A Wedding Gift of Wisdom – What a Great Idea!

Need a wedding gift? Why not elder wisdom?

I’ve heard about many creative uses of my book 30 Lessons for Living. But this has to be the best one so far!

I received the following message from Shannon, of Washington State:

I loved the concept for The Legacy Project! I wish someone had gathered advice in such a meaningful way when I was younger.

When I first heard of the project, I thought: How could I introduce it to my step-son? A short time later he announced his engagement and a great idea came to me.

I purchased the book and will present it to him and his finance tomorrow night at their rehearsal dinner. During the dinner I am inviting people to add their own words of wisdom by sharing those on the blank pages of your book! Not only will the bride and groom have very personal wisdom but also that collected during your research! My hope is that they refer to it often.

I was thrilled (okay, maybe even a little choked up). So I asked Shannon if Adam and Lisa – the happy couple – would be willing to let me blog about it. They did me one better, and sent me some of the wisdom that the guests contributed!

Here’s what some of Adam and Lisa’s well-wishers – grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, friends – advised them about marriage:

“Commitment, compromise, and communication will get you through the hurdles every couple will face throughout their lives together”

“Adam, buy Lisa flowers every now and then for no reason!”

“Look forward to a lifetime of happiness… Some times will be tougher than others, but the love that you share will overcome it all. Adam: listen to Lisa and love her. Lisa: love Adam with all your heart.”

“One very important advice: communication is key.” “Always take a deep breath and remember the first time you kissed!”

“Sense of humor!”

“In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths! Live a little, give a little, forgive a lot and laugh a lot”

“You can just tell by the way you two look at each other that this is meant to be! Your marriage will be full of happiness and you guys won’t ever lose that special connection.”

“Pick your battles! Always remember that a good relationship takes work, including lots of love, compromise, giving, trust and more love.”

“When naming children, make sure it’s one you can yell clearly out the back door!”

“Know that you can’t always be right and know that being wrong happens more often than you realize; know forgiveness truly and deeply and you will be able to overcome anything.”

So here’s to Adam and Lisa, and to the day when you may pass along your own wisdom about marriage to your next generation!

Go Slow in Committing to Marriage

Although many people today delay getting marriage, all of us know young people who have rushed into relationships. Sometimes people fall head over heels in love; others feel that their “time clock” is running out. For anyone seeking a mate, the elders tell you to be very careful – and don’t rush in!

Fern, 71, suggests looking toward the future of the relationship:

Some of the things that I am telling you are some of the things that I have made mistakes with. I have been married a couple of times and very fortunately, I have a second husband who was a very wonderful husband who was a wonderful father to my children. And I think when you look for someone to marry you should sort of forget a little bit about the love connection and look ahead. Do we want a family, what do we want out of life, do we a career or how are we going to provide for this and that, how are we going to pay for a home. I think they need to take a step ahead and look at the future before they make that step.

Dina, 80, tells us to wait until we are mature enough for the commitment:

I’m always a little bit leery of relationships for young people that are established really young, before I think people are mature enough and know themselves well enough to be in a really satisfying relationship. Women make too many compromises in that kind of a situation. I’m really glad for my kids, because both of my boys were a lot more mature than I was when they got married, farther along, had much more life experience. I think that that is really good because I think you come into relationships better prepared.

Jane and Will: A Love Story

For Valentine’s day, I have been thinking of a question that comes up when I talk about my book 30 Lessons for Living: Was romance and marriage different for the elders I interviewed, or was it the same? And to that I answer: “It was the same – except where it was different.” The elders experienced the same anxiety – “Will I ever find someone to love?” – young people today go through. The were nervous before first dates, and they wondered if their relationships would last.

But they also remember a time of old-fashioned romance, where there was an element of surprise, mystery, and sometimes sacrifice involved in finding a mate. This week, I’d like to share a few stories about how the Legacy Project elders met their life partners. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

Jane Scripps has lived what she sums up as “a good life.” Raised in the south, as a young woman she got a job in the PX on a local army base, where she met Will in 1943.

We were in our twenties. He was a first lieutenant. Well, he was terrific.  I fell in love really quick.

