Advice for the Bachelorette – One Thing to Know about Choosing a Mate

Yes, the reality show The Bachelorette premieres tonight, and the nation will be treated to the suspense over who will get to hand out that last rose: Britt or Kaitlyn?

The question occurred to me:  Is there one thing every young woman should know about picking a life partner (even if it’s in a more conventional way and not on TV?). I decided to ask the real experts: Elders who have been married 50, 60, even 70 years (Imagine Britt/Kaitlyn looking back over married life from 2085). What would older women tell younger women about picking a mate?

In my studies of over 700 long-married people, I uncovered hundreds of pieces of advice, from specific tips to big-older woman younger womanpicture suggestions. So when asked to consider the question – What’s one thing older women would like younger women to know about love and marriage? – I had to think long and hard. But after pondering the data, a particular point stood out that the women in my sample (ranging in age from 63 to 108) wanted to pass on to those embarking on the relationship journey. When it comes to choosing a mate, I heard again and again: choose carefully.

Looking back over their long experience, they believe that some women are not careful enough. In their view, they tend to do one of three risky and possibly disastrous things. First, they can fall passionately in love and commit immediately, Romeo and Juliet style (and look how that turned out). Second, they can (especially as they reach their thirties) commit out of desperation, for fear that no one better will come along. Third, they can drift or fall into marriage without the choice or its reasons ever becoming clear to themselves or others.

The elders reject these ways of thinking. Whether it is an impulsive move, a perceived last-chance leap, or a slide into the inevitable, their advice is to stop, look, and listen (to yourself and others). Question the decision, then question it again. Some very strong testimony for the need to wait and choose carefully came from women who experienced failed marriages (sometimes getting it right in a second union). They typically attributed the failure to entering marriage on impulse and not gaining a deep knowledge of their partner before marrying. As Marie, age 81, said bluntly: “It is better to not marry than to marry the wrong person. Both my husband and I were married once before and it took that experience to learn this lesson. We both learned it, and we’re happy now.”

Virginia, 73, described rushing into marriage as one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make:

I got married to get away from home. So there was this fellow I’d been going with, and we up and got married the week I turned eighteen. 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: When it comes to marriage, don’t rush into things. Give it time before you jump in. I could have made a major difference in my life if I had chosen my husband carefully, really gotten to know him 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.

On the flip side, many women attributed their success to careful mate selection.

Lillie, 78, was married for 22 years and divorced for the past 35. Having walked the walk, she linked choosing carefully to the futility of expecting to change your husband.

The biggest mistake is being too quick to enter a marriage.  Get to know that person very, very well in all circumstances, the happiness part and the stressful parts.  So both people have to be very willing and very open, and often times make concessions, as they get to know each other. So please, take a very serious look.  You cannot mold your spouse into something that you want.

Given the paramount importance of choosing carefully, it’s a good thing that these older women had specific advice for their younger counterparts. They offered the following concrete strategies to help make the right choice:

  1. Think the old-fashioned way. The elders suggest you think about whether your future husband will be a “good provider.” It’s an old-fashioned term, but it embodies a fundamental truth: that marriage may be about love, but it’s also an economic arrangement that unites the financial futures of the partners. So women (and men, too) need to ask: Does my prospective mate like to work? Will he hold up his end financially? And can he responsibly handle money? The elders told story after story of having to carry the economic load and handle someone else’s debts and bad financial decisions.
  2. Do other people like your partner? You don’t need to make the choice entirely on your own, older women say. Listen to your friends and family: Do they like your boyfriend? Do they think he treats you well, and is serious about the relationship? I heard from elders who made a wrong choice: “If only I’d listened when people told me this was a bad decision.”
  3. Make a list. Yes, seriously. Write down an actual list of what you need out of a relationship and whether those needs are being met. Rowena, 69, found the list helped her immensely:

When I met Graham and decided to get involved with him, I sat down with a piece of paper and I wrote pros and cons. I was in my thirties at that point and I said “Hmm, you know, this is what I want.” And this guy had those qualities – many more good ones than bad ones.  By that time in my life, I was awake to what I needed. And really sitting there with a piece of paper did it. It may sound cold-blooded, but I made a list of what I and what he could bring to the situation.  At this point I had a little boy and what he needed was very important to me.  And it turned out very well.

  1. Do your life goals align? The elders say that women should make sure before committing that their partner’s goals for a good life together align with theirs. Unfortunately, such discussions are sometimes not explicit and detailed. They suggest serious discussions about one another’s goals and aspirations for work and career, for how expensive a lifestyle you wish to live, and particularly important – children. Nadine, 65, pointed out that women may assume their partner wants kids. However:

In fact, a couple may disagree substantially on this issue. In my job, I sometimes counsel young people and a lot of times they say: “Oh well, we’ll just bracket that question for now.” But sometimes people actually have pretty strong feelings about whether they will or won’t have children. And one person can say, “I really want children.” The other one says, “Well, I’m not sure” and they let it go. But sometimes that really means “no.” And I have seen heartache there as a result. So they should ask: “Well, what can you imagine your life might be like in 10 years? Does it involve children?”

Of course, both this general advice and the specific tips apply to men as well as women. But many older women in the study emphasized “choose very carefully” as a lesson – and one they wished to pass on to younger women wondering “should I stay or should I go?”

Great Advice from a Mom for Mother’s Day

We make child-rearing unbelievably complex. We read books, attend classes, go to counselors, make ourselves sick mother's daywith worry. The mothers I interviewed in the Legacy Project raised about 3,000 children, have watched their own offspring rear grandchildren, and were themselves raised by parents — and have had a good, long time to think about their own upbringing.

One thing they believe is that child-rearing is more than just making children happy. That’s important, but they also want children to be strong, purposeful, and moral.

Shirley, 90, is an award-winning teacher and mother of two. She told me:

We need to help the child to prepare for living. We need to show the child how to become a good citizen. To be honest, to stand up for what is right, and never to give in with social trends.

 Because each person is different but we all are together and we’re all a part of one another. A poet said, ‘No man is an island by themselves, everyone is a part of the whole.’

So in keeping with that situation, it’s necessary that every child learn to get along with others. To learn that they have a responsibility to use their God-given rights to the best of their ability. And we should guide them and direct them and really make them the kind of people that we need. And that’s just about it really.

Superhero Grandparents – A Great Source of Wisdom!

For National Superhero Day, I think of grandparents! Mine were superheroes to me.

So let’s hear from June, 84. Her legacy to her grandchildren is this list of her life’s lessons. Perhaps we all should pass on a list like this!hero grandparent

Here is a brief summary of what I might tell my grandchildren:

1) Take care of your health early, as indulgences and poor habits in youth will catch up with you later on.

2) Care for all animals, support causes that protect them, and study them to learn important life lessons.

3) Lend a caring ear to others- they need your support and empathy.

4) Don’t try to change others- you can only change yourself.

5) Don’t discuss religion or politics with anyone unless you are sure they just want to exchange ideas rather than convert you.

6) Everyone has faults. Decide what faults you can live with in your friends and choose accordingly. Accept that everyone is different and it’s OK if someone is very different from you.

7) Use and challenge your mind very day.

8 ) Appreciate and give thanks for the good things around you everyday, such as a beautiful tree or gorgeous sunset, even if other things have gone wrong or you’re in pain. Enjoy and give thanks for every day as it’s a gift you’ve been given. So many people have it so much worse.

9) Keep an open mind and listen to others’ opinions.

10) Listen to your “inner voices” e.g. your instincts.

11) Be positive and optimistic about your life and the future. Positive people seem the happiest, and everybody likes them.

12) Most important- value and nurture friends and family. They’re your most valuable possession. Let them know how you feel about them. Be sure to be free with “thank you”. So many people find it hard to say.

Keeping Score: Good for Sports, Bad for Marriage

What makes for a long marriage? It’s a question that social scientists and clinicians have tried to answer for many keeping scoreyears, 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.

In the Marriage Advice Project, we asked the oldest Americans to share their lessons for young couples hoping to stay happily married “until death do us part.” In their answers, I was surprised at how many elders used the expression “give and take.” Typical comments were: “Well, it’s a lot of give and take” and “You can’t just give or just take, it has to be both.”

Trying to understand the underlying lesson behind what seemed like a cliché, I asked Alvin (87 and married for 63 years): “So you mean that marriage has to be a 50-50 kind of thing, right? A 50-50 proposition?”

He nearly bellowed his disagreement — that was precisely not what he was saying. “Don’t consider a marriage a 50-50 affair! Consider it a 100 percent affair. The only way you can make a marriage work is to have both parties give a hundred percent every time.”

It began to make sense: The common belief that marriage is a 50-50 affair is a myth. You can’t spend your time calculating “50 percent in, 50 percent back.” The attitude has to be one of giving freely. And according to the elders, if you start keeping score you’re already in deep trouble.

For long-term success, couples have to orient themselves to giving more than they get. Both individuals are contributing to a relationship, the benefits of which transcend immediate interests on a given day. What couples must avoid — if they wish to remain together as long as the elders we interviewed — is keeping score about who is getting more and who is getting less. This kind of economic attitude works with a vending machine: If I put in my dollar, I will get a candy bar of equal value. According to the oldest Americans, this definitely does not work in marriage.

