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Why the Most Successful Couples Stay Together

Advice on what it takes, from more than 700 experts.

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We are so inundated with media reports about "the death of marriage" that you may assume matrimony will soon be a thing of the past. However, there is strong evidence that marriage is in fact here to stay—and it comes from the hearts and minds of young people. Surveys show that most young Americans have the same wishes and desires as their predecessors did 50 years or 100 years ago (and that would also be familiar in Jane Austen’s day).

It turns out that the vast majority of young people want to get married—and hope it will last forever. A large, scientific survey of 20-24 year olds found that 95 percent believe it is important to get married someday, and the vast majority see fidelity and a lifelong commitment as necessary components of marriage.

So marriage appears to be here to stay. We may be a throw-away society in other ways, but when it comes to love, most people are looking for a lifelong connection.

The question, of course, is how to get there.

I looked to the more than 700 older Americans we interviewed in the Marriage Advice Project for answers. They are a logical source, as many have been happily married for 40, 50, or 60 years or longer. Sifting through the interviews, I learned that they believe there’s an ingredient that no therapy, no treatment program, and even no religion can create: The partners must do it themselves, day after day, and year after year. That piece of elder wisdom about marriage is commitment. The elders tell us that you must enter into a marriage believing it will last forever. And they believe that it's a goal worth striving for.

Ranjit, 80, summed up the view of many of the elders—that people should enter into marriage seeing the commitment as unbreakable:

Marriage is two people living together and becoming as one. Marriage is between souls that become one. That means the most important thing before thinking of marriage is that we have a commitment. One must be sure in his or her mind that the partner is for you and for you only. Sometimes people think: Oh, if the marriage doesn’t work out, we can get a divorce any time. But marriage is not a contract on paper that you can annul any time if it doesn’t work out. Never start married life with that notion.

The emphasis on commitment was similarly strong from elders in the study who spent much of their lives in a committed but unmarried relationship. Timothy, 89, and Jerome, 90, have been a couple for 60 years, sharing a fascinating life in theater and the arts and in the company of a vibrant circle of friends. Their commitment was made firmer, they told me, because marriage was not available. Timothy said:

Our commitment to each other had to be stronger, because it wasn’t backed up by the legal things marriage gives you. You have to have a strong relationship, because there’s no legality to it.

Jerome added:

I read about prenuptial agreements where people only commit to 10 years, that kind of thing. You already have a divorce in mind, which I find very strange. Commitment doesn’t work that way. After we fell in love, it became the relationship for my entire life. You don’t want to separate. I don’t know that you enter a relationship thinking that you’re going to last for 60 years. But you do just feel, “I want to go on. I don’t ever want to separate. I don’t want to go my own way.”

This, then, is a key lesson from the America’s elders:

Treat marriage—at every stage—as a lifelong commitment.

This must be your attitude, they say, however unrealistic it may seem at times. And knowing that for many people, marriage can and did last a lifetime is evidence that this goal is a worthwhile one. The elders counsel you to live with the belief that your marriage vows represent an iron-clad commitment; indeed, they feel that it is the only way to approach marriage. Of course, they of understand that some marriages – in particular those where verbal or physical abuse is present – must come to an end. But they exhort you in most circumstances to try, try, and try again to honor the initial commitment before leaving the marriage.

In my efforts to understand the elders’ view on commitment, I came to a revelation. They were talking about marriage as a discipline. As that word is used in fields from spiritual development to business management, it does not have anything to do with the idea of punishment – far from it. Rather, a discipline, as one writer puts it, is a developmental path where you get better at something by mindfully attending to it and by continual practice. Most important, it is a lifelong process—you don’t “arrive” at success, but rather you spend your life mastering the discipline. In all disciplines—from learning a martial art, to running a marathon, to meditating—short-term sacrifice is required to reap the long-term rewards from your effort.

When the elders talked about commitment, it’s this kind of discipline they have in mind: persevering, working out creative solutions for problems, and seeking help when necessary. The mental image of a lifelong commitment—where it is not easy to get out—makes partners work intensely to overcome challenges. Lora, 70, told me:

My generation was not accepting of divorce, and my husband and I were of that mindset. Because that wasn’t an option in our mind to separate, you really figured things out. It wasn’t, “Well, it’s not working out and I’m not happy right now. Let’s give up.” It wasn’t an option, so therefore we needed to figure things out.

Sheldon, 88, whose marriage went through difficult periods, agreed:

We have had some pretty hard arguments, believe me. You’ve got to deal with it and not to have in the back of your head that you’re going to split. You’ve got to get that out of your head. That whatever it is that goes on, you’re going to stay together and work it out.

And the elders are clear that no one can make a commitment at a single point in their lives, then simply relax and forget about it. Commitment is enacted every single day, as part of the discipline of marriage. Mae Powers, 70, also had a rocky road in marriage, but chose to remain in the relationship for 42 years. She eloquently summed up the meaning of commitment this way:

It’s continually committing, actively deciding to stay together. During the rough times, you have to decide to recommit yourself to the relationship. My husband and I joke about having “gotten married” many times. Things happen that cause people to question their relationships, and then they have to make a decision to recommit or not recommit, and how to recommit if they decide to do so. So when I recommit to staying together today after a huge blow-up, it’s with the knowledge of all of those limitations and what I have decided I’m willing to live with.

Searching for a way to characterize this attitude among the elders, I found myself using the word spirit. That is, many of them have a spirited approach to the discipline of marriage, to get better, to forgive, and to innovate. There’s a spirit of initiative to overcome problems and an indomitable attitude to move on despite problems.

Sound idealistic? For me, seeing was believing. Nothing convinces you of the value of making q lifelong commitment like being in the presence of couples who have done just that. Most people who make good on the “marriage is for life” assumption freely admit having considered splitting up at least once over the decades (and often more than once). They’ve lived through sloughs of unfulfillment, periods where passion waned and nothing appeared to replace it, and bouts of simmering resentment. But they hung in, they endured, they worked feverishly on the relationship – and they won out in the end.

They won out by reaching a level of fulfillment that is difficult to describe. I’ve introduced you to a number of such partners in this book, and perhaps you have seen it in an older couple you know. When you are in the presence of two people who have weathered life’s predictable and unpredictable storms together and emerged as true and inseparable partners at the end of life, there’s a feeling of “Ahhh, so that’s what it’s all about…” I had the opportunity to observe this apotheosis of married life many times, and each time I came away inspired and enriched.

Flickr sweethearts by adwriter
Source: Flickr sweethearts by adwriter

Because when people make it the whole way, it’s so good that it’s better than almost anything else you can imagine. It’s better than the titillating excitement of dating; better than the heart-pounding passion of a new relationship; yes, even better than the mid-life lure of trading the old spouse in for a new model. It’s good enough that it may inspire you to give your marriage a second, third, or fourth chance. Because to wind up at the last years of life in the arms of someone you fell in love with 60 or 70 years ago is sublime. It’s a part of a well-lived life that is so transcendental that for many elders who are there, it defies description. I learned this from the elders: there are some life experiences for which you need the whole thing to reap the benefits - marriage is one of them.

Karl A. Pillemer, PhD is a professor of human development at Cornell University and professor of gerontology in medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College. An internationally renowned gerontologist, his research examines how people develop and change throughout their lives. In a recent set of studies, Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don't. This project led to the book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, November 2011), and more recently to 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, 2015). For more information on the Legacy Project, please visit its blog, like The Legacy Project on Facebook, and follow Pillemer on Twitter @KarlPillemer.