Jan 22

Gray Marriages: “45 Years” and Other Aging Couples

Although you may have heard of the rising rate of the phenomenon known as “gray divorce,” you probably haven’t heard much, if anything, about the possible staying power of “gray marriages” (a corresponding term I may have made up, as I can’t find it anywhere).

It’s not that gray marriages don’t exist, nor that people in general don’t root for couples’ longevity. For example, critic Susan Wloszczyna (rogerebert.com) says of the acclaimed new film 45 Years, which is about a long-term marriage thrown unexpectedly off balance, “Of course, we want these two people to be happy again and, as their friends gather to toast the longevity of their union, it is hard not to hope that all might end well.”

What actually sustains gray marriages? Gerontologist Karl Pillemer set out to learn from those who might know best. His recent book 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage pulls together what’s been gleaned from The Marriage Advice Project, his research with hundreds of elders ranging in age from 63 to 108.

A. Pawlowski, NBC Today, summarizes 10 of the lessons learned:

1. Opposites may attract in the movies, but they don’t make great marriage partners–“…(E)ven though opposites can make for an exciting relationship, a lasting union often involves people who have similar personalities and backgrounds.”

2. Pay attention to what your friends and family say–“Consider that if nobody likes your partner, there may be good reasons for it.”

3. Physical attraction is important–Which, of course, is relative to the beholder.

4. Beware of the strong, silent type–“The elders sum their lesson up this way: Talk, talk, talk.”

5. Step outside your comfort zone–“‘Their view is that couples get into these grey periods after they’re married, where nothing interesting or exciting is going on and shaking it up with something adventurous is a good idea,’ Pillemer said.”

6. Be a little old-fashioned–“Once you are in love, ask questions like: Is this person likely to be a good provider? Can they manage money? Are they likely to be a good parent? ‘Because marriage is a financial arrangement in addition to a love one and one in which your economic future is entwined with somebody else’s,’ Pillemer said. ‘Their view for mate selection is you have to be in love, but after that, don’t park your reason at the door’.”

7. Observe your partner while playing a game–“The elders told Pillemer that watching someone play a game is ‘extremely diagnostic.’ You get a chance to observe how someone behaves under stress, whether they’re honest and how they handle defeat.”

8. Do a sense of humor check–“Observe what makes your partner laugh. If he thinks a whoopee cushion is funny and you don’t, it certainly won’t get funnier for you 30 years from now. It’s a simple test of whether your world views align.”

9. Watch for the big warning signs–Violence, contempt, controlling behavior, etcetera.

10. The “in-love feeling” is important–“You have to have an overpowering, gut-level sense that this relationship is right for you and that your partner is the person you want to be with, the elders told Pillemer.”