Fifty-four years ago, Kay graduated from college in the morning and was married on campus in the afternoon. She made this point quite clearly.

Okay. It’s not a 50-50 proposition. It’s a 90-10. Sometimes you’re on the 90, and sometimes you’re on the 10. That can vary, depending on where you are, what’s the issue on the table. But anybody that goes into marriage saying, “Oh — this is going to be 50-50,” it doesn’t happen. You can’t live in the same house with the same person all those years and always divide it down the half.

Crystal’s long and happy experience of being married to Todd hinges on the idea that marriage is more than a calculated balance of give and take.

I think we both are not waking up in the morning and saying: ‘Oh, am I getting what I need out of this?’ We are waking up saying often: ‘What can I do for him, or what can I do for her?’ For example, my husband’s gone through retirement since we’ve been married, and that was very difficult at first. He didn’t know who he was, so his sense of his own usefulness was very tenuous for a while. I remember thinking okay, now I need to wake up in the morning and think: ‘He really needs something. He needs a little extra right now.

Then when I had cancer, he was amazing and I never felt frightened or abandoned. I was in the hospital, I think 25 times or something during a year, and he just drove up and drove back. I used to worry with all these bodily functions — because you just disintegrate — but he was fine, he wasn’t grossed out or anything. So this is how it goes, it kind of goes up and down like this. Because there’s times when one person is taking and needing, and then it’s the other person.

People always say you have to be more assertive and you have to take what you need but I could never relate to that. I have a friend who keeps going through one marriage after another and saying: ‘Well, I didn’t get what I needed in that marriage.’ And I thought, ‘Well, did you give anything out?'”

So these long-married elders tell us to stop thinking of marriage as a 50-50 proposition; for decades of life together, you have to throw away the score card. Some elders used the image of a team to make this point, using colorful examples drawn from the past.

Albert, age 80, told me: “[I’ve been] married 59 years to a very good wife. Instead of worrying about who is winning and who is losing in a marriage, the key is working together, unconcerned about that kind of thing.” Albert then provided an image that reveals the core of elder wisdom about marriage.

Well, there’s a local museum here in town. In it there’s a life-sized statue of a team of work horses obviously pulling a large load. And at our last anniversary, the kids asked us ‘How do you characterize your marriage?’ I said, ‘Go look at the sculpture, that team of horses. Both of them laying into the harness together.’ And written underneath it was: ‘As of One Mind.’ That sculpture characterizes our marriage. We came through some very hard times. There were times when we didn’t know if we were going to make it. But we did it together. If one person goes off and thinks he’s going to do it by himself, it isn’t going to work.

The last word goes to Antoinette, married 60 years, who offered this lesson for getting beyond “50-50 thinking” in marriage — and it works.

When you wake up in the morning, think ‘What can I do to make her day or his day just a little happier?’ You need to turn toward each other, and if you 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. That’s likely to really work for many years. So start each day thinking about what you can give that special person in your life.

The 50th Birthday Gift: Elder Wisdom!

One of the best things about writing a book is hearing from readers – it just never gets old. A little while ago, I received a message from Karen. Here’s what she said:

 I am married to a wonderful man named Brian.  Brian is the type of guy  who will get up out of bed when he is off, on a freezing Feb. morning to start my car because I have a 7:30 a.m. meeting an hour away, or stop to help old ladies who are having car trouble. He is pretty special; he is also turning 50 this March. When we first got married and thought about milestones like this. Paris was our mindset, but now with kids and mortgages and bills that is on the 60th celebration agenda. Anyway, I found your books, and I think they are going to make a special gift for him and I was wondering if you would be willing to sign them! I was just hoping to make it extra special.  I appreciate your time.

Well, of course the answer was yes (as it is, by the way, to any reader who would like books signed). This time felt special to me, because 30 Lessons for Loving was written for couples just like Karen and Brian, who are making their way to a long and happy marriage in a complicated and difficult world. It sounds like they would have many of their own lessons to share!

Here they are with the book (both books, actually)! And may the Paris trip become a reality sooner rather than later!

fiftieth birthday surprise

Young and Old Together Sharing Wisdom: Doesn’t Get Much Better than This!

I’m a firm believer in the power of older people sharing their wisdom and advice for living with younger folks. But rarely do I get to see it in action the way I did at the University of Rhoda Island a few weeks ago. It was a powerful testament to the way the generations can come together both to share important ideas – and to enjoy each other’s company.

