Today we are pleased to host family sociologist, researcher on aging and author Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. on our blogsite. We will be discussing his insightful book, 30 LESSONS FOR LOVING: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage.
Dr. Pillemer led an in-depth study of long-married elders ever conducted, comprised of 700 people averaging 43 years of marriage. They opened their hearts and the findings are fascinating, so let’s get started.
Her Mentor Center: What is the Legacy Project and what inspired you to launch it?
Karl Pillemer: As a gerontologist – someone who studies older people – I realized I had focused much of my research over the past 25 years on the downside of aging: nursing homes, Alzheimer’s disease, elder abuse, chronic pain, and other problems. And that’s how our society tends to look at older people: frail, needy, demanding, and helping to bust the federal budget. But in my work, I kept meeting older people – many of whom had lost loved ones, been through tremendous difficulties, and had serious health problems – but who were nevertheless happy, fulfilled, and deeply enjoying life. I found myself asking: “What’s that all about?”
Then I discovered some fascinating research. Study after study has been showing that older people – in their 70s, 80s, and beyond – are actually happier than younger people. They become better at choosing rewarding relationships and experiences and regulating their emotions.
One day it just hit me: Maybe older people know things that younger people don’t about living a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. To my surprise I found that no one had actually done a study to answer the question: What practical advice do older people have for the younger generation? That set me off on a quest for knowledge about the practical wisdom of older people that has lasted ten years to date and is still going strong.
HMC: 30 LESSONS FOR LOVING is an expansion of the marriage chapter in your first book, 30 Lessons for Living. Why did you want to take on the subject of love and relationships in a book?
KP: I have to admit that when I told friends and colleagues I was planning to tackle this topic, I got back the question: “Do we really need another how-to volume for creating a happy marriage?” There’s a compelling answer to that question – and it came from my readers. Of all the topics in 30 Lessons for Living, the chapter about advice for love and marriage really captured readers’ attention. Many people told me that after reading the marriage advice, they bought the book for friends and family members – just for that one chapter. The book became a wedding gift. Some couples were even inspired to create a “Leave Your Lessons” station at the wedding reception, where guests could record their advice for the newlyweds.
Over and over, readers of 30 Lessons for Living told me: “That chapter wasn’t enough – why don’t you write a whole book about the elders’ advice for love, relationships and marriage?” Their persistence pushed me in this direction – and I’m glad it did. Because most people – from college students to people in their 60s and beyond – are either trying to find a life partner or trying to live well with one. I found that the shelves of marriage advice books usually are based on anecdotes, pop psychology, or the ideas of a motivational speaker. I believed that the oldest Americans were a uniquely good source of advice for finding a mate and living happily together for a lifetime. And I wasn’t disappointed.
HMC: What was the research experience like, and how was it different from your preparation for your first book? How did you determine eligible candidates, and how did you get them to share such intimate and personal details of their lives?
KP: Actually, the research methods for 30 Lessons for Living worked so well, I replicated and expanded them for this book. Like all good social scientists, I began by reviewing the literature. I quickly learned that there was very little research on older people’s advice about marriage, despite their long and varied experience. So I immediately knew I wanted to fill that gap.
Then came the fun part – collecting the data. The methods of the Marriage Advice Project followed standard methods of social science research. A major part of the study was a national survey of individuals aged 65 and older. Respondents were selected at random and interviewed by trained interviewers. This procedure ensured a broad spectrum of individuals from all regions of the country and from different socio-economic statuses. We also interviewed several hundred people who were nominated because of their wisdom about love, relationships, and marriage.
The end result was a large, highly diverse sample, racially, ethnically, economically, and geographically. The elders ranged from couples married happily for decades, to unhappy but stable unions, to widowed and divorced elders, to long-term cohabiters (including same-sex couples). My goal wasn’t to get a handful of stories; it was to get a large enough sample that I could rely on the “wisdom of crowds” in determining the major lessons for younger people about getting and staying married in a complex and difficult world.
Was it hard to get older people talking about personal issues like love, marriage, divorce, conflicts, and yes – sex? Not at all! I had very few refusals to take part in the study, and the elders in general loved the opportunity to offer their advice for young people. For me, there’s nothing quite like hearing a 98-year-old husband and 100-year-old wife talk about their 76-year relationship. They really opened up in the interviews, providing information that was insightful, touching, funny, inspiring, and most of all useful.
