Goodbye to a Wise Elder – And Thanks for the Marriage Advice!

Over the course of the Legacy Project, we’ve talked to hundreds of elders, asking them about lessons for living they would like tobluesky pass down to younger people. In the interviews, I often feel a deep connection to respondents, especially over the course of a long conversation about profound and personal topics.

So one of the hardest parts of this project is when I learn of their passing. News will trickle in that one of these sages in our midst has died, and despite their age, I always feel surprised and saddened that this particular light has gone out. But I am also grateful that I was able to record their practical wisdom so younger people can use it.

Antoinette Watkins was one such elder. Her advice for a happy marriage is featured in my forthcoming book 30 Lessons for Loving: The Wisest Americans Advice onLove, Relationships, and Marriage. Then age 81, Antoinette had overcome troubled early years in her marriage and achieved a warm, loving relationship with her husband of 55 years.

Her lesson for younger people is that to keep the spark alive throughout a long relationship, you must make a habit of doing small, positive things. That’s what keeeps a relationship warm, supportive, and fun.

I have never forgotten this suggestion from Antoinette – and one I try to personally practice (not always successfully, but I try!).

There is one practical piece of advice I have givenn 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 day or her day just a little happier?”  The idea is that you need to  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.

She taught me that the build-up of such simple, positive gestures can transform a marriage. And this is why we should be sure to ask our elders for advice about things like love and marriage.

 

 

3 Secrets to a Long Marriage – From Those Who Made It

In our society, we have a paradox. Most people want to get married and there is considerable research evidence that marriage has abackview of senior couple looking over the sea wide range of benefits. But too often, the joy that accompanies the wedding celebration turns sour, and nearly half of couples who stand at the altar in hopeful excitement find themselves starting over after the trauma of divorce.

I was particularly interested in long-married elders’ advice about finding a life partner and staying married. In my new book, 30 Lessons for Loving (coming out this January), I surveyed 700 older Americans for their advice.

Here are three major (and somewhat surprising) lessons from the elders for finding a life partner and staying together “as long as you both shall live.”

Marry Someone a Lot Like You

I asked hundreds of elders what is most important for a long and happy marriage and their advice was just about unanimous: Opposites may attract, but they don’t make for great and lasting marriages. Based on their long experiences both in and out of love relationships, their first 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 the most important thing to look for is similarity in your core values.

Take Emma Sylvester, who at 87 has been married for 58 years. As she put it with a smile, “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. And fortunately we had the same values on most things. Because of this, we really didn’t argue. And we really didn’t agonize over things. We came to our decisions by just realizing that we had usually the same goals. We both believed in education. We wanted to be moral according to society’s standards, to raise our children to be good citizens, and to be responsible in terms of finances.

Arguments emerge over apparently trivial issues, the elders told us, because they really reflect underlying values. Whether the wife purchases an expensive golf club or the husband a new electronic toy is not the core issue in what can become a monumental fight, but rather the deeper attitude toward what money means and whether the financial interests of the couple are more important than indulging an individual whim.

The elders urge people committing to a relationship to ask the question: Do we believe the same things in life are important? If problems develop in the relationship, these experts on long marriages say that value differences are likely to be at the heart of the problem.

Never Expect Your Partner to Change after Marriage

What about taking a leap of faith on the marriage under the assumption that you can change your partner after you’re married? The elders were as clear about this possibility as can be: Forget about it. According to them, entering into a marriage with the goal of changing one’s partner is a fool’s errand.

Rosie Eberle, 80 and happily married for 56 years, had a blunt comment to make about the entering into a marriage expecting to change one’s partner: “It’s just plain stupid.” She went on:

For heaven’s sake, don’t say “Oh, he’s this way now but he won’t always be like that.” Because they usually are, and you have to be careful, that’s all. So don’t marry someone and then think, “Oh, well he’ll change.” Or “I’m going to change him.” Believe me, it doesn’t happen. But people get real stubborn, and believe that can change a person later on, which never works.

Friendship Is as Important as Love

When asked the question: “What’s the secret to a long, happy marriage such as yours?” a common answer from people in long marriages was: “I married my best friend.” Similarly, from those whose marriages did not succeed, I often heard: “Well, we were good at love, but we never learned how to be friends.”

This response sounds peculiar, given that we are schooled in our culture to differentiate between friendship and romantic love. Indeed, television shows like “Will and Grace” and “Sex and the City” popularize the view that cross-sex friendship works best (or only) when one of the friends is gay. We see friends and spouse as two separate social categories that have different functions.

In contrast, the elders say that the special qualities of friendship are exactly what you want in your marriage. We typically look forward to being with friends, we relish their company, we relax with them, we share common interests and we talk openly. In contrast, we all encounter people who do not feel they can talk easily to their spouse (next time you are out for a fancy dinner, observe the couples who manage only a few uncomfortable words over two hours). What the elders suggest is that you look for the qualities of a friend — the capacity to comfortably “hang out” — in the person you choose to marry. As one 87-year old told me: “Think back to the playground when you were a child. Your spouse should be that other kid you would most like to play with!”

