Newswise — Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, has spent the last five years surveying more than 700 older people about love, relationships and marriage. Some have been together happily for a half-century or more – making them true experts on how to find love and make it last. Here are eight of their secrets for finding true love and maintaining it for a lifetime – just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Friendship is as important as love. The romantic spark is important, but over the long term there has to be something more, and that is friendship. One thing this means is the ability to embrace your partner’s interests, even if you aren't initially particularly interested. For example, a woman in her mid-70s spent decades as a resentful “golf widow,” but then took up the sport with her husband. He told her that had fulfilled a life dream for him. Or take the husband who finally agreed to go to the ballet and opera with his wife – and liked it! Rather than fighting about competing interests, figure out how you can share them in a meaningful way.
Think small. Make it a daily habit to perform small, positive actions. The elders offer a key tip: Do your partner’s chore unexpectedly. It’s your husband’s turn to pick up the kid at day care, but you know he’s had a hard day, so you offer to do it. Or the dog is scratching at the bedroom door on a freezing winter morning; it’s your wife’s turn to walk him, but you quietly get up and take him out. Those small, kind gestures are “money in the bank” for a relationship. Don’t forget things like simple politeness – the“good manners” we use with others, but forget at home. A marriage is made up of hundreds of “micro-interactions” every day – the elders say keep them positive and kind and you’re likely to last as long as they have.
Intimacy grows. The elders are mystified about why young people worry about sex in the later years of marriage. First, my studies show that for many older couples, intimacy doesn’t die and sometimes gets better. And as people grow older, I found that the concept of sex expands to include many kinds of intimacy, like the importance of touching and holding. They told me that in a long relationship, when you are changing together the spark changes too – but doesn’t die. However, they do have one recommendation for keeping the sexual spark alive: stay in shape!
Is he or she right for me? The elders have clear tips for deciding whether a person is the one with whom you want to spend a lifetime. Before you commit, they say, do something challenging that puts you out of your comfort zone – it could be a strenuous camping trip, or even painting a room together. They also suggest asking old-fashioned questions once you decide you are in love: Do we share similar values? Will he or she be financially responsible and able to hold down a job? Do we both want children? And they offer a warning sign: If no one else likes your prospective partner, be sure to find out why! Elders in troubled marriages wish they had listened to others’ warnings before committing.
Lifelong marriage is hard – but worth it. The elders want young people to be optimistic about marriage. Despite gloom and doom in the media, I talked to hundreds of people who made it to the finish line of marriage – and it was the best part of their lives. They want people starting out to know that marriage for a lifetime is hard – it takes spirit, discipline, and resilience. But they also say that it’s incredibly good, and worth striving for.
Before you decide to get married, ask: Is he or she going to be a “good provider?” Okay, you’re in love. You’ve followed your heart. But now follow your head. Do your “due diligence.” Your economic lives will be bound up together for a lifetime. So ask: Can they hold down a job? Do they have a good work ethic? Can they manage money? As one 90 year old told me: If you pinch pennies and he’s a free spender, you are out of luck.
Once you are married, learn to hate debt. These Depression-era folks saw the horrific consequences of too much debt. Money is one of the most heated topics in marriage. The elders say that simply avoiding debt will stress and keep you from money-related fights.
Experiences and people over things. Looking back from 90 or 100 the elders say – buying stuff is totally not memorable. However, experiences like trips, or time spent with loved ones, make blissful memories. So a choice between a fancy car and life changing experiences is an easy one – spend on experiences as a couple.
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