Making a mistake in choosing one's partner is so common, it's embedded in legend, literature, and popular culture. To see what I mean, start with Greek tragedy, move to Macbeth, stop off at Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, and wind up watching Lifetime TV just about any evening. As in ages past, single people today desperately want to know: "Is this the person with whom I want to spend my life? Or am I making a mistake?"
Of course, there's no way to know for sure you're picking the right partner. But I gained a key insight from our interviews over the past several years with around 800 of the oldest Americans -- a group that if you add it all up had over 25,000 years of experience in marriage. We interviewed individuals who had been happily married for 50, 60, or 70 years -- and people who experienced awful marriages that ended in divorce. These real "experts" on marriage shared a very powerful warning about the biggest marriage mistake a person can make.
They told me that just about everyone who is considering getting married holds a dangerous belief, at least to some degree. Their lesson to overcome this false expectation came as strongly from people in love for more than a half-century as it did from those whose relationships had crashed and burned:
Never expect your partner to change after marriage.
This one fundamental principle for choosing a mate was vehemently endorsed by older people -- imagine hundreds of elders shouting it at you from their rooftops. If you are considering marriage, you have to take to heart this truth: accept your partner as is, or don't get married.
When they say "never expect your partner to change after marriage," I learned they mean: "never, ever, ever, ever!" Grace, 87, actually yelled when she said:
You cannot do that! That's what I was going to do with my first husband. He was in the war and he liked to drink a little and I wasn't used to that -- I never drank myself much at all. I said, "Well, I'll change him." My dear, it don't work that way. They'll never do that. Never, never, never do that! Because it don't work out!
Older people are generally polite, but in this case, they did not mince words. Take Patricia, age 81, whose answers to other questions were positive and pleasant. She was blunt on this issue:
If you think you're going to marry someone who is just not quite on the same page you are and you're going to change them, you're a fool.
I heard the same vehemence from Sheila, age 94:
They say that people marry people and think, "Well I can get him or her to change." I think that's just stupid! Why would you marry them if you want to change them?
Okaaay... It's hard to miss the point when they put it that way. And they had other choice words for people who believe they can transform a person after marriage: "idiots," "dumb," "on a fool's errand," and on and on.
Many older people learned this lesson the hard way, living in an unhappy marriage for decades (or getting divorced) because they saw their partner as a do-it-yourself improvement project. Marguerite, 74, has stayed with her husband of 42 years, despite the fact that the relationship is largely unfulfilling. Her advice is to carefully assess what you don't like before committing, whether it's a big issue or a minor one:
We all try to change the guys we are with, once we get with him. Like, "Oh, this bothers me and that bothers me, but I know once we're together, I'll change it." But you can't change somebody. If something bothers you a little bit when you're dating, twenty years later you're going to hate that thing about them. Say the way he eats potato chips really loud. Or there's dirt on the table, and instead of getting a rag and wiping it up, he'll push it onto the floor. Either you're going to have to be able to live with that, or not. It's acceptance, not changing the other person.
Harold, 71, ended his 30-year marriage with Fiona. Asked the reasons why the relationship did not work out, he pointed to the push for change:
I think the biggest problem was trying to change the other person. That happened for a long, long time and we didn't let go of that, either of us. We kept expecting that the other person was going to conform to our wishes rather than compromising on how we were going to accommodate to one another. We didn't focus on how we are now, rather than insisting that somebody change. Because that's not possible. It's not possible to be whole human beings and not have your idiosyncrasies that might bother somebody. If those things become big because you're expecting something different from your partner, then they really become serious problems.
So according to our elders, here's the thought exercise you must perform before you commit: Assume that nothing about the person you are marrying is going to change. This means that you should imagine living with the person, day in and day out, exactly as he or she is now -- for the next 60 years. Now ask yourself: "Am I still interested?"
That's how seriously you have to take the lesson that you cannot change your partner after marriage.
An important moral of this story is the need to choose your mate very carefully, deeply and honestly exploring what you can and cannot live with. Indeed, these very experienced elders cringe when they hear statements like: "After we get married, I'll get him to the gym and he'll lose that gut," or "When we're married, she'll change her mind about not wanting children," or "His messiness bothers me now but after we're married, I'll get used to it." According to the elders, ask yourself instead: Can I live with it if none of these things happens?
But, you may object, don't people change after marriage? Indeed, don't people make changes throughout their entire lives? Well, of course they do. But from the elders' point of view, they very rarely change because their husbands or wives have forced them to.
So the lesson is not: no one changes after marriage. Instead, it is that you cannot change your partner. You may support your partner in an attempt to make a change, and you may change together (for example, you both go on a diet to support one another). But what's misguided is the idea that you can push your husband or wife to change in the direction you have chosen for him or her.
Bethany, age 73, found that her husband changed in positive directions during their marriage, in part as the result of their open discussions and work on the relationship. But she's clear that she did not change him:
One of the things that I think really makes a strong marriage -- at least in my case -- was the fact that we could change within our lifetime and that we changed because we wanted to change. Not because the other person wants us to change or makes us change. I think it's important because people change and grow because they make the decision themselves.
Growing and changing together -- according to the elders, that's one of the best experiences marriage offers. But plans to make your partner change? Well you heard them: that's just plain dumb.
(For more advice from the elders, see the book based on the Legacy Project interviews.)