It happened like this. I had to go to the warehouse to check on some things.  And he and the troops he was in charge of were just passing by when I was walking on the platform of the warehouse.  They were on the base for two weeks for training because they were going to go overseas really soon.  And I heard him say to his men, “Eyes right!”  Of course I did not respond.  I knew there were a group of soldiers looking at me and I was way up on the platform with high heels on.  And I was a little shy about that!  But then he took his men off to where he was supposed to.  I found out that he spent his afternoons looking for me.  And finally we met at the PX which was on that same building.  And we talked for a while.  He asked me for a date.

I didn’t give him a date, not right away, but I said I would give him my phone number.  “And if you call me Tuesday between six and six thirty, I will consider it.”  He did, and I gave him a date and we had a great time.  We double-dated.  We had a wonderful time and from there on we were together.  I don’t mean we were together, like they mean today – No!  But we had dates for four weeks, then he was going to go to another base.  We still corresponded and in four weeks he asked me to marry him, and two weeks later we were married.

I had only known him for eight weeks when we married.  And then we were married for six weeks, then he went overseas. He was over there during the war for fifteen months, and when he could he wrote to me every night. We’ve been married for fifty-eight years, and so it did work.  It wasn’t always perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we’ve always loved each other, and did the best we can, and were faithful,  and we worked through whatever we had to work through.

When asked for her thoughts on what makes a successful long-term marriage, Jane pointed to commitment, and to a belief that the institution of marriage is important in and of itself. As she put it:

Be committed to it.  Because there are lots of people in my age group that were committed.  And marriage was marriage and family.  And they stayed together.  We never ever talked about divorce or separation or anything in my marriage.  It wasn’t perfect, of course.  I don’t think it ever is, but we loved each other and we worked through whatever we had to work through. I guess I didn’t have a big problem that we couldn’t discuss and get over in a day. So be committed to it.

Jeanie, 90, An Inspiration to Girls Everywhere – Our Intern Reports!

We are so lucky at the Legacy Project to have wonderful student interns who join us to learn about aging issues, and elder wisdom in particular. We ask them to profile lessons from an elder they interview. Emily Hoyt is a junior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, majoring in Human Development. Here’s what she learned from Jeanie.

Jeanie, age 90, has lived and continues to live an incredible life. Born in 1927, Jeanie overcame adversity to become a successful career woman. According to Jeanie, “you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher; that was about it.” Jeanie broke out of these traditional roles by going back to school in her thirties to complete her undergraduate degree and receive a graduate degree in Art History. She noted:

If I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t be where I am now.. One of the reasons I made it was because I had a group of friends, our husbands were successful, and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing. One of them said ‘You know when you get between 35 and 45 you either just gel and become frozen into what you are, or you really develop,’ and I thought, “Oh my God!”

Inspired to go back to school, Jeanie pursued her dream of completing an arts education. Because careers in art are hard to come by, Jeanie found the collegiate atmosphere “backbiting and competitive.” This pressure, however, taught Jeanie “how to handle [her]self and handle other people.” A great life skill for anyone in any field of study.

Jeanie told me that going back to school “absolutely was a life changer.” Her advice to girls today? Take advantage of every opportunity you are given. According to Jeanie, “the horizon [for girls] is so much greater now.” She advises girls to capitalize on the groundwork laid by previous generations of women.

After a successful 25-year career as a museum curator, Jeanie has learned a thing or two about working life. The saying “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life” rings true for Jeanie. In fact, Jeanie felt “guilty about being paid for her job.” The intrinsic benefits she received from her job were payment enough.

Jeanie serves as an example for girls everywhere of breaking barriers and further progress for women. As women, it is our job to continue down the path that Jeanie has paved for us. We must jump at opportunities and continue to chip away at the glass ceiling until it shatters.

 

 

Realistic 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 2018. 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!

Never, Ever Give Up on Finding Love: Here’s Why.

Valentine’s Day can be a very difficult day indeed for people frustrated in finding a relationship. And it can be easy, after Never give up on loveyears of looking, to fall into disillusionment or even despair.

