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Family Ties

3 Bits of Wise Relationship Advice from Seniors to Millennials

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Dr. Karl Pillemer, Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College and founder of the Cornell Legacy Project, has spent countless hours documenting the advice of older adults to our younger generations. He’s also the author of two books on the subject; 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage , and 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

Although elders may be slower and weaker than those of younger generations – needing extra help around the house and at times forgetful – their minds and souls are full of sincere advice based on a lifetime of experiences. It’s pays to listen to, and implement, the wisdom they share.

Here are a few favorite gems from Dr. Pillemer’s Lessons from Loving that represent some of the best intergenerational advice.

1. Follow your heart

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While you can never know if a marriage is going to work out for sure, there are ways of evening the odds to ensure that you have a better chance of it working out long term. This means getting to know a person well before going out on a limb and committing to them for life. Patricia Rannoch, 83, explained,

To be honest, right until the day you walk down the aisle, you’re’ still not sure. I have one unmarried son 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 have to take a chance, you know? So you take a chance. But make and educated guess! You have to really try had to get to know each other.

It also means paying attention to the “in love” feeling – that feeling of overwhelming rightness that can’t be well expressed in words. You either have it or you don’t – and you’ll know when you have it in your heart.

2. Ensure shared values

In order for a relationship to work long term a couple needs to have compatible values. According to Dr. Pillemer, values can be defined as the basic principles we use to make all our decisions, and also the standards by which we judge all the things that are important to us in our life.

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Our values help us decide our top priorities in our lives and we also use them to select our jobs, our friends, and our spouses. Research shows that our values remain fairly stable after we reach adulthood, so understanding what he or she values is critical information about a prospective partner. Their values are unlikely to dramatically change over time.

Warren Barris, 86, puts the issue clearly:

Most important is understanding the other person’s values to see if they reasonably relate to your own. What do they care about? How do they think about the world? What matters to them?”

You can’t base a relationship on physical attraction alone because as the years go by that fades. You have to find something richer and deeper to connect on if you want to have a fulfilling and respectful marriage. If you don’t share the same values and outlook you are highly unlikely to be compatible in the long-term and may end up in a separation or divorce.

3. You’re marrying a family

When you decide to commit to a person you have to keep in mind that they are a package deal. You’re not just marrying the person, you’re “marrying” their whole family as well. This is something that many millennials fail to take into account when they’re dating.

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Once you’re in a relationship with a person you’ll forever have to navigate complex relationships with extended family.  Laura Klein, 73, didn’t know what she was getting into with her in-laws and wishes she had heeded the warning signs:

Both parties need to realize that they are not just marrying each other, they are taking on the whole family tree. Pay close attention to those early meetings, to family and their interactions and how they behave. The knowledgeable spouse-to-be can decide whether it’s a deal breaker or not. I’m inclined to say that if these things are bad enough, it’s better to beak the deal than get into it and hope it will get better. It’s like climbing Pikes Peak, a long uphill battle, and I’m not sure it’s worthwhile.

Taking your partner’s in-laws into account at the get-go will help you avoid any marriage-crippling in-law issues. Scientists agree that in-law relationships have a significant effect on the marital relationship, and greater satisfaction in the in-law relationship can lead to greater marital happiness.

Final thoughts

Taking advice from elders is like a jolt of truth to cut through the fog of inexperience. By understanding and implementing these lessons we can all learn from our elders and ensure better chances of long-term relationship success. If you are blessed enough to still have older adults in your life that you can go to for advice, be sure to sit down with them to hear their thoughts on any personal matters of your own as you navigate life’s challenges.

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