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Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D.

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Secrets To A Happy Marriage (From the Real Experts)

Posted: 06/11/2012 8:26 am

It's June, the month we traditionally associate with getting married. And more than ever, marriage is seen as threatened. Over the past half century, rates of marriage have fallen, people are waiting longer to get married, and divorce rates have increased, leading to the oft-cited statistic that around half of all U. S. marriages will end in divorce.

There's a flip side to these sobering statistics, however. Marriage is still the ideal for most people in American society. In surveys of high school seniors, fewer than 10 percent say they do not expect to marry. Ultimately, 90 percent of Americans will wind up tying the knot.

So here we have a paradox. Most people want to get married and there is considerable research evidence that marriage has a wide range of benefits. But too often, the joy that accompanies the wedding celebration turns sour, and nearly half of couples who stand at the altar in hopeful excitement find themselves starting over after the trauma of divorce.

In our surveys of the life wisdom of the oldest Americans, I was particularly interested in their advice about finding a life partner and staying married. Many of the elders we talked with in the Legacy Project had been married for 30, 40, 50 or more years. Others had experienced disastrous marriages - but offered advice for how younger people can avoid the same fiascoes.

Here are their three top (and somewhat surprising) lessons:

Marry Someone a Lot Like You

I asked hundreds of elders what is most important for a long and happy marriage and their advice was just about unanimous: Opposites may attract, but they don't make for great and lasting marriages. Based on their long experiences both in and out of love relationships, their first lesson is this: You are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar. And the most important thing to look for is similarity in your core values.

Take Emma Sylvester, who at 87 has been married for 58 years. As she put it with a smile, "It's quite an achievement."

I didn't know it when I got married, but in retrospect I know it's important to have the same basic values. In other words, if you're a free spender, marry somebody who understands that. If you're frugal, you need to marry somebody who understands that, because money is one of the stumbling blocks in marriages. And fortunately we had the same values on most things. Because of this, we really didn't argue. And we really didn't agonize over things. We came to our decisions by just realizing that we had usually the same goals. We both believed in education. We wanted to be moral according to society's standards, to raise our children to be good citizens, and to be responsible in terms of finances.

Arguments emerge over apparently trivial issues, the elders told us, because they really reflect underlying values. Whether the wife purchases an expensive golf club or the husband a new electronic toy is not the core issue in what can become a monumental fight, but rather the deeper attitude toward what money means and whether the financial interests of the couple are more important than indulging an individual whim.

The elders urge people committing to a relationship to ask the question: Do we believe the same things in life are important? If problems develop in the relationship, these experts on long marriages say that value differences are likely to be at the heart of the problem.

Never Expect Your Partner to Change after Marriage

What about taking a leap of faith on the marriage under the assumption that you can change your partner after you're married? The elders were as clear about this possibility as can be: Forget about it. According to them, entering into a marriage with the goal of changing one's partner is a fool's errand.

Rosie Eberle, 80 and happily married for 56 years, had a blunt comment to make about the entering into a marriage expecting to change one's partner: "It's just plain stupid." She went on:

For heaven's sake, don't say "Oh, he's this way now but he won't always be like that." Because they usually are, and you have to be careful, that's all. So don't marry someone and then think, "Oh, well he'll change." Or "I'm going to change him." Believe me, it doesn't happen. But people get real stubborn, and believe that can change a person later on, which never works.

Friendship Is as Important as Love

When asked the question: "What's the secret to a long, happy marriage such as yours?" a common answer from people in long marriages was: "I married my best friend." Similarly, from those whose marriages did not succeed, I often heard: "Well, we were good at love, but we never learned how to be friends."

This response sounds peculiar, given that we are schooled in our culture to differentiate between friendship and romantic love. Indeed, television shows like "Will and Grace" and "Sex and the City" popularize the view that cross-sex friendship works best (or only) when one of the friends is gay. We see friends and spouse as two separate social categories that have different functions.