However, the message I received from my interviews with hundreds of elders with lifetimes of experience in and out of relationships is this:

Never give up on finding love.

The best way I can convey this message is with an example.

Kitty was an adventurous, exciting young woman. She joined the women’s naval corps (the WAVES) and served during World War II. She met her husband after the war and they were married for 60 years, experiencing life’s ups and downs, traveling the country, living a very good life. Kitty cared for her husband in his last years, and said a final goodbye in her late 80s.

Although she deeply wanted a new relationship, she assumed that the love and romance part of her life was over.

But she was in for a surprise. To find out what happened, listen to her tell the story.

An Amazing Year for “30 Lessons for Loving” – Thanks to All!

Usually we devote this blog to sharing our elders’ practical advice for living. But I’d like to start out the new year by thankingthanks! all of you for helping to make the book based on the Legacy Project – 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage – such a huge success. Based on surveys of over 700 elders – most married for three decades or more – the book provides guidance for finding a partner, keeping the spark alive, and making it to the finish line of a long and happy marriage. The book was published a year ago and just came out in paperback. And what a year it has been!

First, many thanks to wonderful folks in the media who kept me extraordinarily busy and helped spread the word about the Legacy Project. The hosts of the CBS Morning News made me so comfortable, I forgot about stage fright, as did the team at Fox & Friends and many other media outlets. I’m also grateful for major coverage from USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and so many others. It’s great how many journalists really understand the importance of elder wisdom.

Second, I’m grateful to the many reviewers who responded so positively to the book. One of the wisest people I know is renowned advice columnist Amy Dickinson (“Ask Amy”), who called the book:

“A must-read for anyone contemplating marriage. The knowledge and wisdom gathered from this huge group of elders is both modern and timeless. It is inspiring, insightful, witty, and often — surprising. This is everything about living — and loving — in a long relationship I wish my grandmother had told me. I highly recommend it for engaged couples and newlyweds.”

Publisher’s Weekly said that “The advice is astute, fresh, and well selected by Pillemer. This book would serve as an excellent gift for newlyweds. And Blogcritics noted: “I highly recommend anyone considering getting into a relationship, having trouble with a relationship, hoping that a relationship will last, or questioning whether it’s time to get on with a relationship or leave it behind not just read this book but believe what’s in this book. It just might save a broken heart or two.”

Third,  I’m grateful to all of my readers, whose response to the book has been nothing short of overwhelming. You told me:

  • This is the best book I have read of its kind on this topic because it is simple and real advice from actual people who have been in long term relationships. Nothing is sugar coated and there are no quick fixes. After reading this book, I’ve been given new insight into other relationship behaviors that I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life whether I remain single or meet someone. Truly inspiring and touching. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but this book was life changing for me.
  • Learning from those who are older and wiser, who can speak from experience is an excellent approach. Well written and a very enjoyable read. I have purchased this book as a gift for others three times since reading it. The advice given is invaluable, practical and straight forward.
  • My husband I both read the book and found it to be full of helpful advice. It’s a good reminder of what it takes to have a long, success marriage at any stage. I not only recommend it to married couples, but more importantly, to those looking for the love of their life. Older adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we don’t always get to hear. It makes me think of my own grandparents – who have since passed – and the advice they might have shared. Love this book!
And I especially loved it when so many readers told me they purchased the book for loved ones getting married! I signed copies for some of them, and I am always happy to do so on request.
Finally, thanks to all of you who join us on the Legacy Project Site – around 15,000 people every month. You are the best endorsement of all of the value of elder wisdom and the ways it can enrich our lives!

 

 

Four Tips for a Happy Wedding- From the Real Experts!

What do the oldest and wisest Americans – some married for 50 years or more – advise for a meaningful and enjoyable wedding? Here are four “trade secrets” they have learned for couples getting ready to tie the knot. There’s much more advice in the paperback edition of 30 Lessons for Loving, due to come out on December 1!30 Lessons for Loving.paperback

Be an Optimist as You Go to the Altar

The media often portray marriage as under threat, doomed, or dying. Therefore, many young people enter their marriages with a pessimistic attitude. The hundreds of long-married elders in the surveys provide a much more hopeful picture. They weathered the dry spells and difficulties, and made it to the finish line – and are very glad they did. Their lesson is that a long marriage is in fact sometimes hard: it takes drive, spirit, and determination to “hang in there when times get tough,” as one 94-year old declared. But in their view, a great lifelong marriage is possible – and they are living examples of that fact. And remember that research shows many marriages do last, and divorce rates are going down. So go into your new life together feeling positive about your chances at a lifetime together.