HMC: Why do you think it’s important that young people read your book?
KP: Here’s one thing we know about young people today when it comes to love and marriage. They are bombarded with conflicting and often erroneous information and images about marriage. They are confused about making such a momentous decision, and they are influenced by weakening norms about marriage. However, for them, marriage is here to stay. In surveys, almost all young people say they plan to get married, they expect to be faithful to their spouses, and they believe marriage should last a lifetime. So their goals and dreams about relationships are very similar to those of people 50 or 100 years ago. But they are searching for how to find the right person and make a marriage last.
It turns out that our elders are an astonishingly good source of advice. Let me give you three reasons.
First, they are the only ones with the long view. It’s not a mystery how their marriage will turn out – it already has turned out! They’ve seen the ups and downs, learned what’s important and what’s not, and can share this wisdom compellingly. If you are taking a trip, you use a map made by someone who has been there. Long-married elders are the only people available who have made it to the finish line and can advise us about the journey.
Second, America’s elders have been through every challenge, problem, and tragedy that young people lie awake worrying about: unemployment, poverty, social upheaval, illness, divorce, widowhood, even the loss of a child. They are the best experts we have in living well through hard times, so their advice is invaluable. To give just one example: Many marriages are struggling now to cope with the second worst economic downturn in American history – why wouldn’t we want advice about how couples can cope from people who went through the worst one?
Third, in many cases the elders’ advice for love and marriage shakes up conventional wisdom – the ways of thinking about relationships that young people just take for granted. The elder lens on marriage is surprising and different, and defies categorization as “liberal” or “conservative.” Readers may not always agree with the elders, but they will be pushed to think about their relationship lives in new and different ways.
HMC: The book focuses on five specific areas: Evening the Odds: Lessons for Finding a Mate, Communication and Conflict, Getting Over the Hard Parts, Keeping the Spark Alive, and Thinking Like an Expert about Love and Marriage. How did you make these distinctions?
KP: To answer that, I need to tell you a little bit about the interviews and how we analyzed them.
The interview began with a general question about the kinds of lessons the elders had learned about love and marriage that they would like to pass on to the younger generation. I then asked detailed questions about advice for choosing a mate (and how to avoid the wrong choice). The interview next tapped their advice about specific domains of married life, including lessons they had learned about communication, handling conflict, adjusting to children, dealing with work and financial issues, and managing in-laws. Questions covered the role of sexuality in marriage, as well as how to keep the relationship vibrant and interesting over many years. Respondents were also asked to imagine they were approached by a younger couple who were considering splitting up: What advice would they give? Individuals who had been through a divorce were asked for advice about how others might avoid a marital break-up like theirs.
All the interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, resulting in thousands of pages of transcripts. Then came the exciting part: making sense of what 700 highly experienced older people had to say about every aspect of love and marriage you can think of. My research assistants and I coded all of the interviews into relevant categories. I also followed the widely-accepted sociological approach of qualitative and narrative analysis. From all this activity came the 30 Lessons for Loving.
It amazed me how much the elders’ advice on these five topics converged. I joked sometimes that people over 70 seem to have a shared data bank they can access – there was much consensus on these broader themes and on the individual lessons. Also, the chapters broadly follow the course of relationships: finding partner, learning how to communicate (and how to fight), dealing with the stresses that the middle years bring, and keeping the spark alive for the entire time. That’s very much the way that people offered the advice.
HMC: Sometimes the elders use a phrase that we’ve heard before like “never go to bed angry.” Does the experts’ advice you gathered shed light on these adages in a new way?
KP: You have touched on one of my biggest fears in undertaking this project: that all I would get were clichés. But instead the opposite happened. In some cases, the advice was something I had never thought about before. Other times, they did use a familiar expression, but used it in a way that shed new light on love and marriage.
Your question gives a great example. When I asked about advice for how to have a lifelong, happy marriage, I heard again and again: “Never go to bed angry.” By around the 100th time, I really wanted to know why that piece of advice was so important – why does anger have to be put to bed before we are? I learned that the elders are talking about an immensely important thing: Not holding grudges. They believe that holding a grudge against your spouse, letting yourself give in to simmering anger, is a definite relationship-killer. “Cleaning everything out at the end of the day,” as a 92-year old married for 70 years put it, was seen as a key to getting to happily ever after.
