A few weeks ago, I wrote one of the most viewed posts of my blogging career -- long-married people's advice on what not to do in picking a mate. I shared three mistakes so obvious that the elders summed them up as "Don't be dumb." (I did get a bit of flak for using such a blunt expression, but it's what they told me!).
Since then, readers have been asking me: "Okay, the elders told me what not to do -- the dumb mistakes. But what should I do to make a smart choice?" I am happy to oblige! Based on a collective 25,000 years of marriage (described in my recent book), here are three of the elders' tips for making the smart decision about a mate.
1. Your partner is willing to talk. The elders told me that the strong, silent type can be very attractive -- but is not so great as a life partner. Sure, differences exist among individuals in just how open or reserved they are. But the elders say that once you are in a marriage, you need to add one more marital vow: to have and hold, to care in sickness and health -- and to talk.
Because, they told me, there's no way to be married happily for decades if your partner won't talk. Not all the time, if that's not his or her personality. But when there are important issues in the relationship, decisions to be made, disappointment or dissatisfaction that is festering -- then things are different. At such times, your partner simply must be able to talk freely and constructively about important issues, or the marriage is not likely to be happy, or even to last.
Cora, 72, told me:
Always, always talk to one another. That is very important because you lose sight of your marriage if you don't talk. What's the sense of two people living together if they're not going to communicate about things that are happening? If you don't communicate, then you're not going to get along.
Joshua, 81, was even blunter:
If you can't communicate, then there's no intimacy. You're just two dead ducks.
The elders say that the smart move is to marry someone who can comfortably share ideas and feelings. And it's not just talking about problems. Equally important, they believe that frequent and vibrant conversation keeps the relationship spark alive. One diagnostic test: Can you go out for dinner and maintain a mutually interesting conversation over a long meal? If so, it's a very good sign.
2. You're happy with your partner as is.
There is one issue on which long-married elders are unanimous: Getting married based on a plan to change your partner is a terrible mistake. Treating your potential spouse as a do-it-yourself project is a recipe for failure. Most of them made that mistake themselves, and they have seen their children and grandchildren do it too. People are so much in love -- or desperate to settle on a partner -- that they indulge in the false hope that they can make their mate into someone new.
The elders are blunt about this lesson. Darren, 79, told me:
Changing someone after marriage? It never happens. Don't' try to force your likes or dislikes on somebody. All the things that annoy you -- either you can accept them or look for somebody else.
And Melissa, 82, added:
It's human nature to want to change somebody. But if I want to change you, what got me to like you in the first place? They're not going to change because the other person wants to make them change.
After talking to the elders, I came up with a list of "Things You May Tell Yourself about Your Partner that Won't Come True." It includes statements like this (male and female pronouns are randomly used -- these apply to both genders!)
- He thinks he doesn't want kids, but that will change after we get married.
- She hates my family now, but they'll grow on her.
- After we're married, I'll get him on a diet and he'll lose that gut.
- I'll put us on a budget so she can't keep racking up credit card debt.
The list can go on and on - and the elders tell you to that this kind of thinking is all wrong.
The smart move: List out your partner's personality characteristics or behaviors and ask yourself, "Can I live with them for a lifetime if they never change?" If the answer's yes, the elders say you are heading in the right direction.
3. Your partner is financially responsible.
First, let me be clear: the elders believe in love. In fact, when I sorted through responses to the question, "What advice would you give to young person about choosing a mate," the top answer was: "Be in Love!" However, they warn that following only your heart-pounding passion into marriage is a prescription for disaster. I can't put it any clearer than Stanley, age 66:
The glow of love shouldn't wipe out all the logic and the rational common sense that you need to make the decision of who you're going to marry.
Because marriage is much more than the feeling of being in love. Instead, it's a formal economic and legal arrangement that makes couples' financial lives inextricably entwined. Yes, believe in love -- but the smart move is not to be blind to practicalities. And one of these the ability to make a living.
As Cecilia, age 74, put it:
It's hard to think about material things when you're physically attracted to someone; it's hard to put that aside. But one thing to look at is both of your attitudes toward work. It's awfully hard to be working all the time and someone else is sitting there watching you. If one has to be carried all the time, that's hard. Does the person want to succeed in school, or succeed in their work, or succeed period? It's something you need to take into consideration.
In addition, conscientious money management is diagnostic for the relationship's future. You will, they say, be truly wedded to your partner's financial attitudes and behaviors. Eric, age 69, told me:
One of the most frequent reasons for marriage breakups has to do with financial problems. And those are things that people can generally tell in advance. If you're talking about somebody that's totally profligate in their spending habits, it's a warning sign.
So there you have it -- three smart moves to complement the three "dumb" mistakes I wrote about earlier. For many more relationship tips from the elders, take a look at 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage.