Lessons in love and marriage from 700 experts

February 8, 2015
Candida Performa: It's all about love
Candida Performa: It's all about love

A marriage that lasts 40, 50 or 60 years is a wondrous achievement. But do people who reach these milestones have relevant advice for a younger generation? Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist, thought the view from the finish line would be valuable. So he interviewed 700 people aged over 65 in the “largest study of long-married people ever done.” The oldest couple had been together 76 years. And what these insightful, funny and sometimes crusty folk had to say was not quite what I expected.

When I set to reading Pillemer’s book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships and Marriage, I anticipated a pile of platitudes layered with lot of religiosity. I’m showing my bias here about elderly Americans, and any book titled “30 Lessons…..” But the conservatism I expected wasn’t so evident. For a start, “marriage” included people in long-term relationships who’d never married; and gay couples, and people who’d been divorced. It warned some marriages weren’t worth saving: where a partner is controlling, demeaning or violent. “If the person acts violently – what are you doing there? Run, run, run,” 68-year-old Devon Patton said. Interestingly, these folk did not consider infidelity to be an automatic marriage-buster.

Relieved of my preconceptions, I still wondered if the wisdom of the elders applied today. Most of the interviewees married in the era of virgin brides, male supremacy and divorce stigma.

But these feisty “experts”, as Pillemer calls his interview subjects, do offer wise words on finding a good partner, weathering crises, and putting the spark back into a long relationship. The dominant message is marriage is hard. Some of these couples have suffered financial crises, difficult children, ill health, interfering in-laws, and grey years of boredom. A surprising number had considered quitting. They speak with authority.

A key lesson is the absolute necessity of good communication. Yes, we’ve heard it before. But coming from the mouths of some “tough old guys” it has more impact. It took Jack half a lifetime and several marriages before he understood it couldn’t be “my way or the highway.”  Painfully, he learnt to sit down and discuss things. Joshua Gilbert 81 says, “If you don’t communicate, there’s no intimacy. You’re just two dead ducks.” And Cora Chambers 72 says, “Talk about politics, talk about health, talk about anything. Just keep the dialogue open and going.”

Pillemer acknowledges some people aren’t talkers but urges them to try harder. “There’s no way to last happily for three or more decades unless you can both be, or become, talkers,” he concludes.

But how to talk?  Politely, is what the “experts” say. Marriage is a double-edged sword. Because we feel safe, we may feel freer to be impolite, even nasty to our partners. That’s a big mistake. Hope Weaver 70 said: “You can do an awful lot of damage and cause an awful lot of hurt in a few moments….Think of communicating in a courteous way.”  She never forgot how her husband once said to her, “‘I don’t think you have anything important to say.’ It left a lasting wound.”

The experts bring good sense to handling stressors such as children, money and in-laws. For example, Greg Myers 83 said his mother didn’t approve of his marriage to Judy (a marriage still strong after 60 years). “I wasn’t caught in the middle,” Greg said. “I had this wonderful gal and we were happy. ….You have to side with your spouse. Rightly or wrongly, you’re a unit.”

The loveliest chapter is Keeping the Spark Alive. How do you avoid falling into a stultifying routine and waking one day to find you’ve nothing in common? The elders have specific advice, summed up in three words: surprises, chores and compliments. “Frequent smaller acts of kindness greatly trump large rare acts of kindness,” Tracey James 68 says. Mitchell and Emma Haynes, married 58 years, recalled how he often bought her small gifts. “One time, I was so spontaneous, you started to cry,” Mitchell 87 reminds her. “I bought flowers one day and she lost it.” Emma 91 says, “No, I couldn’t imagine why he was giving me flowers.” “Bless her soul,” says Mitchell.

Relieving the other of his/her usual chores on occasions is the sort of unexpected kind gesture that helps sustain a marriage. And paying genuine compliments goes far. Clara Osborne 90, a widow, got teary recalling how her husband always told her as they went out for an evening how lovely she looked.

And then there’s sex. Barring a troubled history or physical problems, the sex will probably be good enough to keep you happy, and it may be much better than that, Pillemer concludes.

I liked the words of Alfredo Doyle 77: “You just need to have a spark to begin with. And whatever it is you’re doing, just keep doing it.” Sex expands, the elders imply, so that holding hands becomes an incredibly intimate experience. Mason Speare 77, married 44 years, said: “It’s really wonderful just to be able to sit together reading or watching TV, and I’ll just hold her hand or touch her arm or whatever. There’s a kind of quietness there that’s quite deep. It’s very fulfilling.”

In the world outside this book, many couples snipe and fight to the bitter end. Others, despite one or other’s desires and efforts, end up separated for better or worse. But here are the people whose gamble – and marriage is that – paid off. They took an educated guess, and got a bit lucky; and these are the lessons they learnt along the way. Eunice Schneider, married 53 years, was one of my favourites. “…at the end of the day there’s a great sense that this is the best hug I could have and the most wonderful kiss there is, and let’s have some fun, and you wanna go play golf?….Marriage is a wonderful trip if you can find a great friend to have it with.”

Thinking back, what are some lessons you’ve learnt about marriage? Do leave a comment.

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