30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage

30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage

by Karl Pillemer Ph.D.
30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage

30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage

by Karl Pillemer Ph.D.


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From the author of the beloved 30 Lessons for Living

Readers of Karl Pillemer’s first book cherished the sage advice and great stories shared by extraordinary older Americans. Now, Pillemer returns with lessons on the most talked-about parts of that book: love, relationships, and marriage. Drawing on interviews with seven hundred long-married elders, 30 Lessons for Loving delivers timeless wisdom from a wide range of voices on everything from choosing “the one” to dealing with in-laws, money, children, and, yes, sex.

Whether readers are searching for the right partner or working to keep the spark alive, 30 Lessons for Loving illuminates the path to lifelong, fulfilling relationships.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780147516534
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.29(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.79(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karl Pillemer, PhD, is professor of human development at Cornell University and founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2015 Karl Pillerner


Evening the Odds:

Lessons for Finding a Mate

My advice? Be extremely careful about who you marry. The most important thing is to pick someone who is a good candidate for marriage. You can’t make something out of nothing. When you’re young, it’s easy to be bowled over by how someone looks. But that isn’t enough.

You need to look for things like fidelity, honesty, caring, and humor. Find out what their long-term goals are; what their feelings are about success, achievement, money, raising children. Outlook on religion is important, and another one is how they feel about their own family—their mother, father, siblings.

You have to think carefully about who you can actually live with. If you think things are funny and the other person doesn’t, you have a built-in problem. If you are tidy and the other person is a slob, you have a problem right from the beginning. If you hate the other person’s parents or family, you have a big problem. Add them up and some of these are big enough where you should look at them fairly and squarely and not marry the person. That’s how lots of people kid themselves—they say: “But I love him or I love her!” Sorry, but that’s not enough.

—Jennifer, 82, married 59 years

I sat in an upscale bistro in midtown Manhattan with five women in their midtwenties. My dinner companions included up-and-coming professionals in advertising, medical research, psychology, and the human services. They represented a range of relationship statuses: unattached, beginning a relationship, involved but experiencing doubts, and “nearly engaged.” In exchange for the best artisanal cheeses in New York City, I sought their answers to the question that launched this book: What do younger people want to know from the longest-married Americans about getting and staying married? I planned to interview hundreds of people, some of whom had been married twice as long as my guests had been alive. And I needed to know: What should I ask the elders?

A different place, a different time, another dinner. I’m in the basement of one of the liveliest student bars in my town, named after an infamous nineteenth-century serial killer. Joining me are eight fraternity brothers; we gorge on mounds of cheesy garlic bread, burgers, and fries. One intrepid member of my fraternity focus group takes on the “Monster Burger Challenge,” consuming a twenty-ounce bacon cheeseburger and a huge order of “loaded fries” in under a half hour (and winning a T-shirt in the bargain).

My query to both groups was, “What questions do you desperately want answered about relationships, love, and marriage?” I had expected the men and women to have markedly different ideas, but to my surprise there was one burning question for both groups. (I learned from other discussions that it also obsesses singles in their thirties, forties, and beyond.) And so it was among the first questions I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans:

“How do I know for certain that a person is the right one for me?”

In interviews, I pushed the elders on this topic. I asked for as much detail as they could provide on how someone in love can be certain that this particular man or woman is the one with whom to spend a lifetime. Are there special signs, a foolproof formula, a magic bullet to know that we’ve found Ms. or Mr. Right? After all that effort and countless hours of interview time, what was the definitive answer to that question? Umm, well, you see, actually, it’s . . .

You never know.

That’s right. Close to 100 percent of the experts are in agreement on this one point: You can never be absolutely sure that you have found the right person. In fact, the most common responses to that question—how do you know that you have found the right person to marry?—went like this:

You never know.

You can’t be 100 percent sure.

You’ve got to just take your chance.

I don’t think you can actually tell.

Do you ever know?

So where does that leave us on the topic of mate selection? Do we throw up our hands in despair? Fortunately, as you will see in this chapter, the elders actually have a treasure trove of advice about finding the right partner. Further, they believe that the best way to have a lifelong, fulfilling marriage is to make a very careful choice. So if there is no certainty about choosing your spouse, how should you go about it?