According to the elders, all marriages have to undergo a transition from the initial thrill of romantic attraction and — many were honest about it — overwhelming sexual desire to the stages when other things must become as or more significant. After being swept off one’s feet by true love, the elders caution you to ask “What’s next?” Will you wake up next to the same person for five or six decades and still find a person you like as well as love?

Patty Banas, 80, made a go of a first marriage when young, divorced, and then “got it right” in her very happy second marriage. She had one recommendation:

Be sure that you’re really good friends. That is the most important thing. All this — all the romance and the bells and the whistles and stuff is all very nice but it doesn’t last. Be sure that you’re really, very good friends.

As a relationship is moving into a serious phase, a question couples can and should discuss is: If we weren’t in love, would be friends? And when we move to something other than heart-thumping passion, what is there that will keep us together? (Hint: The answer should not be kids.) The answer is friendship, and if you don’t have it, don’t get married — it’s that simple.

Marriage will probably never go out of style in our culture. Why? There’s no more evocative summation than that from Ellie Banks, the mother of the most famous June bride of all in the 1950s film classic Father of the Bride:

“Oh, Stanley. I don’t know how to explain. A wedding. A church wedding. Well it’s, it’s what every girl dreams of. A bridal dress, the orange blossoms, the music. It’s something lovely to remember all the rest of her life.”

But after the bouquet is thrown and the last grain of rice is swept up, the realistic approach of those who have experienced decades of marriage can help us make our unions last.

George’s Lesson for Living – Blog from Our Summer Intern

Our summer interns are back! Three great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Ryan, a rising senior attending York College at the City University of New York, majoring in Gerontological Studies and Services and minoring in Black Studies. He learned an important lesson about making the most of one’s life – travel!

Vacations are great opportunities to escape. They allow for time to de-stress from all of the work and anxieties left back at home.Welcome-Interns-Sign When traveling, though, perhaps more significant than what you leave behind is where you go. Retirement provides a great opportunity for traveling, but there is something to be said about traveling at a young age. When George, 73, was asked about a turning point in his life, he did not have to think twice for an answer:

When I left General Motors, before I went into teaching, I decided I was going to take my retirement. And at the time I was perhaps 35 at the most. So I decided I was going to retire. And I took that time to travel. And I traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. And that changed my life a great deal, because it taught me a lot about cultures and the value of having the experience of other cultures and to compare cultures and to see how other people lived and how they did things. And I’ve been pursuing travel ever since then. And that was one of the key turning points in my life, probably when I was about 35, and determined that I wanted to retire to see what retirement would be like in the future. A weird choice, but I’ve always been a little weird.

When I went into the classroom, I went in telling students, ‘If you don’t travel, you don’t become educated.’ Because to be educated you gotta have a whole panorama of experiences and those aren’t going to come from home. Especially when I got to teach in New Jersey, where kids had not even left the state. Had never even left the state and were in college. And that was kind of sad to me that they had nothing, no point of reference in which to place things, you know? And so that was kind of sad and scary and so I’ve always preached ‘Travel is the second part of education.

As I get closer and closer to graduation, George’s suggestion to travel becomes more and more appealing!

Lesson for Parenting Adult Children: Be Careful about Giving Advice

One thing we often forget is that parents and children spend the majority of their livesadult children together after the kids become adults! The elders in the Legacy Project had very useful advice for negotiating relationships between parents and their adult children. Two elders share their lessons for negotiating this very important, but sometimes touchy, relationship.

Marv, 83, successfully raised two children. He points out that all the stress of child-rearing doesn’t end when they become adults:

I think to a certain extent your offspring are always children. One always wants one’s children to be happy, and I suppose it’s the most disturbing thing for parents is when they can’t see happiness in their adult children’s lives or their children’s relationships or  in their marriages.You worry about aspects of their interactions with their partners and when you can see that the way they’re interacting is not productive. You worry about your children. When they’re adults, you worry about as much when they’re adults as when they were not adults.

Of course, one outgrowth of this worry is the desire to give advice. Charles recommends that it it possible to advise children, but that the approach must be subtle.

I think giving advice requires great subtlety. Well, your adult children sometimes ask you for advice, and sometimes it becomes clear that they are not looking for advice, they’re simply looking for understanding of their points of view. So I think it’s easy for children to misinterpret your real feelings about them, and feel more pressure than one thinks they should be feeling. It’s up to the parent to be subtle enough that you are able to refrain from expressing your attitudes, so that the child feels intruded upon, or that you are judging.

Renata, 79, focused on accepting adult children as they are:

With our kids now, there’s good feeling, good relationship. You keep your mouth shut. We made out mistakes, we let them make their mistakes. But I don’t give advice unless they really ask for it. . I feel I can say most anything I want, except I would not interfere with them, even though I see something that I think should be done differently, I wouldn’t express it.

