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.

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

Meet the Elders – And Hear their Advice on Love and Marriage

The life wisdom of elders in the Marriage Advice Project is a precious resource. For this reason, we invite these sages to be videotaped so others can meet them as well. elder marriage advice videos We’ve been adding wonderful short videos of some of the long-married elders sharing their lessons for love, relationships, and marriage. We bet you will enjoy them as much as we have! Take a look at our YouTube channel. The elders illustrate some of the most useful points in 30 Lessons for Loving.

CONTEST! Win a Free Autographed Copy of “30 Lessons for Loving”

We’re so grateful to the tremendous feedback we’ve received about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest 30LL-book-cover-t53bi3Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage that we want to give something back! So we’re holding a contest where you can win an autographed copy of the book delivered to your front door. All you have to do is share your lessons for loving. Or you tell us about the lessons you’ve learned from a wise elder in your life about love, relationships, and marriage.

To enter, here’s what you need to do:

1. Go to www.marriagelegacy.org.

2. Scroll down the page to the Share Your Lessons for Loving section.

3. Enter your lessons in the box provided, as well as the other information requested. Give us one lesson or many; it’s up to you.

4. Be sure to include your email address, so we can contact you if you are a winner.

5. Please note: The contest closes at midnight, Friday, March 20!

We’ll select the two best entries. These two winners will be mailed an autographed copy of 30 Lessons for Loving. And we will post other responses on our blog.

So let’s hear from you!

The Best Gifts for Your Partner? You May Be Surprised at the Elder’s Advice…

What are the best kinds of gifts we can give our partners? From my interviews with hundreds of long-married elders  (some happily married for a half century orsmall gifts more), I learned something new and different about the idea of a gift.

Think about it: your birthday comes, and if you have a reasonably sensitive partner, you wind up with a gift and possibly a nice dinner out. But did that experience really enhance your relationship? My guess is that, overall, the effect was neutral, because we expect this kind of treatment. (It would have a very negative effect if we did not receive a Valentine’s gift, but getting one simply fulfills our expectations.)

But what about these scenarios?

  • You walk downstairs one morning and on the table are freshly baked blueberry muffins and a vase of daffodils from the garden.
  • You’re supposed to pick up the kids after work, but your husband emails you saying he knows you’ve got a busy day so he’ll get them instead.
  • You mention your interest in going to a concert you have read about—and your wife surprises you that weekend with a pair of tickets.

According to the elders, gifts are expected on official occasions—and, yes, probably necessary. But what keeps the spark alive is the unexpected—and kind—gesture. In fact, they believe there is nothing more effective in keeping a relationship warm, supportive, and fun than making a habit of doing small, positive things.

This lesson first hit me a number of years ago when I began my search for the life wisdom the oldest Americans. Antoinette, 81, told me about her marriage, which had been troubled in its early years. But through hard work, talking, and counseling, she and her husband of 55 years have attained a warm and loving relationship. When I asked her what she believed was the most important change she made, she thought for a few moments and said:

There is one practical piece of advice I have given to my children. This is just one little jewel that I passed along to them. And that’s when you wake up in the morning, think, “What can I do to make his or her day just a little happier?” The idea is you need to turn toward each other and focus on the other person, even just for that five minutes when you first wake up. It’s going to make a big difference in your relationship.

The elders strongly endorse the power of small and frequent positive actions in keeping the spark alive. They suggest we focus less on “big-ticket” items when we think of giving our mate something—often spending more than we can afford for items that may be quickly forgotten—and concentrate instead on giving small “gifts” throughout the week or the day. The build-up of these positive gestures can have a transformative impact on a marriage.

Darren Freeman, 73, discovered that the key to happiness in his marriage is “being loving and caring and doing things for the other person.” But he immediately added:

In my case it is being spontaneous. Going on trips by saying, “We are going to go out on a certain night.” Not tell them where you are going, and then you take them out to a certain place for dinner. Not necessarily overloading them with gifts during the Christmas time and so forth, but just throughout the years giving them little things, like if I notice that she has shown interest in something while we were shopping. Then going and buying that and bringing it home and saying, “Here, I got you a surprise today!”

How can you make the strategy of doing small, positive actions work for you? The elders suggest three types of gestures that, when done frequently, have a major impact on the relationship—surprises, chores, and compliments.

Surprise your partner. The power of small positive gestures is enhanced when they are unexpected. Jeanne Beauchamp, 72, and Rachel Strauss, 74, talked about the element of surprise in their long relationship. Jeanne told me:

Well, I think it’s really important to do little things that are a surprise. Whether it’s giving your partner a card or going out to celebrate a special event like a promotion or a special anniversary. Just little surprises. Like buying flowers. Doing things spontaneously, like you know you’re planning to have dinner at home, and it’s almost 4:00 and instead you say, “Let’s go out for dinner. Let’s go somewhere special.”

Do his or her chore. In many relationships, partners have firmly established responsibilities. It might be the separation of the inside/outside of the house domains, a schedule of who prepares dinner, who cares for a pet, or who picks up the kids. The elders say that one of the most effective small, positive actions is spontaneously taking over for your mate (especially if it’s an odious chore).

Tracey James, 68, contrasted this approach to giving big gifts—and told me that freely-offered chore assistance wins hands down:

Frequent smaller acts of kindness greatly trump large rare acts of kindness. Taking out the dog when it’s raining, going to the dry cleaner because I didn’t get there and not being angry about it—that really trumps a dozen roses. If you give me a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day, that’s one day out of the whole year. What am I supposed to think about in August when I’m not thinking about that? But if you have carried up the laundry or made the beds or emptied the dishwasher and I go to the dishwasher and you’ve done that, I can see that right away and I’m grateful and that’s part of my grateful day. That makes a big difference to me.

Give compliments. Showing admiration and appreciation is another small positive action you should take. This point was brought home to me by some very regretful older people—the failure to give and receive positive feedback and compliments was one of the most common regrets they expressed about marriage. For those elders who made a habit of complimenting their spouses, though, the payoff was a warm atmosphere of mutual appreciation.

In offering the advice to give small “gifts” as often as possible, the elders are right in line with the research. Studies of positive psychology underscore the importance of unexpected pleasant events as contributors to daily happiness.

So try upping the number of small, positive things you do for your partner. According to the elders, it can create a cascade of positive interactions that will improve and enliven your marriage. And you don’t need to wait for his or her birthday.

Meet Three Happy, Long-Married Couples from 30 Lessons for Loving

In my book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage, I used pseudonyms for all of the couples in the book. I did that to preserve anonymity – even though many of the elders would have liked having their names in print!

So it’s nice when readers can meet some of the elders in their own, real identities. The Miami Herald published an article today featuring three couples who are in the book, telling their own marriage stories and lessons in more detail. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I did!

FAITH FIRST Russell and Edith White of Venice have been married for 64 years.<252><137> and they say their secret to a long marriage is having shared values.

 

Love Advice – From the Real Experts

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.