A “magic bullet” for resolving disagreements

Wedding discussions can breed conflict for two reasons. First, in some decisions couples can’t have it both ways – you can’t both get married in the college chapel and have a destination wedding in Aruba. Second, the decisions have deadlines – the guest list can’t wait weeks while you debate his old girlfriend can some or not.

Fortunately, the elders I interviewed offered a great tip to break an impasse. April, 74, suggested:

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 you have to consciously stop and figure it out.

In your next argument about some wedding feature, stop and ask: “Who cares more about this?” And if possible, let that person have his or her way. Grace, age 70, suggested a variation:  that each member of the couple gets to declare one thing they cannot live without in the wedding; everything else is negotiable.

Use the Wedding for Communication Practice

It’s no question that husbands and wives can experience tension around weddings. Juggling the cost (Can we really afford a live band?), the invitations (Do second cousins get to come?), and well-intentioned relatives (Can I hang up on my mother when she calls with one more worry?) lead to stress. Stop to remember: If this is the most stressful experience you have in your married life, you will be very lucky. Learn to use some good conflict resolution techniques recommended by people married a half century or more, including:

  • Let the other person have his or her say before interrupting.
  • Avoid letting anger lead you to contemptuous remarks, like insults or sarcasm
  • Take at time out if you need it – not everything needs to be discussed until resolved; drop a contentious issue and come back to it.

Why not take advantage of the golden opportunity to practice good communication early on?

People and Experiences over Things

The elders worry about young people focusing too much on “stuff” at weddings, and not enough about savoring the people and experiences that come with it. Psychologists make this distinction, finding that greater happiness comes from activities that are rewarding in and of themselves rather than acquiring material possessions.  When thinking about a wedding, you can be sure that 50 years from now, you will remember sharing the joy with friends and relatives and taking a great honeymoon trip than you will the cappuccino maker and the steak knives. When budgeting, thing about doing rather than getting. For example, having a wedding in a cheaper venue and lower-cost catering so you can invite more people you care about, in their view, is a good choice. And those gifts? Don’t forget to ask for help funding a trip that leaves life-long memories.

From Lee Woodruff: “What My Mother-in-Law Taught Me”

Spending the summer in Scotland, I think often of my mother-in-law, Clare. She was a funny, woodrufffamily2bfeisty, kind, loving woman, who immigrated to the U. S. from Scotland shortly before my wife was born. She became a second mother to me after my own died too young.  In the seven years since she left us, I still miss Clare greatly. I am reminded of daily of her here, when I hear the Scottish accent and  the familiar expressions she used (most frequently, to me, “Don’t be daft, laddie!”), and visit her home town, Glasgow.

So I am delighted to post this guest blog by the wonderful Lee Woodruff, who writes eloquently about family and many other issues (check out Lee’s blog here). She beautifully sums up the wisdom she learned from her mother-in-law – it’s really a tribute to mothers-in-law everywhere.

What I Learned from My Mother-in-Law, by Lee Woodruff

These are some of the things I know to be true about my mother-in law:

