Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, has spent the past five years interviewing 700 long-married couples – some have been together happily for a half-century or more – about their advice for making love last. He summarizes some of the best advice for those headed with wedding bells in their future.
Pillemer recently published his findings from the Marriage Advice Project in his book, “30 Lessons for Loving.”
“Be an optimist as you go to the altar. The media often portray marriage as under threat, doomed, or dying. Therefore, many young people enter their marriages with a pessimistic attitude. Yet 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: 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 great lifelong marriage is possible – and they are living examples of that fact. And remember that research shows many marriages do last, and divorce rates are going down. So go into your new life together feeling positive about your chances at a lifetime together.
“A ‘magic bullet’ for resolving disagreements. Wedding discussions can breed conflict for two reasons. First, in some decisions couples can’t have it both ways – you can’t both get married in the college chapel and have a destination wedding in Aruba. Second, the decisions have deadlines – the guest list can’t wait weeks while you debate whether his old girlfriend can attend or not.
“Fortunately, the elders I interviewed offered a great tip to break an impasse. April, 74, suggested: There was one thing that we came to early on that really stayed with us. If we were in some sort of struggle over something, we would stop and say, ‘Which one of us is this more important to?’ And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go. But you have to consciously stop and figure it out.
"In your next argument about some wedding feature, stop and ask: ‘Who cares more about this?’ And if possible, let that person have his or her way. Grace, age 70, suggested a variation: that each member of the couple gets to declare one thing they cannot live without in the wedding; everything else is negotiable.
“Use the wedding for communication practice. It’s no question that husbands and wives can experience tension around weddings. Juggling the cost, the invitations, and well-intentioned relatives lead to stress. Remember: If this is the most stressful experience you have in your married life, you will be very lucky. Learn to use some good conflict resolution techniques recommended by people married a half-century or more, including:• Let the other person have his or her say before interrupting.• Avoid letting anger lead you to contemptuous remarks, like insults or sarcasm• Take a time out if you need it – not everything needs to be discussed until it is resolved; drop a contentious issue and come back to it. Why not take advantage of the golden opportunity to practice good communication early on?
“People and experiences over things. The elders worry about young people focusing too much on ‘stuff’ at weddings, and not enough about savoring the people and experiences that come with it. Psychologists make this distinction, finding that greater happiness comes from activities that are rewarding in and of themselves rather than acquiring material possessions. When thinking about a wedding, you can be sure that 50 years from now, you will remember sharing the joy with friends and relatives and taking a great honeymoon trip more than you will remember the cappuccino maker and the steak knives you received as gifts. When budgeting, think about doing rather than getting. For example, having a wedding in a cheaper venue and lower-cost catering so you can invite more people you care about, in their view, is a good choice. And those gifts? Don’t forget to ask for help funding a trip that leaves life-long memories.”
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