Lessons from Lifetimes of Love

Love ­­– it’s something we are bombarded with this time of year with the approach of Valentine’s Day. We look for love and marriage advice in books, magazines, movies, and television, but why not look for it in those who have already spent a lifetime in love? In an age where a world of information can be accessed with a Wifi signal, we may overlook the fact that a great wealth of information and advice is readily available to us through our elderly loved ones.

Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor at Cornell University, started researching long-term couples because he believed that elderly people could offer relationship wisdom to younger generations. “Research shows that older people are actually happier than younger people,’’ he said. “​Th​e idea hit me: Do older people know things about living happy, healthy and more fulfilling lives that young people don’t?”

In an effort to make this wisdom available to others, he interviewed over 700 American seniors that had been married at least 50 years (with one couple being married for 76 years). Combined, they had over 25,000 years of marriage experience. He recorded the findings in his book 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage. Below are eight of the things seniors wanted to share with younger people who are looking for love.


  1. Marriage is not easy. In fact, it is hard.

Sure, the idea doesn’t seem very romantic, but it’s a truth that senior couples say is important to realize. Any relationship faces its own set of problems – add that to the stress of combining two lives into one. However, Pillemer said many elders mentioned that they look at marriage as a discipline; something in which you are constantly learning and never reach perfection, and must sacrifice short-term gains for long-term rewards.


  1. A lifelong marriage is worth the work.

Though they advise that marriage will require much effort on both parts, senior couples say that it is entirely worth it to have that type of connection to another person. Those married for more than 50 years described it as the “experience of a lifetime,” according to Pillemer, and said it surpasses the passionate feeling of falling in love for the first time.


  1. Choose someone who is a lot like you.

You’ve heard the old saying, “Opposites attract,” right? We see it in books, movies, and television constantly: two people who have nothing in common fall irrevocably in love despite the odds and live happily ever after. But senior couples don’t agree with this. Their recommendation is to marry someone who is generally similar to you, Pillemer said. Small differences in personality and hobbies are not a big deal, but core values are. The seniors said it’s important for couples to be on the same page about things like religion, children and how to raise them, and financial matters.


  1. It’s the little things that make a difference.

While it may seem smart to make huge romantic gestures in order to keep a marriage healthy and happy, seniors said to think smaller. “The view from the end tells you that a marriage is made up of hundreds of daily interactions. In each of those you have a chance to be positive, to be cheerful, to be supportive,” Pillemer said. Seniors suggested making small, positive gestures a habit. Doing your partner’s chore unexpectedly, making them coffee every morning, or paying a nice compliment can keep the spark alive.


  1. Communication is key.

Seniors said that open communication is vital to solving marital problems. The strong, silent type may be attractive at first, but probably won’t make the best spouse, they said. As one elder told Pillemer, “If you can’t communicate, you’re just two dead ducks.”


  1. You will never be able to change your spouse.

Accept your partner as is, or don’t get married, the elder couples advised. Many think that marriage solves problems, when in fact it often just makes things worse. You may say, “Once we’re married, he or she will stop doing this/change their mind about that/etc.” Pillemer said instead ask yourself if you can live with that trait for a lifetime. “At any point in a relationship, making your partner a do-it-yourself project only leads to anger and disappointment,” he said.


  1. Never sacrifice your relationship for your kids.

Like many other good things that come out of marriage, children can also be a great source of stress. Many couples often get caught up in the mix of raising their kids and forget to prioritize their relationship with each other. Many elder couples noted that if you aren’t attending to your marriage relationship, you won’t be very good parents. This doesn’t mean you wouldn’t do anything for your children; simply remember to be intentional in spending time together, alone. Money shouldn’t be an issue, as one couple said, “We returned our disposable soda bottles and went to McDonald’s,” one senior said. “It was just an opportunity to be away.”


  1. Take a snack break.

This one may sound a little strange, but many of the couples interviewed said it’s important to never argue on an empty stomach. Often times, hunger can make us irritable, which leads us to say things we normally wouldn’t. If an argument is threatening to escalate into a bigger feud, seniors suggest offering your spouse a sandwich, a cup of tea, or a piece of cake. It’s cheaper than a therapist, and more fun, they said.



“Lessons from Lifetimes of Love,” Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.

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