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If you want to know about love, ask someone with a lifetime of experience.
That's why, when Karl Pillemer set out to collect advice about that deepest of human emotions, he consulted the country's elders.
Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, and his team interviewed more than 700 Americans, ranging in age from 63 to 108, about their views on love. Married for 43 years on average, they weighed in on everything from how to find the right person to what keeps the spark alive.
Their answers are published in the book, “30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage.”
“It’s hard to put into words the kind of transcendental or sublime feel of people who have been together 50, 60 or 70 years and really made it work,” Pillemer told TODAY.
“Almost all of the people I interviewed were still very deeply in love, felt that love had grown and changed over the time they’ve been together and, surprisingly, felt that intimacy often was as good or even better.”
But they wanted young people to know that staying married for a lifetime is tough. Indeed, only about 17 percent of married adults have been married for at least 40 years, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
Here are 10 of their lessons on love:
1. Opposites may attract in the movies, but they don’t make great marriage partners
The elders told Pillemer that you should choose a mate who is a lot like you. That means sharing core values and interests and having a similar outlook on life. So even though opposites can make for an exciting relationship, a lasting union often involves people who have similar personalities and backgrounds.
Science backs them up: A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when people choose a partner, they prefer someone of a similar level of attractiveness, wealth and status, and commitment to family and monogamy.
2. Pay attention to what your friends and family say
Consider that if nobody likes your partner, there may be good reasons for it. So if your loved ones have lots of reservations, don’t get defensive but listen to why they feel that way.
3. Physical attraction is important
“I began this project with the illusion that the elders would be all about inner beauty, but the opposite was true,” Pillemer said. “Everybody across all walks of life said the relationship begins with a physical attraction of some kind.”
That doesn’t mean you have to be movie-star handsome or turn to cosmetic surgery. Rather, it means staying a healthy weight and looking as good as you can. That’s especially helpful if you want to keep the sexual spark alive in a relationship.
4. Beware of the strong, silent type
This kind of personality may be initially appealing, but you may not want to spend a lifetime with someone who doesn’t communicate easily. The elders sum their lesson up this way: Talk, talk, talk.
“Even the toughest old guys said you have to be able to convey your feelings and talk about important experiences, especially when there are difficulties in the relationship,” Pillemer said. “As one old fellow said colorfully, ‘Keep yapping at one another.’”
You also have to be able to talk for fun. Can you go out for dinner for two hours and keep up a good conversation? If not, think twice about continuing the relationship.
5. Step outside your comfort zone
When you’re getting serious about someone, propose an activity that challenges both of you more than usual. Instead of watching TV, go camping, take a long car trip, or paint a room together because that’s when you get to know the real person.
The same formula applies if you want to keep the spark alive in a long-term marriage. “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.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found similar results, with couples more happy with their relationship after taking part in "exciting" activities.
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. “Small things can tell you very big things about a couple’s suitability,” Pillemer said.
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
One act of violence means you should get help and get out of the relationship, the elders told Pillemer.
Beware of contempt, where a partner is communicating in a way that is degrading, sarcastic or excessively teasing, and uses “the vulnerability of marriage to be hurtful.”
Watch for overly controlling behavior, like extreme jealousy.
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.
“They say, look deep into yourself and see if you have this in-love feeling,” he noted. “If they had it, the relationships progressed pretty well. If they didn’t, looking back it was the key to a relationship being wrong.”