I found a mentor in Roxanne Colon, eighty-six, whom I interviewed at a neighborhood center in the South Bronx. While we were chatting before the interview began, I learned that Roxanne likes to gamble occasionally—she needed to end our interview on time because she was on her way to bingo (“It’s just twenty dollars,” she assured me). She was the first of the experts to give me the solution to the “you never know for sure” dilemma. Roxanne, like other elders, agreed it’s impossible to be certain you have made the right choice. But then she told me something very enlightening:

You know, to me, marriage is like a gamble. You get married and when it comes out good, you win. When it’s no good, you lose and you divorce. So that’s the way I looked at it. Sometimes the beginning is beautiful and then, you know, you’re playing roulette and if you win, you win—or then all of a sudden, you lose.

That sounded rather negative, and I told Roxanne so. She laughed and asked me if I was a gambler. I confessed that I enjoy going to a casino a few times a year. She raised her eyebrows and asked me: “Well, don’t you try to even the odds?” She went on:

So, okay, you accept that marriage is a gamble; you can’t ensure that things are perfect. But you can up the odds in your favor by how you choose somebody. You know, the values that you have, how you respect each other. Study the person before you get married and ask the tough questions. Like I said, marriage is a gamble. So what you do with the gamble is you try to make the odds in your favor.

Everything suddenly became clear. I thought back to an evening spent at a casino with my friend Peter. He used the opportunity to explain the arcane betting rules and strategies of the game of craps. It turns out that there is a wager in craps called the “free odd bet” that allows you to even the odds—at least on that one bet. I learned that you should always take that bet, but many people don’t because they aren’t aware of the benefits. The conclusion was clear: There is never any certainty in a game of chance like craps, but every sensible player does his or her best to even the odds by choosing bets care- fully. That’s exactly what the elders urge you to do in choosing a mate.

Have you ever had the experience of learning a new word, and then it seems like you see or hear it everywhere? After Roxanne Colon opened my eyes, I realized that many of the experts were making the same point. Like Karen Hopkins, sixty-seven, who told me: “It’s just like throwing the dice. You really don’t know. But you can feel it out by learning about the person, whether they’re right for you. By communicating with them and courting them you should learn that information.” Or Arthur Fields, seventy-two, who pointed out: “You don’t really know for sure; that’s the gamble. But if you date for some months and get along and are compatible and have similar interests, your chances are pretty good.”

So here’s what it comes down to, and what this chapter is about: evening the odds. There are many things you can do to push the odds of a good marriage in your favor. But the only time you get the chance is before you say “I do.” The experts, as we will see in Chapter 5, believe that trying to change your partner after marriage is a very bad bet. The more time and effort that you expend in making the right choice, the greater the chance of evening your odds of a happy marriage. Take the advice of Patricia Rannoch, eighty-three, on this one:

To be honest, right to the day you walk down the aisle, you’re still not sure. I have one unmarried son now and he’s asking me these questions. I said, “You really don’t have one hundred percent certainty that this is the right person.” Sometimes you just have to take a chance, you know? So you take a chance. But—make an educated guess! You have to really try to get to know each other.

In this chapter, the experts offer their advice on how to make your “guess” more educated—that is, to even the odds. They begin with lessons that help you understand what it means to “trust your heart” and “listen to your head”—and they insist you need to do both. They point out three key warning signs that a person may be definitely “wrong,” and they highlight the critical importance of making sure your core values align. To cap things off, we will learn five “trade secrets” of the oldest and wisest Americans for picking the right person for a lifetime.

Table of Contents

A Note On Names ix

Introduction xi

Chapter 1 Evening the Odds: Lessons for Finding a Mate 1

Lesson 1 Follow Your Heart 7

Lesson 2 Follow Your Head 16

Lesson 3 Values Come First 26

Lesson 4 You're Marrying a Family 34

Lesson 5 Three Warning Signs 39

Lesson 6 Five Secrets for Choosing Your Partner 50

Chapter 2 Communication Is the Key 59

Lesson 1 Talk, Talk, Talk 64

Lesson 2 No One Is a Mind Reader 72

Lesson 3 Mind Your Manners 79

Lesson 4 All in Good Time 85

Lesson 5 Three Danger Signs 93

Lesson 6 Five Secrets for Great Communication 102

Chapter 3 Getting Through the Hard Parts 109

Lesson 1 Children: Put Your Relationship First 114

Lesson 2 Work-Family Stress: Make Your Home a Safe Haven 120

Lesson 3 In-laws: On Good Terms, Without Surrender 127

Lesson 4 Household Chores: Play to Your Strengths 137

Lesson 5 Money: Deal with Debt 144

Lesson 6 Five Secrets for Managing Stress 151

Chapter 4 Keeping the Spark Alive 159

Lesson 1 Think Small (and Positive) 163

Lesson 2 Become Friends 172

Lesson 3 Sexuality-the Spark Changes 180

Lesson 4 Give Up Grudges 189

Lesson 5 Get Help 195

Lesson 6 Five Secrets for Keeping the Spark Alive 202

Chapter 5 Thinking Like an Expert About Love and Marriage 211

Lesson 1 Respect Each Other 214

Lesson 2 Be a Team 222

Lesson 3 Make Time 230

Lesson 4 Lighten Up 237

Lesson 5 Accept Your Partner as Is 244

The Last Lesson: As Long as You Both Shall Live 251

Acknowledgments 265

Aappendix: How The Study Was Done 269

Notes 277

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

From Publishers Weekly:

