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When gerontologist Karl Pillemer asked hundreds of retirees to tell him the secret to a happy marriage, they poured their hearts out. They said that, “marriage is hard. It takes spirit and resilience,” says Pillemer, a Cornell University professor. These mature married couples said that marriage, “is something that you work at and get better at, but it is never completed.” Most found their long term relationship to be extremely rewarding and meaningful. They shared that when they, “looked back from the finish line over a half century or more of marriage, lifelong marriage is incredibly good. It’s almost indescribable. It’s such a source of joy.”

Here are some of the retirees’ insights on marriage:

  • Talk, talk, talk. Communication is key. According to these retirees, the “strong, silent type” may be very attractive, but doesn’t usually make the best lifelong partner. They propose a test: Can you go out for a two-hour dinner and keep an interesting conversation going? If not, you might need to tune up your communication with one another.
  • Put your relationship first. Your relationship with your spouse has to come before the kids, in-laws, jobs, friends and everything else; you don’t do your children much good if your marital relationship dries up.
  • Stay out of debt. The retirees recommended living within whatever amount of money you make and avoiding debt, especially for luxury items and credit-card debt.
  • Focus on small things to keep the spark alive. “Marriage is made of thousands of micro interactions,” Pillemer says. Keep those interactions positive, give compliments and do unexpected little things like the other person’s chores. Many of those interviewed said the failure to give and receive compliments was one of their big regrets.
  • Respect each other. That means paying attention to how you say things, and showing your partner that you are listening to what they are saying.

“Long-married retirees say the real danger of marriage is that you know someone so well that they are extremely vulnerable to you,” Pillemer says, “You have the ability to hurt them more than anybody else you know. Respect is the protection against that.”

From the book 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage by Karl Pillemer (Goodreads Author). Published January 8, 2015 by Hudson Street Press.