You come across a 90 year-old couple canoodling in the park. But what, exactly, did it take for that relationship to last so long—and still maintain some spark? How can you get that for you and your partner?
When you spend time with people who’ve been happily coupled for most of their lives, it’s the little things you notice. The way she lights up — all these years later! — when she recounts the day they first met. The ring of admiration in his voice as he describes her successes. The shared smiles. The deference. Maybe they don’t finish each other’s sentences, but you get the sense they could.
Regret is a strange thing, especially when it comes to love and romance. For even the happiest person, there is often a sense of something left undone or unsaid, of the wrong choice made, of an opportunity for love lost, of a relationship that went on too long. While the old saw may be that opposites attract, the experts advise pairing with someone who is a close match on core values: religion, sex, parenting, money and family.
If you want to know about love, ask someone with a lifetime of experience. It’s hard to put into words the kind of transcendental or sublime feel of people who have been together 50, 60 or 70 years and really made it work. Before I begin, however, it’s important to dispel a common relationship myth — relationships are (or should be) easy. That is simply not true. The grass always looks greener in other people’s lives, because few people share the truth of the amount of work that goes into relationships.
We made a pact to never fight about money. Financial problems lead to divorce. We didn’t want our relationship to deteriorate over something as inconsequential as money. We’ve been through financial ups and downs, including bouts of unemployment and significant credit-card debt. But we never cast blame and remain calm during financial discussions.
Never discuss sensitive subjects when hungry or tired. And eat marshmallows to improve communication. What’s the one thing you can’t possibly do with a mouthful of marshmallows? Talk. Communication is more about listening than talking. I tell my wife, if something I say can be interpreted two ways and one of those ways makes you sad or angry, I meant the other one.
# 1. Accept that marriage is hard work. Commence your marriage with the idea that you will both work together on “being married” every day. Being married is not a state of being; it is a work in progress. And it is work. So don’t ignore problems when you first notice them. Work on them before they fester and explode. Treat your spouse like a date every day. Notice the little things that attracted you to begin with and enjoy them every day; don’t take them for granted. Don’t allow familiarity to breed contempt.
# 2. Don’t settle! Only get married if you’re in love. Like, butterflies in your stomach love. For the both of you. The feeling won’t last forever, of course, but it helps your marriage tremendously if you don’t feel like you’re settling when it begins.
# 3. Solid life partner. Equally important is choosing (and, of course, being) a solid life partner: Reliable, responsible and honest are a good start. It helps, too, to pick a mate who is resilient in the face of life’s curveballs. I once read in an old book on marriage: ‘Always treat your husband as an honored guest in your home. In other words, be on your best behavior. This has rubbed off on me and he reciprocates. It works! My own saying about marriage is: ‘A good marriage is made up of a thousand small kindnesses’.
# 4. Pay Attention to Your Intuition. In choosing their partner, nearly all of the elders described a powerful sense of rightness, an intuitive, overwhelming conviction that you have made the right choice. Call it what you will — a spark, an intuition, a gut feeling — they agree that you shouldn’t commit to a relationship without it. But in even stronger terms they warn you about the flip-side of the in-love feeling: Never get married without it — or you can be in for major regrets.
# 5. Pay attention to what your friends and family say. Consider that if nobody likes your partner, there may be good reasons for it. So if your loved ones have lots of reservations, don’t get defensive but listen to why they feel that way.
# 6. Physical attraction is important. That doesn’t mean you have to be movie-star handsome or turn to cosmetic surgery. Rather, it means staying a healthy weight and looking as good as you can. That’s especially helpful if you want to keep the sexual spark alive in a relationship.
# 7. Compromise. Relationships are about not only taking, but also giving. If you find yourself not giving very much, or feeling resentful of how much you give and how little you receive back, you may be in an unequal relationship where one side is taking more than they are giving.
For instance, couples sometimes mistakenly believe that “love” will help them deal with any issue that comes up, and that if the other person truly loved you, they would just do as you ask. But people are independent with their own unique needs and personalities. Just because we found someone we want to spend our lives with doesn’t mean we give up our own identity in the process.
# 8. Accept that your spouse or partner will not change. Your spouse will not change. In fact, those little imperfections will only wear on you more acutely over time. Realize early what they are and determine if you can live with them forever before you tie the knot.
# 9. Choose someone who shares your financial views. Money issues is the most common cause of divorce. People have diverse philosophies about how to handle their finances and get married without addressing how to harmonize their different value systems. They start out in love, and small disconnects go unnoticed. Later, when they are comfortable, they overlook larger disconnects; later still, they discount them. At some point, their differences become too great to ignore; they can’t make excuses anymore. Because the couple has never learned to address them, the financial issues have caused rifts in their abilities to communicate, to problem solve, and to grow together.
