Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, has spent the last three years surveying over 800 older people about love, relationships and marriage. Many respondents had been married 30 or more years – including some who tied the knot 60 or 70 years ago. They shared some secrets – just in time for Valentine’s Day – for keeping the spark alive in a love relationship.
Make your relationship a safe haven from work. All too often, attempts to be romantic are spoiled by the “spill-over” of work issues into a couple’s life. What good is a romantic dinner with candles, music, and good wine if your partner’s mind is on a fight with the boss or work left undone? Francis, age 66, made this decision with her husband, “When you leave work, leave work at work!” The elders urge you to create a conscious time buffer between work and home. Think, a la Star Trek, of a decontamination chamber before you enter the ship. One key step? Disconnect when you get home from work. According to the experts, staying connected 24/7 to work via your laptop, tablet, or smartphone is one of the biggest romance-killers.
Keep your sense of humor. According to the elders, humor is the great stress-buster. When things in a relationship get tough, joking about them has almost magical properties to bring an out-of-sync couple back into equilibrium. Jordan, age 94, says about his 66-year marriage, “We laugh at most everything. I try to turn everything into a joke and she really laughs. If I think of something that I know is ludicrous for the argument we’re in, but it’s funny, she’ll laugh about it and I find it calms things over.”
Try one of your partner’s interests. The elders pointed out that sometimes we can be disparaging about our spouse’s hobby we don’t share. The long and happily married elders suggest a different approach: join in. They ask: What’s more important – how you spend your leisure time or your marriage? If it’s the latter, and they hope it is, then try out your partner’s interest. Molly, age 71, was a “golf widow” for decades – staying behind while her husband spent his weekends on the links. Finally, she got tired of being resentful and decided to take action, “I learned to play golf! My husband was tickled and said, ‘When I retired that is what I want to do is go on a vacation and play golf and you needed to learn so that you can play with me.’ Now that is what we do. It keeps each other content and happy.”
Don’t go to bed angry. Almost everyone happily married 50 or more years recommends that you resolve your differences before you get in bed at night. They believe there is something just plain wrong abut seething with disappointment, resentment, even fury in the most intimate of spaces. Debra, age 87, who is in “the happiest marriage I could ever imagine,” tells us to put our anger to bed before we get there. “Even though you don’t agree, you can say, ‘Well gee, honey, maybe we can work something out in the morning. Let’s have a good night’s rest and then talk about what the differences are and see how we can come together in the middle somewhere.’”
Go on a lifetime date. Leigh, age 70, has a wonderful tip that can shift your thinking about what a long relationship should be. “We made an agreement when we got married. We decided we would have a lifetime date. That was really a wonderful way to frame our relationship. Because you think: Oh, I’m on a date! I’ve got to plan fun things and keep the positive emphasized. So we have had a lifetime date and that’s worked out really well.” That idea sums up the elders’ advice for creating a relationship in which the spark stays alive. Never forget what life was like when you were dating – and keep that spirit for a lifetime.
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