5 Relationship Secrets From Couples Who've Been Together For 40+ Years


(Illustrations: Mary Galloway)

Cliché sayings about how to get and stay married abound: Opposites attract, don’t go to bed angry, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Many have been repeated so often that they’ve lost whatever power they once had, and when yet another guru professes to know the secret to making love last, we’re doubtful that person will offer something new. Karl Pillemer, PhD, is a little different from most relationship experts; instead of advancing his personal opinions, he draws on the collective wisdom gleaned from thousands of combined years of long-term partnerships.

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Dr. Pillemer is a gerontologist, and he says that to write his book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage, he interviewed “700 people, married on average 43 years, [from] all walks of life, all races, all ethnic groups, including long-term same-sex couples.” In doing so, Dr. Pillemer attempted to create a road map for relationships that last a lifetime.

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“People forget that it’s only been in the last hundred years or so that people have gone to anyone other than the oldest person they knew for advice about love and marriage,” Dr. Pillemer points out when we ask him to guide us through his research. “I had been a gerontologist, and I was hit by a revelation: For 25 years, all I had done was to study the problems of old people — Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, nursing homes — and that’s what our society does, too.” Instead of focusing only on these struggles, Dr. Pillemer thought, why not tap the oldest Americans for the unparalleled insight they could provide younger generations? 

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That epiphany led to the creation of The Legacy Project, which collects the “practical advice of elder Americans,” and then to the project’s first book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. When Dr. Pillemer realized that many were buying the hit book specifically for its section on relationships, he refocused his research and collected a list of lessons on how to love someone for life. “The message I got from older people was: Anybody can do this,” Dr. Pillemer stresses. “Winding up at the end of life with somebody you are still in love with (even if you’ve had some awful times, as all of them have), it’s so sublime, you can’t even put it into words.” Read on for five of the senior folks’ most valuable pieces of advice. It turns out, “Listen to your elders” is one of the useful clichés.

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1. Watch Your Partner Play Games
According to Dr. Pillemer, elder after elder recommended that before you get serious, you watch your partner participate in a group competition — to gauge how he or she handles pressure, winning, and losing. Older Chinese couples suggested observing potential spouses play mahjong; Caribbean couples suggested dominoes. 

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“I met him, and we started playing dominoes, and then I knew,” 68-year-old Puerto Rican-American Jessica Cruz told Dr. Pillemer of her husband. “Young people today seem to look for people in bars. But if you watch somebody play a game like dominoes, you get a good sense of their personality that way.” It makes sense: Would you rather be with someone who is gracious and playful, or gloating and sulky? Even if the stakes are no higher than a Monopoly victory or a goal in intramural soccer, your partner’s reactions can hint at larger patterns.


2. Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Aziz Ansari recommends taking your date to a monster truck rally to discover what your interactions are like beyond the bounds of your usual hangouts (unless you go to monster truck rallies regularly, in which case go to the movies?). The elders in Dr. Pillemer’s study confirmed that a change of scenery can indicate whether you’re with the right person.

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75-year-old Gene Roy was on a hiking trip with a romantic interest when things went awry. “We had known each other for quite a while,” he recounted. “But then we got into the woods, where there was no water, and there were bears. We ran out of food and all that stuff — then, all of a sudden, we found out we didn’t really know each other at all.” An unusual or challenging environment — unlike the same bars, restaurants, or, let’s be real, couch where you and your partner always find yourselves — provides a glimpse into how you’ll work together (or not) when shit hits the fan.

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3. Eat A Sandwich
When quarreling with your partner, remember that one of you just might need a snack.
“[Many seniors] talked about [how] their worst fights came when somebody was hungry — and let’s just say that I’ve used this in my own 35-year-old marriage, and it really works,” Dr. Pillemer laughs. “We’ll start to have a fight, and one of us will say ‘When did you last eat?’ and it somehow transforms it.” It’s not that a roast beef sandwich or bowl of oatmeal has the same curative powers as counseling (though some might argue the point); rather, “hanger” does have the power to make any relationship raincloud seem like a thunderstorm.

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4. Time Your Heavy Talks
“All too often, the experts tell us, we decide that the right time to talk about an issue is the moment we want to talk about it,” Dr. Pillemer writes. That’s the wrong move. Seniors agreed that the ability to wait until both you and your partner are calm and receptive to discuss difficult issues doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but it is crucial. “I am an evening person,” 65-year-old Leona Stevenson shared. “[My husband] is a morning person… So we said: 'What time of day is a good time for us to have a disagreement about something that we need to discuss?’ And we discovered that it was early evening, after we’d had time to regroup after work, but before it gets too late.” And, don’t insist on seeing a discussion through to the end if it’s getting too intense. There is nothing wrong with taking a breather — preferably before the shouting starts.

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5. Be Polite
This one may sound blindingly apparent, but it’s one of the easiest recommendations for couples to forget. 65-year-old Janet Green chalks up her happiness with 67-year-old Robyn Palou to their mutual politeness. “You can’t treat your partner any worse than you would treat a friend,” she says. “I mean, it’s not as though, because you’re married or partners…you don’t have to be sensitive to the other person’s feelings… I know that sounds ridiculously obvious to say, but many couples are not able to do that; they forget, and act and speak inconsiderately.” Love, in other words, isn’t a free pass to be rude. Dr. Pillemer suggests an experiment: For one week, “pretend that your spouse is someone you want to impress.” Because isn’t that true, after all?

By Hayley Macmillen

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