#10. Communicate. Constant communication is the key to a lasting relationship. Before you get married, discuss your values and make sure they’re compatible. Don’t just talk about if you want to have kids—discuss how you will raise them. Talk about money—how you plan to afford things and when you want to retire. Then, once you’re married, communicate when you’re happy and unhappy, what feels good and what doesn’t, what turns you on and off. Don’t make excuses that you’re the “strong silent type.” Those people are in long-term relationships, too. But they learned how to talk about their emotions.
#11. Make Sure Your Values Align. Americans love the idea that “opposites attract” and two radically different people overcome their differences and live happily ever after. Movies replay this theme again and again, from My Fair Lady, to Pretty Woman, to You’ve Got Mail. Because isn’t love all that matters? In answer to that question, the elders say: Nope. Indeed, among all of the advice about choosing a partner, one particular lesson stands out: You and your partner must share the same core values.
The elders hold that much of what is good in a long-term marriage comes from having similar values and world-views, and conversely much of what goes wrong results from incompatible value systems. If you want to avoid regrets, the elders say that every couple must ask the question: Do we share the same values regarding the most important things in life?
#12. Do a sense of humor check. Observe what makes your partner laugh. If he thinks a whoopee cushion is funny and you don’t, it certainly won’t get funnier for you 30 years from now. It’s a simple test of whether your world views align.
#13. Watch for the big warning signs. One act of violence means you should get help and get out of the relationship, the elders told Pillemer. Beware of contempt, where a partner is communicating in a way that is degrading, sarcastic or excessively teasing, and uses “the vulnerability of marriage to be hurtful.” Watch for overly controlling behavior, like extreme jealousy.
#14. Make sure you share at least one day off per week. Maintaining a strong relationship requires spending time together. Stay in bed together one morning a week and just talk — no agenda. Well, if there’s any agenda, it should be to cuddle. If you have to brush your teeth first, get up and do that and then get back in bed. Lock the door — no kids allowed. Cuddle. (One of you needs that, and the other one will find that s/he enjoys it more than s/he thinks s/he will.)
#15. Shower or bathe together as often as possible. It’s a great time to plan, and especially to discuss matters outside of the hearing of little ears. I have a colleague whose parents bathed together every night, and she and her husband now follow that same practice. It’s a great time to unwind, and it’s easy to add to busy schedules because you both need to get clean, so you’re not forced to make time for anything additional. It helps to be naked with each other every day. It’s something private and special that you only share with each other, so it helps to forge and sustain connection.
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#16. Never stop having sex. Even if you and your spouse are best friends, you’re also more than that. You are partners whose relationship initially grew, in part, due to your chemistry and sexual intimacy. Sex is a basic biological need. As a married couple, you depend on each other to meet this need. Even if you’re tired, not in the mood, or not even attracted to your spouse in that moment, make sex a regular part of your relationship. Vow to make love at least once a week. If you get to the end of a week without having done so, do whatever it takes to be intimate before the clock strikes midnight on the seventh day. I think this also adds an element of fun to the relationship.
#17. Take care of yourself. Focusing on your partner doesn’t mean neglecting your own needs. People in long-married couples tended to stay fit and well-groomed, recognizing the importance of well-being for both themselves and their relationship.
#18. Treat marriage as a long-term commitment. This might seem like a no-brainer, but those who stayed together were committed to the idea that a marriage should last. That means couples would persevere, even if they had to go through years of relationship hardship. But they’ll agree—sticking through it was a smart decision.
#19. Express Yourself. One of the major regrets the elders expressed was not things they had said, but rather things they did not say. Some of the saddest comments had to do with the failure to express deep feelings of love, gratitude, or even simple compliments throughout the relationship.
#20. Gegenerosity and kindness can save your relationship. A study revealed that a healthy marriage requires daily doses of both generosity and kindness – not only on special occasions. So try to be gentle in situations where you are inclined to be angry. Avoid getting offended or upset before you know the whole story. And always, always, always concentrate on the positive actions of your spouse. Doing these things will help you and your spouse to become marriage “masters,” and have a long, loving and lasting relationship.
#21. A happy marriage requires forgiveness. While the day-to-day sacrifices of sharing life with another person can be challenging, this is especially true when it comes to arguments. Little things grow into big things, and forgiveness becomes a necessary daily ritual. Practicing forgiveness when it hurts, even when the other party continues to hurt you, is imperative to marital harmony. It releases the other party emotionally.
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