Gerontologist Pillemer shares findings from his survey of 700 people in "very long marriages" (the shortest here have lasted three decades, the longest, more than five) for tips on maintaining successful long-term relationships.  The respondents, charmingly called "the experts" by Pillemer, share "storehouses of invaluable lived experience" on areas including questions to ask yourself before settling down, domestic violence, and late-in-life sex.  Communication is discussed at length via six lessons, including being polite to your partner within "the comfortable informality of married life" and choosing the appropriate time for serious conversations.  The experts break down conflict by examining the "five major stressors" that affect most relationships, with rules for dealing with the in-laws and properly delegating household labor.  In addition to summarizing his survey's results, Pillemer shares the experts' own words.  One respondent describes divorcing her husband and remarrying him 64 years later, while an 88-year-old "rough and tumble" Korean War veteran suggests taking an interest in your partner's preferred activities, remarking, "I went to operas.  Operas!"  The benefits of such a comprehensive study incorporating so many years of experience should be ample, for newlyweds and contemporaries of the respondents alike.  The advice is astute, fresh, and well selected by Pillemer.  This book would serve as an excellent gift for newlyweds.


“Throughout human history, but perhaps less so in recent times, older people or elders were valued for the “voice of lived experience.”  Karl Pillemer, a gifted gerontologist, has produced a volume that reflects great wisdom from [people] who have succeeded and failed in their marriages.  From detailed interviews of more than 700 older people, Pillemer has culled thirty life lessons about loving that reflect great wisdom.  There are many morals to the stories told – No one is a mind reader, make your home a safe haven, and secrets for keeping the spark alive.  Couples of all ages will enjoy reading this book together and will profit from using this book as a guide as they develop as partners throughout the lifespan.” —Kathleen McCartney, PhD, President of Smith College
“It’s a treasure trove of great advice from some of the wisest people in the world. They've experienced just about everything in their relationships over the years, and their advice to us is both enlightening and enriching." —Hal Urban, Author of Life's Greatest Lessons and Positive Words, Powerful Results
“Writing in a voice that is at once informative and insightful, discerning and prescriptive, probing and restrained, Karl Pillemer eloquently captures the hearts and minds, the witness and wisdom of a huge and varied collection of elders who have nourished, negotiated, and sustained life-long love relationships. This rich and revelatory book offers us a rare gift: vivid narratives born of struggle and resilience, hard work and humor, and forged out of mutual respect, loyalty, and love.”—Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University and Author of The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50
“Karl Pillemer presents the wisdom of the ultimate experts in relationships, those who have made love and marriage work over the long run by learning from their mistakes and striking a viable balance between their hearts and minds.” – Steven Stosny, Ph.D., author of Living & Loving after Betrayal and How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking about It.
"30 Lessons for Loving is a real contribution for helping us make important decisions about relationships, and nurture love once we have someone we treasure.”—Pepper Schwartz, PhD. Professor of Sociology, the University of Washington and co-author of the Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples
"There is one thing in life that cannot be rushed - experience! So the wise listen to those who have gone before them, eager to learn what they can from the experience of others. The experience of others shows us the path of joy, and warns us away from the paths of anguish and pain. I thoroughly enjoyed 30 Lessons for Loving, it contains ten thousand years of experience.”—Matthew Kelly, motivational speaker and President of Floyd Consulting
"30 Lessons for Loving" is a must-read for anyone contemplating marriage. The knowledge and wisdom gathered from this huge group of elders is both modern and timeless. It is inspiring, insightful, witty, and often — surprising. This is everything about living — and loving — in a long relationship I wish my grandmother had told me. I highly recommend it for engaged couples and newlyweds."—Amy Dickinson, “Ask Amy” syndicated advice columnist and panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me”

“So much wisdom; profound food for thought; answers to tough questions. A refreshing resource.” — Pat Love, EdD., LMFT, The Truth about Love

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