Dr. Karl Pillemer, a leading sociologist out of Cornell University, has written a new book on lasting marriage: 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. The results are based on his research during his Marriage Advice Project, the largest in-depth study of long-married elders ever conducted (700 people averaging 43 years of marriage).
Dr. Pillemer’s interview subjects, who ranged from blissful partners married a half-century to individuals who ended up alone and unsatisfied after serial marriages and divorces, opened their hearts and minds to Dr. Pillemer and his research team, because they believed their experience could help younger people better navigate the complexities of long-term relationships.
The Secrets to a Lasting Marriage
1. Marriage as a lifetime commitment.
One difference between America’s elders and young people today is this: older people expected to marry for life. And that’s what they advise those starting out in marriage: not just to commit to your partner, but to institution of marriage itself. They strongly recommend that young people buck the contemporary casual attitude and view marriage as an unbreakable, lifetime commitment.
Of course, they recognize that some marriages must end – for example where verbal and physical abuse exist. However, they suggest that many marriages end because one person feels his or her needs aren’t being met or because of “falling out of love.” In these cases, they urge couples to “try, try, and try again.” Rather than seeing marriage as a voluntary partnership that lasts only as long as the passion does, the elders propose a mindset in which it is a profound commitment to be respected, even if things go sour over the short term. Many struggled through unhappy periods and found ways to resolve them – giving them the reward of a fulfilling, intact marriage in later life.
2. Young people should be more optimistic about a lifelong marriage.
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 lifelong marriage is possible – and they are living examples of that fact.
3. Doing good together helps keep the spark alive
When asked how to keep a marriage vibrant and interesting over a half-century or more, many of the elders had this surprising answer: Give back to the community – together. The challenge and novelty of working together in volunteer activity allowed couples to translate their love for one another outwards. It also provides interesting shared experiences. Many described such shared volunteering as providing more of a charge to their relationships than a fancy vacation.
Why 30 LESSONS FOR LOVING is Important
Here’s one thing we know about young people today when it comes to love and marriage. They are bombarded with conflicting and often erroneous information and images about marriage. They are confused about making such a momentous decision, and they are influenced by weakening norms about marriage.
However, for them, marriage is here to stay. In surveys, almost all young people say they plan to get married, they expect to be faithful to their spouses, and they believe marriage should last a lifetime. So their goals and dreams about relationships are very similar to those of people 50 or 100 years ago. But they are searching for how to find the right person and make a marriage last. It turns out that our elders are an astonishingly good source of advice.
Three Reasons Elders are a Good Source of Advice
First, they are the only ones with the long view. It’s not a mystery how their marriage will turn out – it already has turned out! They’ve seen the ups and downs, learned what’s important and what’s not, and can share this wisdom compellingly. If you are taking a trip, you use a map made by someone who has been there. Long-married elders are the only people available who have made it to the finish line and can advise us about the journey.
Second, America’s elders have been through every challenge, problem, and tragedy that young people lie awake worrying about: unemployment, poverty, social upheaval, illness, divorce, widowhood, even the loss of a child. They are the best experts we have in living well through hard times, so their advice is invaluable.
Third, in many cases the elders’ advice for love and marriage shakes up conventional wisdom – the ways of thinking about relationships that young people just take for granted. The elder lens on marriage is surprising and different, and defies categorization as “liberal” or “conservative.” Readers may not always agree with the elders, but they will be pushed to think about their relationship lives in new and different ways.
One Final Piece of Marriage Advice
There’s one thing nearly all the elders really wanted young people to understand: Marriage is hard. Very few people enter into marriage with this thought foremost on their mind. But according to the elders, everyone starting out needs to accept that marriage is hard – at times tough, difficult, challenging. To stay married for life requires resilience, spirit, and discipline. It also requires an acceptance of predictable stressors and unexpected difficulties, without giving up.
But the good news is that a long marriage can provide some of the most splendid emotional experiences life offers. It’s loving, enjoyable, interesting, and supportive, providing a kind of intimacy that defies description. Young people must accept this interplay of smooth and rough patches, or they won’t make it through married life. The core of elder wisdom is based on a unique long view – and it’s one that can change young people’s lives.
What do you think the secret to a lasting marriage is?