Small and frequent acts of kindness can help build long-term relationships

Been in a monogamous relationship for decades but boredom has set in? It doesn’t have to be that way, says Margaret Jennings.

Small and frequent acts of kindness can help build long-term relationships

THE kids have flown the nest and you and your spouse could have at least another 30 years left together – alone in the house. Is that a panic button you’re reaching for?

Or you’ve been in a same-sex relationship for decades now but boredom has set in and you feel trapped, unable to imagine a way out.

Both scenarios are negative, illustrating how long-term relationships become far removed from that exciting original encounter between two people in love.

But it need not be that way — help is now out, in the form of a book called 30 Lessons for Loving, featuring people who have lived with long-term partners for 30, 40, 50 years and more, offering advice about doing better in love, relationships and marriage.

The book, published last month, is by 60-year-old US gerontologist, Karl Pillemer, who spent years interviewing 700 elderly people who he prefers to call “the experts”, in recognition of their lived experience.

“I didn’t just want to capture the experience of blissfully happy people or indeed just those who had wound up alone after unsatisfied relationships,” he says.

“So to capture the overall range of experience I established the Marriage Advice Project, using social science research methods, amassed from interviewing them in depth.”

Diverse by race, ethnic group, economic status, sexual orientation and religion, some of the best advice, he says, also came from people whose lives did not turn out as they expected — who either divorced or stayed for decades in an unfulfilling relationship.

“They were eager to share their stories in the hope that others might avoid the mistakes they made.”

While all interviewees were a minimum age of 65, the average length of marriage was 43 years, with the longest being a 100-year-old woman married 76 years to her 98-year-old husband.

And although the term marriage is used, it is a loose one; it refers also to co-habiting couples who view themselves in a committed union, says Pillemer, who is himself married to his high school sweetheart for 36 years.

“In contemporary society, the search for love and lasting relationships has become more complex — with shifting norms about marriage and the rise of social media,” he says.

“I consider older people to be genuine experts on living; we may have forgotten this in our ageist society, but when it comes to love and marriage, our elders are indeed the experts — not scientific or professional experts, but storehouses of invaluable lived experience. It was there for the asking – and I asked for it.”

All interviews began with the question: “Thinking back over your life, what are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned about marriage?”

This was followed by specific questions about a range of issues arising over the course of a marriage, from finding a partner, to learning how to get along with each other, to dealing with the stressors of the middle years and then to keeping that spark alive.

One of the revelations in dealing with keeping the spark alive is the denial of the myth of the “sexless older person,” he points out. People who do have partners and are in “reasonable shape” continue to have sexual intimacy, right up to their ninth decades.

But the idea of sex expands.

“Throughout my interviews, the experts showed a sense of relaxation about sex. Many described the deep joy of emotional and physical intimacy with a partner over many years, adding that having sex itself was additional spice in the stew – or a tasty side dish as one woman, Gertrude Bennett said.

Or as Beverly Elliot put it: “The great thing at our age is that sex is not about procreation; this is purely about recreation!”

Pillemer says he was surprised to hear that for many, intimacy is as satisfying as – or even better than — when they were younger.

“They tried to convey – sometimes with difficulty — the sublime pleasure of physical intimacy with a partner of 50 or more years.”

Among some other tips besides staying intimate, that “the experts” impart for keeping the spark alive are:

Think small (and positive): Forget costly gifts. It’s the small, frequent, positive, thoughtful actions throughout the week that matters. The build up of these gestures — even giving a compliment — has a transformative impact on a marriage.

Become friends: Aside from romantic lust, you must like each other – have fun together; be open to knowing about each others’ interests.

Give up grudges: Almost everyone said: ‘Don’t go to bed angry’; resolve your differences by the end of the day. Bearing grudges is a definite spark quencher.

Get counselling: Though many did not grow up in the age of therapy, they advise to seek professional help before you quit.

30 Lessons for Loving, by Karl Pillemer, €20.95


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