In contrast, the elders say that the special qualities of friendship are exactly what you want in your marriage. We typically look forward to being with friends, we relish their company, we relax with them, we share common interests and we talk openly. In contrast, we all encounter people who do not feel they can talk easily to their spouse (next time you are out for a fancy dinner, observe the couples who manage only a few uncomfortable words over two hours). What the elders suggest is that you look for the qualities of a friend -- the capacity to comfortably "hang out" -- in the person you choose to marry. As one 87-year old told me: "Think back to the playground when you were a child. Your spouse should be that other kid you would most like to play with!"

According to the elders, all marriages have to undergo a transition from the initial thrill of romantic attraction and -- many were honest about it -- overwhelming sexual desire to the stages when other things must become as or more significant. After being swept off one's feet by true love, the elders caution you to ask "What's next?" Will you wake up next to the same person for five or six decades and still find a person you like as well as love?

Patty Banas, 80, made a go of a first marriage when young, divorced, and then "got it right" in her very happy second marriage. She had one recommendation:

Be sure that you're really good friends. That is the most important thing. All this -- all the romance and the bells and the whistles and stuff is all very nice but it doesn't last. Be sure that you're really, very good friends.

As a relationship is moving into a serious phase, a question couples can and should discuss is: If we weren't in love, would be friends? And when we move to something other than heart-thumping passion, what is there that will keep us together? (Hint: The answer should not be kids.) The answer is friendship, and if you don't have it, don't get married -- it's that simple.

Marriage will probably never go out of style in our culture. Why? There's no more evocative summation than that from Ellie Banks, the mother of the most famous June bride of all in the 1950s film classic Father of the Bride:

"Oh, Stanley. I don't know how to explain. A wedding. A church wedding. Well it's, it's what every girl dreams of. A bridal dress, the orange blossoms, the music. It's something lovely to remember all the rest of her life."

But after the bouquet is thrown and the last grain of rice is swept up, the realistic approach of those who have experienced decades of marriage can help us make our unions last.


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  • Denzel and Pauletta Washington (29 Years)

    This handsome Academy Award winning actor -- who hasn't aged much since <em>People</em> named him Sexiest Man Alive in 1996 -- met his future wife, Pauletta Pearson, on the set of the television film <em>Wilma</em> in 1977. They were married on June 25, 1983. After having four children, the couple renewed their wedding vows in 1995 in South Africa; the ceremony was officiated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Denzel's long-lasting marriage is most likely due to his healthy philosophy: "<a href="" target="_hplink">Acting is just a way of making a living, the family is life.</a>"

  • Billy and Janice Crystal (42 Years)

    It makes sense that the funniest man alive can keep his wife happy for 42 long years while sharing the same bedroom, bathroom and toothpaste? Janice probably couldn't stop laughing long enough to say the word divorce. "The <a href="" target="_hplink">reason</a> we are together," is because she puts lead in my shoes and doesn't let me fly off the earth. And it's always been that way." Soooo sweet.

  • Tom and Lois Bergeron (30 Years)

    Tom and Lois have been waltzing together since 1982. The <em>Dancing With the Stars</em> host and his lovely wife have two children together. There seems to be only one picture of the television personality with his wife on the Internet, but it's copyrighted -- we need Bergeron to step up and tweet a nice photo of himself with the Mrs. There's even less information about their life together. So, how about it, Tom? Facebook? Twitter? ...Something! You can't dance around this forever.

  • Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara (58 Years)

    Stiller and Meara spent many years as a stand-up comedy team in the '60s and '70s with numerous appearances on <em>The Ed Sullivan Show</em>. His book, <em>Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Ann Meara</em>, may give hundreds of clues as to why their marriage has endured for 58 years. The parents of actors Ben and Amy took their careers on separate paths (among many acting parts, she had a recurring role on the sitcom <em>Rhoda</em>; he played the temperamental Frank Costanza on <em>Seinfeld</em>) but were honored with a joint star on the <a href="" target="_hplink">Hollywood Walk of Fame</a> in 2007. Can you say: "Serenity, now"?

  • Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson (32 Years)

    One of the most respected actors in Hollywood, <a href="" target="_hplink">Samuel L. Jackson's films "have grossed more money in box office sales than any other actor in the history of Hollywood."</a> It seems his personal life has also seen some huge returns. Jackson married actress and sports channel producer LaTanya Richardson in 1980. In 2009, the veteran actor and his wife started their own charitable organization to help support education.

  • Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach (31 Years)

    The Beatles drummer met his "Bond Girl" (<em>The Spy Who Loved Me</em>) on the set of <em>Caveman</em> in 1980. When <a href=",,20078665,00.html">Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach survived a serious car accident</a>, the two knew who they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. <br /> <br /> "We decided we wouldn't spend any time apart," Starr told <em>People</em> in 1981. "So far the longest break was five days, and that was too long. I want to live every minute with Barbara."

  • Ann-Margret and Roger Smith (45 Years)

    The "sex kitten" may have fallen in love with Elvis Presley in 1964 during the filming of <em>Viva Las Vegas</em>, but it was <em>77 Sunset Strip</em> actor Roger Smith she walked down the aisle with on May 8, 1967. Smith, who became her manager and produced her movies and stage shows, is now in semi-retirement due to <a href="" target="_hplink">Myasthenia Gravis</a>. To find out where Ann-Margret will be touring and other info, click <a href="" target="_hplink">here</a>.

  • Suzanne Somers and Alan Hamel (35 Years)

    Suzanne met her future husband in 1969 when she was a "prize model" on the syndicated game show <em>Anniversary Game</em> starring Alan Hamel. The <em>Three's Company </em>star married her Prince Charming in 1977, and he became her manager. Ms. Somers has been quoted as saying the two secrets to having a long marriage is "talk, talk, talk" and "great sex." 'Nuff said.

  • Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber (25 Years)

    Mark Harmon, who was named the <a href=",,20315920_20154495_20349084,00.html#20349092" target="_hplink">"Sexiest Man Alive"</a> back in 1986 by <em>People</em>, married <em>Mork & Mindy</em> actress Pam Dawber in 1987. The <em>NCIS</em> star and his beautiful wife, who have two sons together, guard their privacy and won't open up about their marriage or their family life, so it's hard to articulate why their Hollywood marriage has stood the test of time (and to find pictures of them together). Maybe they just love each other very, very much. Yep, that's it.

  • David McCallum and Katherine Carpenter (45 Years)

    David McCallum, who starred in the 1960s TV series <em>The Man From U.N.C.L.E.</em> and has been playing Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on the television series <em>NCIS</em> since 2003, was married to actress Jill Ireland from 1957 to 1967. He introduced her to actor Charles Bronson, whom Ireland later left McCallum for, marrying Bronson in 1968. But his heart appears to have healed quickly -- McCallum married Katherine Carpenter in 1967 and they have been living happily ever after.

  • Tom Selleck and Jillie Mack (25 Years)

    Best known for his portrayal of private investigator Thomas Magnum on the television series <em>Magnum P.I.</em>, the sexiest man alive in my book will celebrate 25 years of marriage with his actress wife in August. Selleck spilled the beans to <a href="" target="_hplink"><em>Good Housekeeping</em></a> about why his marriage is so successful: "Hopefully you marry someone who you not only love, but who you like as well. I just still enjoy my wife's company enormously. She's hilariously funny, and we make a point, no matter how busy we are, to stop and spend time together. We make sure we sit down and enjoy a nice long dinner."

  • Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk (38 Years)

    The <em>Crimes of the Heart</em> actress married production designer and art director Jack Fisk on April 13, 1974. <a href="">The couple met on the set of the 1973 movie <em>Badlands</em></a>. When one of Fisk's crew members walked out on the first day of shooting <em>Phanton of the Paradise</em>, <a href="" target="_hplink">Spacek volunteered to serve as a set dresser</a>. <br /> Two years later he suggested Spacek for the title role in the indelible <em>Carrie</em> to <em>Phantom</em> director Brian De Palma. Fisk was the art director on <em>Carrie</em> so it seems that working and living together in a tough-as-nails entertainment business can work if there's lots of love, devotion ... and gravitational pull.