HMC: What did you learn for your own relationship after talking to the experts?
KP: I will disclose that I been married for 36 years, experiencing all of its various ups and downs (mostly ups, let me assure my spouse!). So this book was not only an interview study but also my own personal quest to understand what makes for a marriage that lasts “until death do us part.” In the book, I use myself as a guinea pig in a few cases, testing out the marriage advice.
For example, one of the most unexpected pieces of advice came when we asked the elders about how to prevent serious marital arguments. I did not expect this answer to come back: a sandwich. But many elders pointed out that arguments in their marriages often occurred when someone was hungry. As soon as I heard that, I recognized it in my own life. Especially when we’re traveling, we forget to eat, and around 7 PM start a tiff about who chose the lousy hotel or got us to the museum late. Now when that starts, one of us will say: “When did we last eat?” Food is often what we needed to avoid a fight.
HMC: Having spent countless hours interviewing elder folks, do you have any suggestions as to how to access the wisdom and experience of readers’ own parents or grandparents? Most people may feel very awkward talking candidly about subjects like love and sex with their own older relatives.
KP: I can’t say this emphatically enough: Get the advice for living now from elders you are close to. Our elders are treasure-troves of advice, but once an individual light goes out, it’s lost forever. By asking and recording your elders’ lessons for living, you preserve their wisdom for future generations. Especially if you are a young person thinking of marriage: Seek out some wise elders and ask them your questions. How did they know a person was the right one for a lifetime? How did they learn to communicate? What kept the spark alive for them?
Here are some tips. First, don’t worry about an awkward discussion. Older people are likely to let you know if they are willing to share their lessons, and what they are willing to talk about. And this kind of an interview can actually be easier than probing for someone’s life story. You are asking for their advice – what they learned from experiences. Very few elders see this as prying, and most feel gratified to be asked to share their wisdom.
Second, have some questions written out. Reading 30 Lessons for Loving give you many examples. But think about questions that are truly meaningful for you. You are not doing them a favor by talking with them; instead you are coming to them for advice. So focus on what you really want to know.
Third, give the elder the list of questions in advance. These conversations are much more productive when he or she has had time to ponder them in advance.
Then go for it! I think you will have as much fun as I did.
HMC: If there is one thing that readers learn from this book, what would you want that to be?
KP: I would love young people to take to heart one main insight that emerged from elder wisdom about marriage. But they need to be able to accept something of a contradiction here (and that is actually what marriage is all about – a mix of contradictory experiences).
On the one hand there’s one thing nearly all the elders really wanted young people to understand: Marriage is hard. Very few people enter into marriage with this thought foremost on their mind: But according to the elders, everyone starting out needs to accept that marriage is hard – at times tough, difficult, challenging. To stay married for life requires resilience, spirit, and discipline. It also requires an acceptance of predictable stressors and unexpected difficulties, without giving up. But the good news is that a long marriage can provide some of the most splendid emotional experiences life offers. It’s loving, enjoyable, interesting, and supportive, providing a kind of intimacy that defies description.
Young people must accept this interplay of smooth and rough patches, or they won’t make it through married life. The core of elder wisdom is based on a unique long view – and it’s one I believe can change young people’s lives.
HMC: What’s next for Dr. Karl Pillemer? Is there another 30 Lessons book on the horizon?
KP: I admit it – I’m hooked. My next book will tap this source for advice on another critically important topic: work and career. We’re going to interview about 1000 older people about issues like finding one’s purpose in life; choosing a career; negotiating stresses on the job; balancing work and the rest of life; and managing the transitions work involves (among other issues). This is another topic in 30 Lessons for Living that received enormous attention – so it’s time to devote a book to it.
There’s an urgency about this last book – and a sad one. We are running out of time to capture the advice of the remarkable people born in the early part of the 20th century. By the end of this decade, almost all of the veterans of World War II will be gone. Soon after that, we will lose our elders who experienced the Great Depression. I desperately want to know how, in the face of adversity, people chose lives that mattered and overcame incredible obstacles to finding fulfilling work. I look forward to giving them one more chance to help us live better and more fulfilling lives.
Thanks, Karl, for your important work and joining us here today. Now, readers, it’s your turn to weigh in with your own questions or comments through “Leave a Reply” below. On his website, you can learn more about Dr. Pillemer and get your own copy of 30 LESSONS FOR LOVING.