  • She believed without a doubt that her four sons were perfect.  And even if they weren’t, she never said otherwise in public.
  • She taught me to set up the coffee maker in the evening so all you had to do was push a button in the morning.
  • The definition of a 1950’s era lady, she wore her Revlon Moonrise Pink lipstick at all times.  Like most of us, she was never fully satisfied with her hairdo.
  • Her signature saying, “It only takes a minute,” applied as equally to doing four loads of laundry or whipping up a steak dinner, as it did to driving from Detroit to New York to visit her grandchildren.
  • It was her personal philosophy to never say a bad word publically about other people.
  • Homemade chocolate chip cookies were her calling card.  They had verifiable magic powers to change the course of an illness, heal a broken heart, brighten up a new home, refresh a friendship, thank people, wish a Merry Christmas or just simply say “hi.”  To know Frannie Woodruff was to have eaten one of her ultra thin and crispy chocolate chips, the secret of which she liberally shared — extra butter and cake flour.
  • She was an early convert to “transition” glasses, which meant her Jackie-O size  lenses were usually a shade of dark purple, even when indoors.  Although her sons teased her, I now realize it was a clever way to have “eyes in the back of her head.”
  • No matter what she ordered at a restaurant (usually Fettuccine Alfredo), when it came, 90% of the time, before she even tasted it, she remarked that she should have ordered what we did.
  • I’ve tried to imagine all the places she went in the pairs of white and black formal gloves that she gave to my daughters for dress-up, including one elegant opera length kid leather pair smelling faintly of smoke.
  • She knew bank tellers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, hairdressers, T.J. Maxx employees and just about everyone else by their first names.
  • Raising four boys in the 70’s who played every sport imaginable, she inexplicably cooked only one package of frozen corn at dinner, causing them to develop a lifelong habit of eating too fast.
  • She knew the names of every one of our neighbors in all of the cities we ever lived and kept up with some of them—adding them to her Christmas card list– long after we’d moved.
  • She worshipped butter, whole milk, and cream sauces.  Her sister Lynnie bought a framed poster of a stick of butter and Frannie coveted it so much that she dragged Lynn to every Homegoods store in the greater Detroit metro area looking for its duplicate.  In the end—they agreed to share it.
  • She could not have told you what NPR stood for and did not listen to it.
  • She danced the Charleston like she had rubber bands for legs and enthusiastically taught my children how.
  • She was an avid reader of mass-market fiction.  We both shared a secret love of Sidney Sheldon.
  • Bob and I moved to nine places in 25 years of marriage (seven were domestic) and she was physically there for all seven.   In each house she would unfailing set up the kitchen (my version of plunging toilets after an intestinal virus) and unpack boxes with me from dawn until long after the kids went to bed.  I always gave up first.
  • She was such an enthusiastic and regular patron of TJ Maxx and Marshalls that on her 70thbirthday, her local store had a nametag made for her.
  • She never spent a second worrying that she needed to fulfill herself, find her passion or broaden her horizons, and she could not have accurately defined the word “feminist.”  She was 100% happy being a wife, mother and the “World’s Best Grandma,” although she never would have worn the T-shirt out of the house.
  • Never once in my presence was she able to work the TV controller, program the VCR or operate the cable box.  She did, however, have a grasp on the volume button.
  • She set a gold standard, real life example of the word “devotion.”  Watching her move through the world, I learned many important things that go into the secret sauce of being a wife, mother and good girlfriend —  not just in the placid times, but when the going gets choppy.
  • She taught me you could drive a car with your left leg up on the console, a coffee cup balanced on the dashboard and the seat belt alarm circumvented by clever buckling.
  • She was the oldest sister of three girls (like me) and two brothers.  Watching her interact with her siblings was my preview for how that bond would further strengthen, long after the kids are grown and flown.
  • The famous story of Frannie — one Pappagallo shoe on the flank of their black lab as she extruded a long stream of black plastic garbage bag out of the dog’s butt (he had escaped and eaten a neighbor’s garbage AND the bag)  — became an iconic metaphor in our house for some event, issue or what-have-you that just won’t end.
  • Her cornflower blue eyes and signature dark “Dawson” brows and lashes were passed on to her lucky, lucky boys. (Why is it always the boys who get this gene?)
  • She was fortunate enough to die exactly the way she would have wanted — in her own home, in her own bed, surrounded by her devoted husband and her beloved boys, and the repeated assurances (not that she needed them) that she was the most loved, most wonderful Mom in the world.  And she was.

Rest in Peace Frances Dawson Woodruff – 1933 — 2013

Follow Lee Woodruff on Twitter: @LeeMWoodruff

Check out Lee’s website: http://leewoodruff.com/

 

 

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!