What makes for a long marriage? It’s a question that social scientists and clinicians have tried to answer for many years, with limited results. We still don’t really know why, after the joy of a wedding, one couple ends up on the rocks after a few years and another stays together for five or six decades. Continue reading
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.
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. 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.
We’re so grateful to the tremendous feedback we’ve received about 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans 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!
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 or 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.
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!
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.
A few weeks ago, I posted about three mistakes people make in choosing a partner. These “warning signs” came from my studies of over 700 older people, who shared their lessons about love, relationships and marriage (detailed in 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage, just published this month).
Readers now want to know, however: “What should I do to make a smart choice?” I’m happy to offer you what people who have made it to the finish line of marriage say are the smart moves for mate selection. Based on around 25,000 years of married life, here are three of the elders’ tips for making the smart decision about a mate.
1. Marry someone who can talk. The elders told me that the strong, silent type can be very attractive – but is not so great as a life partner for decades. Instead, they agreed that for a successful marriage you need to talk. Sure, differences exist among individuals in just how open or reserved they are. But the elders say that once you are in a marriage, you need to add one more marital vow: to have and hold, to care in sickness and health – and to talk
The elders agree: There’s no way to be married happily for decades unless your partner is a talker. Not all the time, if that’s not his or her personality. But when there are important issues in the relationship, decisions to be made, disappointment or dissatisfaction that is festering – then things are different. At such times, your partner simply must be able to talk freely and constructively about important issues, or the marriage is not likely to be happy, or even to last.
Cora, 72, told me:
Always, always talk to one another. That is very important because you lose sight of your marriage if you don’t talk. What’s the sense of two people living together if they’re not going to communicate about things that are happening? If you don’t communicate, then you’re not going to get along.
Joshua, 81, was even blunter:
If you can’t communicate, then there’s no intimacy. You’re just two dead ducks.
The elders say that the smart move is to marry someone who can comfortably share ideas and feelings. And it’s not just talking about problems. Equally important, they believe that frequent and vibrant conversation keeps the relationship spark alive. One diagnostic test: Can you go out for dinner and maintain a mutually interesting conversation over a long meal? If so, it’s a very good sign.
2. You’re happy with your partner as is.
There is one issue on which long-married elders are unanimous: Getting married based on a plan to change your partner is a terrible mistake. Treating your potential spouse as a do-it-yourself project is a recipe for failure. Most of them made that mistake themselves, and they have seen their children and grandchildren do it too. People are so much in love – or desperate to settle on a partner – that they indulge in the false hope that they can make their mate into someone new.
The elders are blunt about this lesson. Darren, 79, told me:
Changing someone after marriage? It never happens. Don’t’ try to force your likes or dislikes on somebody. All the things that annoy you – either you can accept them or look for somebody else.
And Melissa, 82, added:
It’s human nature to want to change somebody. But if I want to change you, what got me to like you in the first place? They’re not going to change because the other person wants to make them change.
After talking to the elders, I came up with a list of “Things You May Tell Yourself about Your Partner that Won’t Come True.” It includes statements like this (male and female pronouns are randomly used – these apply to both genders!)
He thinks he doesn’t want kids, but that will change after we get married.
- She hates my family now, but they’ll grow on her.
- After we’re married, I’ll get him on a diet and he’ll lose that gut.
- I’ll put us on a budget so she can’t keep racking up credit card debt.
The list can go on and on – and the elders tell you to that this kind of thinking is all wrong.
The smart move: List out your partner’s personality characteristics or behaviors and ask yourself, “Can I live with them for a lifetime if they never change?” If the answer’s yes, the elders say you are heading in the right direction.
3. Your partner is financially responsible.
First, let me be clear: the elders believe in love. In fact, when I sorted through responses to the question, “What advice would you give to young person about choosing a mate,” the top answer was: “Be in Love!” However, they warn that following only your heart-pounding passion into marriage is a prescription for disaster. I can’t put it any clearer than Stanley, age 66:
The glow of love shouldn’t wipe out all the logic and the rational common sense that you need to make the decision of who you’re going to marry.
Because marriage is much more than the feeling of being in love. Instead, it’s a formal economic and legal arrangement that makes couples financial lives inextricably entwined. Yes, believe in love – but the smart move is not to be blind to practicalities. And one of these the ability to make a living and handle money.
Most couples in our society need two incomes to achieve their financial goals. Therefore, the elders say that men and women alike must ask the question: Will the person I’m in love with be economically viable. Your economic success and standard of living will be connected inextricably to that of another person. The elders suggest you take off your rose-colored glasses for a moment and examine two things.
As Cecilia, age 74, put it:
It’s hard to think about material things when you’re physically attracted to someone; it’s hard to put that aside. But one thing to look at is both of your attitudes toward work. It’s awfully hard to be working all the time and someone else is sitting there watching you. If one has to be carried all the time, that’s hard. Does the person want to succeed in school, or succeed in their work, or succeed period? It’s something you need to take into consideration.
In addition, conscientious money management is diagnostic for the relationship’s future. You will, they say, be truly wedded to your partner’s financial attitudes and behaviors. Eric, age 69, told me:
One of the most frequent reasons for marriage breakups has to do with financial problems. And those are things that people can generally tell in advance. If you’re talking about somebody that’s totally profligate in their spending habits, it’s a warning sign.
So there you have it – three smart moves to compliment the three “dumb” mistakes I wrote about earlier. For many more relationship tips from the elders, take a look at the book and visit us at www.marriagelegacy.org.
30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage was published by Hudson Streeet Press/Penguin on January 8. That meant a slew of interviews leading up to the date, then a trip to New York City for a fascinating range of appearances. Although the publicity for the book is always great, equally important is the outpouring of interest in elder wisdom and advice. All the media professionals with whom I interacted “got it” regarding the value of elders as sages and advice givers.
A big thrill was appearing on CBS This Morning. I was of course nervous, but hosts Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell, and Gayle King made me feel right at home.
This appearance followed a big spread in USA Today about the book, by the wonderful journalist Nanci Hellmich. I’m so grateful to Nanci for beautifully capturing the spirit of the oldest and wisest Americans in this piece.
I was also welcomed by the co-hosts of the interview show Arise 360, for an in-depth discussion about the book (that’s the picture accompanying this post). Wonderful conversation – check out their website for where to view the show.
Few people make an interview more fun than the wise and witty host of AARP Radio, Mike Cuthbert. That interview will air soon – check out their web page for times.
But Shelli Sonstein gives him a run for his money – my interview for “Sonstein Sunday” on New York City’s WAXQ airs tomorrow (January 10). Listen in on 104.3 FM at 7 AM, or grab the podcast on the site soon thereafter (if that’s too early!).
There’s more coming – check out this Monday’s Wall Street Journal, this month’s Elle Magazine, and the Parents Magazine web site, just for starters! Now I’m going back to bed…
The media interest in 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage has been pretty overwhelming. It is incredibly gratifying to see that elder wisdom strikes a chord with so many people.
And I’m thrilled to have the chance to discuss the book on January 8 on CBS This Morning! Please join me – and feel free to comment here with your reactions.
And there’s an article in USA Today on the book, too: Hundreds of Retirees Share Secrets to a Happy Marriage.