I think some parents expect too much of their kids. I think you have to accept what your kids are willing to do for you and not complain because they don’t do more for you. I think you just have to sort of give them freedom to live their lives knowing that they’re there if you need them and they know you’re there if they need you. So I think you have to stand back.

Any advice for getting along with your adult children? What’s worked for you?

New Interview on the Legacy Project and Book!

I had a great time talking with Terry Jaymes yesterday on his show “Terry Jaymes Alive.” Terry has been a great supporter of the Legacy Project and has helped spread the work on the importance of elder wisdom. In the interview, we talk about key lessons learned from older people (including how they learn to “kick out the jerks” from their social lives as they age). Take a listen here – and we TerryJaymeslook forward to your comments!

 

The Countdown Begins – For the New Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You Have to Do What You Enjoy!” Three Great Tips for Making the Most of Your Work Life

Harry, 76, told the Legacy Project about his work life and what made his career successful and fulfilling. Good lessons for all of us trying to succeed in the world of work.work

1. Having worked as a psychology professor, university counseling center director, psychologist in private practice, and as a management consultant engaged in leadership development, I have learned that you have to do what you enjoy. We spend a great deal of time at work. If it isn’t enjoyable, isn’t stimulating, isn’t fun, if you don’t enjoy the people you work with, if it doesn’t have meaning for you, then find something that does. Life is too short to do something you don’t like and enjoy.

2. When engaged in your work, put your full amount of energy into it. I have worked with people who have regretted decisions about their work and their lives. It’s better to take the risk than to wait until later in life and regret not taking the chance.

 3. Give the gift of feedback. Many of us may shy away from giving critical feedback in the workplace. Some of us may shy away from giving positive feedback. If individuals have no awareness of the impact of their behavior, how can they change it? Awareness is necessary for change. Positive feedback helps to reinforce the behavior. The awareness that one may give to another is a gift, even though it may smart in the giving.

Learning to Live in the Moment: Why Not Do It Now?

John MacGregor, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.

I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.

And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.

I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.

It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.

live in the moment.2

Luck, Flexibility, and Keeping Your Options Open

Mara’s life wasn’t always easy, but adversity taught her three very important lessons for living.good luck

I can summarize the lessons I have learned in 71 years of life. I’ve had two marriages: the first one unsuccessful and the second spectacularly successful for the past twenty years. I have two daughters and two stepdaughters and have excellent relations with three of the four. I also have six grandchildren. My husband and I agree that the most important things for a happy life are: luck, flexibility, and keeping one’s options open.

First, luck. No matter how conscientious and hardworking one is there is a limit beyond which one has absolutely not control. One’s health, circumstances, and children are subject to all sorts of outside influences. A catastrophic illness, accident, job dislocation, etc. can wreak havoc with one’s best laid plans. As far as children, no matter how carefully one supervises them at home, once they are away from hoe, other forces come into play and one can only hope that they do not come to harm. So it pays to be lucky!

Second, flexibility. To build lasting relationships with loved ones and to adapt to unforeseen problem situations one has to be flexible. You must be able to “roll with the punches” or you will be broken by them.

Third, keeping one’s options open. Often one is faced with forks in the road, choices which must be made. If one is wise, one will try not to leave oneself with no other recourse. It is not true that one can always retrace one’s steps. So one must carefully weigh the possible consequences of one’s actions. When I found myself with two young children in an unfortunate marriage, I was fortunate that I had the educational background to get a job that enabled me to obtain a divorce and support myself and my family. If I had not had this background life would have been far more difficult for us all. And that is why I always stressed to my daughters that they have a good education.

“All That Is Good is Within Us: Gustav’s Advice from Age 70

Gustav, 70, offers an uplifting lesson, telling us that “all that is good is within us” and urging us to laugh and, yes, to all that's goodhave fun!

Beloved friends,

The most important lesson I have learned is to live in the present moment. This is our gift, right here, right now. This is why it is called “the present.”

To see the outer world as a reflection of the inner world. If we would like to clean up the former, focus on the latter. Have fun. Laughter is great, belly laughter is greater.

All that is good is within us. If we want more peace, love, joy, health, happiness, etc. in the world, focus where we can have the greatest impact: within our own skin. Outside our skin we have very little control. As we clean up our mind, body and emotions, our essential goodness radiates clearly through us. This easeful, peaceful, useful joyful radiance has a greater impact than we can ever imagine.

The secret to life is to have fun. Listen to our own heart. Discover and respect our own gifts. Live a joyful life sharing our gifts through our thoughts, words and actions. Live like a child.

Laugh when we fall down, make mistakes. Get up, try again, laugh, fall down, try again. Success is ours. Everything else gives it flavor. Get up, fall down, get up. To inspire is to breather in or to motivate. To expire is to breathe out or to die. For as long as practical, follow each expiration with an inspiration.