I had the privilege of joining the faculty and staff of the University of Rhode Island Program in Gerontology, where I gave the annual Thewlis Lecture. This lecture is very appropriately named for Malford Thewlis, one of the founders of the American Geriatrics Society and the The Care of the Aged: Geriatrics, an early textbook on geriatric medicine. It gave me the opportunity to present findings from my book on the marriage advice of long-married elders.

The lecture was great. But even more spectacular was a session organized by students. They invited local older individuals for a focused discussion of the topics raised in my book 30 Lessons for Living. Arrayed around tables, around 60 young and older people examined some of the key lessons in the book, and the elders were invited to offer their own lessons. The energy in the room was amazing, and I was riveted as each table reported on what the generations learned from one another.

I began to wonder: Could we do this across the country? How about “elder wisdom cafes,” where older and younger people talk about what they can learn from one another about living their lives? We’re going to work on it!

Many thanks to the URI gerontology group for the outstanding work they do, and for this extraordinary idea.




How Young People Can Avoid Making Big Mistakes: Six Things You Should Know

avoiding regretsI recently saw a re-run of the popular sit-com 30 Rock. In that episode, television CEO Jack has a hallucinatory encounter with his future self, from whom he receives life advice that helps him avoid major mistakes. Most of us would also like to know which choices and decisions we make as young people will benefit us later on – or come back to haunt us. Although there’s no way to step into our own futures, we can in fact get a very good sense of what mistakes younger folks should avoid: We can ask our “future selves” – our elders.

Based on this premise, I’ve conducted a number of studies involving  older Americans regarding the advice they would offer to members of the younger generation. The research has included a national, random-sample survey, as well as in-depth interviews with persons identified as “wise.” Participants represented a geographically and economically diverse sample of the older population.

Part of the survey addressed the question: what mistakes should younger people avoid? Respondents were also asked their view on what people are most likely to regret when the get to the end of life. Answers were reviewed and categorized into major themes regarding mistakes and possible regrets. The findings reveal some interesting cautions for the young (and not so young as well).

According to America’s elders, here are some of the biggest mistakes young people make:

  1. Putting too high a priority on money. These elders were affected by the Great Depression, so I thought they might suggest pursuing financial security at all costs. Not so: Their responses were much more like this one from a 76-year old: “Don’t make money number one for everything. You need money and that’s fine, but it can’t be your be-all and your end-all. You’ve got to spend time with your family and not spend every hour on the job and never be home.” Most of the elders believe that a fulfilling job trumps a higher-paying but unsatisfying one any day.
  2. Getting into debt. These are folks who have lived through economic hardship so tough that it makes what we’re experiencing look like a minor blip. So listen to them when they point out the dangers of going into serious debt. From an 89-year old: “They should avoid spending money they don’t have. They should not be using that credit card if they can’t make the payment on a monthly basis. That’s just my old fashioned way of doing it, we have a credit card, just one, that we use and we pay it every month so the following month I don’t have a debt that I have to pay from the month before. I wish they would wait until they can afford to buy something before they buy it, because that’s why life is so difficult for them.”
  3. Worrying too much. A little surprising, right? But if there’s one do-over the elders wish they could have, it would be not spending precious lifetime worrying obsessively about the future. They said this as clearly as can be: “Worry wastes your life.” “Worrying never solved anything. So don’t.”
  4. Excessive drinking and drugs. Okay, we expected that one. This 84-year old was typical: “For one thing, stay away from smoking, stay away from drugs, stay away from too much alcohol.” But believe me, these people know from experience. This advice comes from watching plenty of ruined lives – and in some cases experience this devastation personally. They don’t ask you to be a puritan – just to know what moderation is and practice it.
  5. Rushing into marriage before you’re ready. Nope, they don’t want everyone to get married as early as possible. Just the opposite: They want young people to wait until they are really sure (actually, really, really, really sure). And no one was more vehement about this than those who had one marriage fail and a second one succeed. As a 93-year old put it: “Well, nowadays there are so many divorces, and I think they should be more careful about their decisions to get married. I mean, they should think at the beginning, is this going to be for a lifetime?”
  6. Passing up opportunities. The elders much more strongly regret things they didn’t do than what they did. As a 73-year old told me: “The lesson I learned is that it really pays to say yes, unless you’ve got a really solid reason to say no. Life is an adventure, but to take advantage of it you have to say yes to things.”

Take this advice as a message from your future self – it may help you live better today!

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

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

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

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

To enter, here’s what you need to do:

1. Go to

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s hear from you!

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

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

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

But what about these scenarios?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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