Who better to ask about ‘what makes a marriage work’, than couples who’ve been married (to the same partner) for more than 30 years? A Cornell Gerontologist did just that. For the Cornell Marriage Advice Project, Karl Pillemer surveyed hundreds of individuals collectively married for nearly 40,000 years. The average age of interviewees was 77-years-old and the average length of marriage in the sample was 44 years.
Here are the top five lessons the elders gave, along with Pillemer’s take (and mine), to have a successful, long-term relationship:
Learn to Communicate: “For a good marriage, the elders overwhelmingly tell us to ‘talk, talk, talk.’ They believe that most marital problems can be solved through open communication, and conversely many whose marriages dissolved blamed lack of communication.”
Any expert will stress the importance of communication within a relationship. You can’t expect your partner to know what you’re thinking and to know what’s bothering you all the time. Speaking up can help prevent a small issue from snowballing into something even bigger.
Get to Know Your Partner Very Well before Marrying: “Many of the elders I surveyed married very young; despite that fact, they recommend the opposite. They strongly advise younger people to wait to marry until they have gotten to know their partner well and have a number of shared experiences.”
You need to see the person in their best, in their worst, how they handle stressful situations, family, friends…etc. In addition, they advise never get married expecting to be able to change your partner.
Treat Marriage as an Unbreakable, Lifelong Commitment: “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 dry and unhappy periods and found ways to resolve them.”
Marriage is a lifelong commitment. That should be the thought process going into it. This is the person you are deciding to spend the rest of your life with. That’s why #2 is so important…make sure you REALLY know the person before you tie the knot.
Learn to Work as a Team: “The elders urge us to apply what we have learned from our lifelong experiences in teams – in sports, in work, in the military – to marriage. Concretely, this viewpoint involves seeing problems as collective to the couple, rather than the domain of one partner. Any difficulty, illness, or setback experienced by one member of the couple is the other partner’s responsibility.”
Remember, you’re no longer an I, you’re now a WE. What’s their problem and what’s their success, is now your problem and your success.
Chose a Partner Who is Very Similar to You: “Marriage is difficult at times for everyone, the elders assert, but it’s much easier with someone who shares your interests, background, and orientation. The most critical need for similarity is in core values regarding potentially contentious issues like child-rearing, how money should be spent, and religion.”
And, likely politics these days. However, having different interests can be good, as it helps you maintain some individuality. And, if you’re open, different interests gives each person something new to learn and share with the other.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my parents, aunts and uncles (who have collectively been married hundreds of years) is that you simply love the other person so much, you can’t imagine a life without them.
Sure, older people may not know what Twitter or a selfie is and how to ‘snapchat’, but they can sure teach us a lot about life and love, if only we’d listen.
Click for more on the study and for more on Professor Pillemer and his book “30 Lessons for Loving”