It’s anniversary time in my family. Monday was my parents’ wedding anniversary, and my husband and I celebrated our anniversary two weeks ago. My parents’ marriage still is going strong after 62 years together. On the other hand, Doug and I have been married for nine years, equaling the nine years I spent as a single parent after my first marriage ended.
In our society, most people want to get married — and there is considerable research evidence that marriage has a range of benefits. But too often the joy turns sour, and nearly half of marriages end in divorce.
Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, interviewed 700 long-married older Americans for their advice about finding a life partner and staying married. You can read more about his research at legacyproject.human.cornell.edu.
Here are three lessons Pillemer learned from the elders for finding a spouse and staying together as reported in his online article at www.nextavenue.org:
1. Marry someone a lot like you.
Pillimer and his research team asked hundreds of elders what is most important for a long and happy marriage, and their advice was just about unanimous: Opposites might attract, but they don’t make for great and lasting marriages.
Based on their long experiences, the elders’ first lesson is this: You are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar. And the most important thing to look for is similarity in your core values.
Take Emma Sylvester, who at 87 has been married for 58 years. She said: “I didn’t know it when I got married, but in retrospect, I know it’s important to have the same basic values.”
Arguments emerge over apparently trivial issues, the elders told us, because they really reflect underlying values. Whether the wife purchases an expensive golf club or the husband a new electronic toy is not the core issue in a spat, but rather the deeper attitude toward what money means and whether the financial interests of the couple are more important than indulging individual wants.
The elders urge people in a serious relationship to ask the question: Do we believe the same things in life are important?
2. Never expect your partner to change after marriage.
What about taking a leap of faith on the assumption that you can change your partner after you’re married? The elders were as clear about this possibility as can be: Forget about it.
According to them, entering into a marriage with the goal of changing one’s partner is a fool’s errand.
Rosie Eberle, 80 and happily married for 56 years, had a blunt comment to make about entering into a marriage expecting to change one’s partner: “It’s just plain stupid.”
She went on: “Don’t marry someone and then think, ‘Oh, well he’ll change.’ Or ‘I’m going to change him.’ Believe me, it doesn’t happen. But people get real stubborn and believe a person will change later on, which never works.”
3. Friendship is as important as love.
When asked the question: “What’s the secret to a long, happy marriage such as yours?” a common answer from people in long marriages was: “I married my best friend.” Similarly, those whose marriages did not succeed often said: “Well, we were good at love, but we never learned how to be friends.”
This response sounds peculiar, given that in this society, we see friends and spouses as two separate social categories that have different functions. In contrast, the elders say the special qualities of friendship are exactly what you want in your marriage.
We typically look forward to being with friends, we relish their company, we relax with them, we share common interests and we talk openly. What the elders suggest is you look for the qualities of a friend — the capacity to comfortably “hang out” — in the person you choose to marry. As one 87-year-old said: “Think back to the playground when you were a child. Your spouse should be like the other kid you would most like to play with.”
According to the elders, all marriages undergo a transition from the initial thrill of romance to stages when other things become as or more significant. After being swept off one’s feet by true love, the elders caution you to ask, “What’s next?” Will you wake up next to the same person for five or six decades and still find a person you like as well as love?
Marriage probably never will go out of style in our culture. But after the bouquet is thrown and the last grain of rice is swept up, these tips from those who have experienced decades of marriage can help us make our unions last.
Linda K. Beech is Cottonwood District Extension agent for family and consumer sciences.