To get the full value of joy, you must have somebody to divide it with. - Mark Twain
Linda: The media would have us believe that popular opinion is holding marriage as old-fashioned. But surveys show that the majority of single people want to get married and hope that their union will last a lifetime. According to the 2010 Pew Research (February 13, 2013) report Love and Marriage by D’Vera Cohn, for those who have never wed, marriage remains a life goal. About six-in-ten (61%) men and women who have never married say they would like to get married. For those under 30, attitudes of both men and women about marrying are not different. Only 12% say they do not want to marry and 27% are not sure. Most people want to get married but have fears and trepidations about doing so. For those who may be reluctant to tie the knot, it is helpful to hear from those with the greatest experience.
Karl Pillemer is gerontologist and professor of Human Development at Cornell University. He wanted to know what long term couples had to say about marriage, so he did an intensive survey of 700 people, sixty-five and over. He collected his findings into a book called 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationship and Marriage, (published in 2015). His population was a wide variety of couples that have been together for decades and he refers to them as “experts on living”. His sample was composed of all races, cultural backgrounds, economic groups, ethnicities, and sexual and religious orientations. His research includes both successful and failed marriages, some who went through divorce and some who stayed for decades in unfulfilling relationships. What the successful couples had in common was their belief that marriage was a forever commitment. Pillemer stated: “Everybody, 100% said at one point that the long marriage was the best thing in their lives. But all of them also either said that marriage is hard, or that it’s really hard.”
The research findings were quite closely aligned with those of the study done by us (Linda and Charlie Bloom, published in 2010 called Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths From Real Couples about Lasting Love). The wise elders in our study offer from their long life experience, the secrets of improving communication, how to deal with conflict effectively and how to get through the major stresses of marriage such as rearing children, money, balancing work and family, household chores, in-laws and keeping the spark alive over the years.
With similar findings to the Blooms, the majority of those interviewed by Pillemer told him that there was at least one time when they considered splitting up their marriage. And for some of these couples, there was more than one period so low that divorce was seriously explored. But they persisted, endured and worked diligently with what life presented to them, to ultimately win.
There are exceptions to the fierce commitment rule of course, as in the cases where physical or emotional abuse is present where the perpetrator of harm is not motivated to get the help and healing needed. In those cases, it is best for the marriage end. But most challenges that emerge in marriage are not in the extreme deal-breaker category and can be worked out in a manner agreeable to both parties. Just as in our study, Pillemer sites examples in his book of the challenges that these older couples faced. One of the most difficult is infidelity. He too found that cheating is less of a deal breaker than popularly imagined. Pillemer states, “Surprisingly, a single episode of infidelity was not considered to be an automatic end, but there had to be reconciliation, remorse and often counseling.” These couples took the long view, that marriage is a life-long opportunity for learning and development, and used what the relationship offered to them for their growth.
Instead of the idea that many younger people have about there being a soul mate, older individuals have had enough life experience to bust up the myth that there is one person out there with who you won’t have to do the hard work of relationship. They have come to appreciate the value of commitment and dogged determination to make the relationship work for both parties. Successful long-married couples have discarded divorce as an option. They do not expect to find the perfect person, and arrive at happiness. Wise elders view commitment as a discipline, a process where you become more accomplished through continual practice over an entire lifetime. Through the process of sticking with it, making short term sacrifices couples are rewarded for their efforts with their long term goal, that of a lasting, loving partnership. Wise couples knew that there is a learning process to go through, and are willing to fully participate in that process.
There is more good news coming from John Gottman, who is one of the nation’s leading marriage researcher and educator. In his new book, The Man’s Guide to Women, he states, “What men do in a relationship is, by a large margin, the crucial factor that separates a great relationship from a failed one. This doesn’t mean that that a woman doesn't need to do her part, but the data proves that a man’s actions are the key variable that determines when a relationship ship succeeds or fails.”
Rather than the old-fashioned, outmoded method of leaving the work of sustaining love in their relationship to the women, elder males are doing more of the “emotional labor” of the relationship. It is delightful to hear both Gottman and Pellimer report that the men in their studies are taking influence from the women in their lives, paying attention to what they hear, and changing their behavior to find happiness for both partners in their marriages. Gottman says that older married couples tend to behave like younger married couples. “The surprising thing is that the longer people are together, the more the sense of kindness returns. All of this research is starting to reveal that in later life, a relationship becomes very much like it was during courtship.”
In Gottman’s, Pillemer’s, and the Bloom’s studies, the participants have found the secret of success are to deeply listen to each other, to take influence, to respect their partner and to attend to their needs. The wise elders said again and again that a full-hearted commitment chosen each day was what allowed them to succeed in marriage.
To hear the stories of experience revealed in these studies, and put in their own words, touches a deep chord of recognition. These long term couples speak to the sublime beauty of being in the arms of the same person that knows you and that you know and have loved for 50, 60, or even 70 years. These couples journeyed together supporting each other to develop their full potential. They learned from each other and with each other how to become a more fully loving human being.
Just knowing that there are large numbers of happy long term couples is, in and of itself, inspiring. To hear their stories provides proof that it is possible to be highly successful. We can learn a great deal from these wise elders how they accomplished such a challenging task. It gives hope to those of us in earlier stages that the goal of happy marriage is attainable for us as well. All these experienced couples are clear in their message to us. They state that the reward comes in the form of peace of mind, security, delight and fulfillment that they now enjoy in the elder years. They tell us that marriage is for a lifetime, composed of both challenges and joys, and so well worth it.
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“Love experts Linda and Charlie shine a bright light, busting the most common myths about relationships. Using real-life examples, they skillfully, provide effective strategies and tools to create and grow a deeply loving and fulfilling long-term connection.” —Arielle Ford, author of Turn You Mate into Your Soulmate.