  • Frankie Avalon and Kay Diebel (50 Years)

    One of the original teen idols, Frankie Avalon -- whose song "Venus" spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959 -- and wife Kay have been married since January 1962 (much to the disappointment of millions of female teen groupies). They are the parents of eight children: four sons and four daughters. <br />According to his <a href="" target="_hplink">web site</a>, he and Kay live in a sprawling ranch style home in California's San Fernando Valley where the couple are looking forward to "the next generation of Avalons appearing on the scene."

  • Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross (28 Years)

    Elliott, who played card player #2 in the opening scene of <em>Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid</em> in 1969, is Ross's <a href="" target="_hplink">fourth husband</a>. They started dating in 1978 when they both starred in <em>The Legacy</em> and did not marry until 1984. Elliott once explained why their <a href="" target="_hplink">marriage works</a>: "I think you've got to work at it [marriage], and I think (it's) the fact that we're in love and that we're both outdoor types and love animals and like growing stuff in the yard. I think we were lucky to find each other. It's been a good one." Katharine's take: "We have a deal. Unless we're working together, we don't work at the same time."

  • Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss (51 Years)

    Actor/director Richard Benjamin, who starred in <em>Goodbye, Columbus</em> in 1969, married actress Paula Prentiss (<em>Where the Boys Are</em>) in October 1961. In 1967, Benjamin and Prentiss starred in the CBS sitcom <em>He & She</em> which was cancelled after one season. Their marriage, however, was never cancelled, so we salute this wonderful Hollywood couple who have celebrated their golden anniversary!

  • Steven and Maureen Van Zandt (28 Years)

    The most famous member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band -- who also played the stone-faced Silvio Dante on <em>The Sopranos</em> -- married actress Maureen Santoro on December 31, 1983. Springsteen served as best man. Reverend Richard Penniman (aka Rock 'n Roll legend Little Richard) presided over the ceremony. <a href="" target="_hplink">Rumor has it Percy Sledge sang his classic song "When a Man Loves a Woman" at the reception</a>. What could possibly go wrong after that beginning?

  • Meryl Streep and Don Gummer (34 Years)

    The woman who has been called the greatest actress of our generation seems to have a handle on her personal life as well as her prolific career. Streep and Gummer, who have four children, met through her brother, Harry. Streep's<a href="" target="_hplink"> marriage secret</a>: "Goodwill and willingness to bend -- and to shut up every once in a while. There's no road map on how to raise a family: it's always an enormous negotiation. But I have a holistic need to work and to have huge ties of love in my life. I can't imagine eschewing one for the other."

  • Bill and Camille Cosby (48 Years)

    Bill and Camille, who met on a blind date while she was attending the University of Maryland, were married in 1964 and went on to have five children. Like all marriages, they've had to endure many obstacles including the death of their beloved son, Ennis, who was shot while changing a tire on a Los Angeles freeway in 1997. The "Cos" is never at a loss for words when it comes to "Love and Marriage" (the title of his 1990 book): "Any husband who says, 'My wife and I are equal partners,' is either talking about a law firm or a hand of bridge."

  • Alan and Arlene Alda (55 Years)

    This six-time Emmy Award winner is best known for his portrayal of the quick-witted Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series<em> M*A*S*H</em> from 1972 to 1983. <a href="" target="_hplink">CNN's review</a> of Alda's 2005 book: <em>Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (And Other Things I've Learned)</em> describes the actor's musings on of meeting his wife: "...he writes rapturously of meeting a woman named Arlene. Within a few pages, they're taking walks in Bronx Park, stealing time from Alda's military service at Fort Benning, Georgia, and getting married. The book is 224 pages, so you wait for the other shoe to drop: petty arguments, ugly affairs, divorce ... Nothing."

  • Christopher and Georgianne Walken (43 Years)

    I have no idea why I'm shocked that actor Christopher Walken has been married for 43 years. I wasn't even sure he was married until I looked it up. His wife, Georgianne, is a casting director responsible for casting such television shows as <em>The Sopranos</em> and <em>Entourage</em>. They've flown under the radar for so long but perhaps they should come out of hiding. It would be so refreshing for them to share their secret of marital bliss.


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