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.
Archives for Love and Marriage
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.
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.
In my research, I interview the oldest Americans about their advice for living (which led to 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans). My research team is now asking hundreds of people married for 40, 50, 60 and more years about “trade secrets” for love and marriage. Here are ten tips to ponder this Valentine’s Day. (These tips were adapted by the Washington post for a very cool slide show – you can view it here.)
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Read the rest of this entry »
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.)
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.
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!)
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.
(Do you have marriage advice? Please share it on our new site!
Elizabeth was, as she put it, “in love with my husband for 70 years.” She went on:
We had 9 children, traveled to over 70 countries, started a few businesses and especially a foundation. Early in our life, a priest asked us if we would set up a teaching mechanism to advise engaged couples. What we came up with was the importance of matched values.
We made 2 sets of cards for each couple - each card had one value on it, such as:
We sent the men into one room and the women into another. Each was to arrange the values in the order of their importance. Then they got back together and everyone discussed their preferences. Some immediately realized that they would not get along and broke up!
Regarding her own marriage, she told me:
As for John and me, God was the most important feature of our life. When we had differences, we went to God in prayer to help resolve the issue. Also, both of us put the other first. I felt that I devoted my life to him and he believed he devoted his life to me. We were both correct.
I helped him in all his businesses. We always made time for fun in our lives. We belonged to formal dance groups – and attended a formal dance at least once a month. We had a real struggle as far as money andactually went into bankruptcy when we had three children in college. Some of our children also had difficulties. We weathered all these storms and grew closer together. John died three years ago and I am now living in a retirement home. I feel his presence daily and constantly ask him to help me make decisions.
Why not try the exercise Elizabeth and John created? See how your values match those of your partner (or prospective partner). And let us know in a comment how it worked for you!
We asked America’s elders to tell us their advice for love and marriage, and the lessons are pouring in! In this new project, we’re taking all we’ve learned from the Legacy Project, and applying it to the specific topic of love and marriage (and long-term committed relationships).
If you’re 60 or over, come to the site for the Marriage Advice Project and tell us your lessons for how to have a good marriage (or how to avoid a bad one!). And if you are not over 60, please pass this information on to friends and relatives who are!
Here’s inspiring advice we just received from an 82-year old – she and her husband were married 62 years ago!
What is the most important advice to give someone when at 82, you still hold hands with your 85 year old husband? How quickly the 62 years have gone by. We have five children and we always told them the reason for our long and happy marriage – whoever left first had to take all five children with them!!! They toasted us with this saying at our 60th anniversary celebration!
Humor can be the best resource in marriage – next to belief in God. In our family, God automatically came first and belief in His way has led us.
To have a sense of humor really takes the edges off of a tense situation – this is a nice way of saying “fight.” Do not tell my husband and me that you do not fuss or disagree – we will not believe you. For you are human and have differences of opinion and isn’t it wonderful – that way you have a choice!!!
From the start, we recognized that we were definitely individuals who had definite “likes” and we appreciated and respected that in each other. We led separate lives – together. I traveled, he hunted and fished – I did handwork and sewed – he played music. I loved romping with the children – he liked silence! We both love football. Together we made it by respecting each other.
Never lose touch – we call each other several times a day just to say hi. I am still working at 82 – he is home in a wheelchair, having lost his ability to walk – both cell phones have one special # we punch to reach the other to just say hi. It is still a thrill to answer the cell and hear him say “hi.”