriages believe your partner simply must be someone you can talk to. Indeed, the most frequent source of “buyer’s remorse” in our respondents’ marriages was finding that a spouse just couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate.

Where is communication most important? These “experts” on marriage agreed that one thing all couples need to do — if you want to remain married as long as they have — is to learn to communicate about conflicts. More specifically, we all need to learn how to fight. I learned from the elders that fights are inevitable; it’s how we handle them that matters.

Dora is 86 years old and has been married for 67 years. When asked about the kind of advice she has for younger people about marriage, Dora’s lesson was about fighting:

Well, the only thing I can really think of is this: Just because you have a fight, it’s not the end of things. After all, there are two people living together, coming from different families, different upbringings. And if you fight, you have to recognize: “Oh, well, so what? We had a fight.” Ten minutes later you forget about it. As you get older, it becomes five minutes. Today people are, “Oh I had a fight,” and they act like it was the end of the world. You just have to move on. There’s at least two a week in this house!

So we have to get used to fights. Maybe that word is too strong for some couples, but even those who don’t “fight” have disagreements. And it is in communication around differences of opinion that the secret to a long marriage lies. You’ve just heard someone in a great marriage that has lasted 67 years tell you cheerfully that she and her husband fight twice a week. It’s not the fighting — it’s how you deal with it.

The elders proposed some creative ways of talking through disagreements before they get to the knock-down, drag-out level. Here are four suggestions for how to communicate when things get tense in your relationship.

Tip 1: If you are having trouble discussing something, get out of the house.

Gary, 75, suggests that a change of scene can help you communicate about a disagreement.

When you’re in your own home, you’re in the same atmosphere where the problems are going on. So you should go somewhere where you can talk — maybe it would be in the park, a restaurant or somewhere else. We’ve done that when we needed to. I’m not sure why that works better, but it does.

Tip 2: Find a way to blow off steam, and then engage with your partner.

Antoinette, 81, found that writing helped defuse conflicts and increased her ability to discuss them.

When I became terribly upset, I would sit down and write long letters to my husband, put them aside, read them the next day — and then throw them away. I think the big thing is to vent these things out of yourself, and you can do that in many ways. I found that writing helped.

Tip 3: Watch out for teasing.

Benjamin, 72, and his wife eliminated one way of relating that they found dangerous — it’s a strategy that could be used by many couples:

After we got married, we went through sort of a teasing phase, and it was getting out of hand. So we made a pact that we wouldn’t tease the other person at all, and it really helped. It can degenerate into something nasty, teasing. So we just stopped it. I may have been the worst one, the bigger tease. I’m kind of a jokester, and maybe I thought it was funny. But it digs a little too deep. And then she would probably retaliate. It certainly changes the other person’s attitude after they get teased. Looking back, that was an important moment, a turning moment point for us — to stop teasing. And it really cleared the air. It was wonderful.

Tip 4: Let your partner have his or her say.

The elders found making an effort to listen, and to clearly show your partner that you are listening, to be a major way to defuse conflict. They say it’s one of the major challenges in marriage — shutting up long enough to hear your partner’s perspective.

Here’s 82-year-old Natalie’s tip:

Before getting married, I had been single for quite a while — 27 years. I was used to running my own life. I thought I knew all the answers. When my husband would talk, instead of listening to him I would be thinking what to say… to contradict or to reinforce what I was trying to say. That is not the best thing when you communicate. You’ve really got to listen and let them have their say. When they’re done, ask, “What would you want?” or “What do you think would be the right thing we should do?” When I was in my twenties, I had all the answers. Now that I’m in my eighties, I’m not so sure my answers are always right.

April, 72, suggests “letting go.” She offers a very useful tip for deciding who should let what go:

It’s important to let some things go. You need to figure out what matters and what really doesn’t matter. 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 we needed to consciously stop and figure it out.

So whether you call it a spat, a tiff or a disagreement, our elders say we must learn to fight fair — and it’s never too late to do so.

(Do you have marriage advice of your own? Please tell us your marriage lessons at our new site!)

A Key Piece of Elder’s Marriage Advice: Choose Carefully

I’m fascinated by the issue of regret. On the one hand, it’s challenging to deal with regret, and for some people regrets can drag them down in later life. But regret also serves a highly useful function: It helps us avoid mistakes in the future. One very common strategy for “regret prevention” among the elders had to do with finding a life partner. Over and over, elders told me that the most important thing about this critical life decision is: choose carefully, or you will regret it.

Virginia, 73, wanted to make sure her message about not rushing into marriage was strongly conveyed to younger people. Born into rural poverty, she lost her father at age 6. Her mother remarried, had two more children, and Virginia became a caretaker.

I had big responsibilities for a child my age. I took care of the kids, and I can remember when, I think I was in sixth grade, and my mother was not completely well. I mean, she had dizzy spells, and she would keep me home from school a day or two a week to take care of the little ones. I’d get up in the morning and she’d ask me to stay home from school that day. In some ways, I have been a caretaker all my life. It seems like I’m always taking care of someone.

Virginia describes rushing into marriage as one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make, and we should take her words seriously. She’s done it twice.

The first time, I got married to get away from home. I married young, I was only eighteen. I had started college in the mid-1950s, but lack of money and circumstances just didn’t allow me to continue, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I wanted to join the service. And my stepfather said no, and this was in the fifties, you understand, so I listened and I didn’t, but I knew I could no longer live at home. So there was this fellow I’d been going with, and we up and got married the week I turned eighteen. I’d had enough, and my stepfather was difficult to get along with. And they wanted my bed actually, and I didn’t know where to go, what to do, so I got married.

Well, two children and eleven years later, we divorced. It wasn’t a wise decision to marry him but it was an out for me at that time. So please, tell younger people: Don’t marry so young, get an education any way you possibly can. It’s easier in today’s world then it was back then. But when it comes to marriage, don’t rush into things. Give it time before you jump in.

After the divorce, Virginia remarried. Unfortunately, she admitted: “And that was a mistake too. I haven’t had the best luck.” Again, the problem was making the decision too quickly.

I rushed into something I later regretted, it was in the middle 1960s, and my first husband was an alcoholic and he had become very abusive. I decided to return to school, and I was taking courses. I wanted to go to school, get my teaching degree, and then I could leave my first husband and support my children and myself. But it just got so bad I had to leave, and I met this fellow, and there again I rushed into things. It was a way out and my kids liked him.

Well, at first it was good, but after that it was pretty bad. He had girlfriends, he ran around on me, he, oh, he didn’t work, he didn’t provide. So I knew that I had made the same mistake again. By marrying too soon, not knowing the person, he wasn’t what I thought he was. I was really taken in.

I haven’t had an easy time of it, frankly. But maybe I can help others understand. Here’s my advice to the people looking to get married. When you get to be like me in your seventies you realize that life is too short. One of my biggest regrets is wasted opportunities and the need to see that if you’re not happy in a situation you need to change it. I could have made a major difference in my life if I had chosen my husbands carefully, really gotten to know them before committing to the relationships. Know the person in and out before you get married. You think nowadays that you can get out of it easily, but that’s not always the case.

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