Hundreds of retirees share secrets to a happy marriage
When gerontologist Karl Pillemer asked hundreds of retirees to tell him the secret to a happy marriage, they poured their hearts out.
They said that “marriage is hard. It takes spirit and resilience,” says Pillemer, 60, a Cornell University professor. They said it “is something that you work at and get better at, but it is never completed.”
And they said when you “look back from the finish line over a half century or more of marriage, lifelong marriage is incredibly good. It’s almost indescribable. It’s such a source of joy,” he says.
Pillemer gathered these insights and many others after spending the last four years conducting the Marriage Advice Project. He and his research team did in-depth interviews with more than 700 retirees, 65 and older, who were married for an average of 43 years. The longest marriage was 76 years between a 101-year-old woman and 98-year-old man.
The sample included some retirees who were widowed and some same-sex couples. It also included folks who had been happily married for years, and those who had been through multiple marriages and divorces.
Based on his findings, Pillemer has written a new book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Pillemer has been married for 36 years to his high school sweetheart, Clare McMillan. He is the founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging.
Here are some of the retirees’ insights on marriage:
• Follow your heart when choosing a spouse.“The retirees said you’ve got to experience that in-love feeling with the person you marry, and if you don’t have that almost indescribable feeling, you probably shouldn’t get married,” Pillemer says.
“All too many people get married with a not-in-love or this-is-wrong feeling, but you have to trust your instinct. One-hundred percent of the elders described a sensation of rightness,” he says. “If you lack that feeling, and you are just going into marriage because it’s time, they say it’s very likely not going to work out well.”
• Use your head. They believe you can’t know for sure if the person is right for you, but you can increase the odds if you follow your head and consider important aspects such as whether your potential partner will be financially responsible and be a good parent. You need to think about things such as fidelity, honesty, caring and humor.
• Look for someone with similar values. “We have this popular myth that opposites attract, but that’s not what these long-married retirees say. They say a little bit of difference is good, but the fundamental lesson is to marry somebody a lot like you,” Pillemer says.
You should have similar values about religion, money, child rearing, how you want to spend your time, the importance of career, he says.
“They said in general, marry someone a lot like you. Some differences can work, but if you have real differences in core values you’re not likely to last very long.”
• Talk, talk, talk. Communication is key. According to these retirees, the “strong, silent type” may be very attractive, but doesn’t usually make the best lifelong partner. They propose a test: Can you go out for a two-hour dinner and keep an interesting conversation going? If not, you might need to tune up your communication with one another.
• Tread carefully when discussing difficult topics. If you want smooth marital communication, timing is critical. Read cues from your partner to decide the best time to raise an issue. When things aren’t going well in a discussion, back off, Pillemer says.
He says that one surprising finding from his research is retirees said that sometimes their marital arguments might be related to one or both of them needing to get something to eat. Whether it’s low blood sugar or just the need for comfort, food seems to help tone down conflict. One couple said when they were having a tiff, she offers her husband a sandwich, and he offers her a cup of tea, Pillemer says.
• Put your relationship first. Your relationship with your spouse has to come before the kids, in-laws, jobs, friends and everything else, the retirees said. You don’t do your children much good if your marital relationship dries up, they said.
• Lighten up on in-law relationships. Many of the elder experts said you don’t marry a person; you marry his or her family. People should work hard on the relationship with their in-laws, even though it may mean compromise, withholding opinions and searching for points to respect and admire, the retirees said.
• Stay out of debt. The retirees recommended living within whatever amount of money you make and avoiding debt, especially for luxury items and credit-card debt, he says.
• Focus on small things to keep the spark alive. “Marriage is made of thousands of micro interactions,” Pillemer says. The retirees said to keep those interactions positive: Give compliments, do unexpected little things like the other person’s chores. Many of those interviewed said the failure to give and receive compliments was one of their big regrets.
• Enjoy intimacy. Many older people who have a partner “are having very fulfilling sex lives. People really enjoy the sense of intimacy with a lifelong partner,” Pillemer says. “One of my favorite quotes in the book was a guy who said, ‘Look, at our age this is recreation, not procreation.'”
• Respect each other. That means paying attention to how you say things, and listening and showing that you are listening to what your partner says.
“Long-married retirees say the real danger of marriage is that you know someone so well that they are extremely vulnerable to you,” Pillemer says. “You have the ability to hurt them more than anybody else you know. Respect is the protection against that.”