Study of combined 40,000 years of marriage finds nine secrets to making it last

Study of 700 people searches for the answers to a long-lasting marriage.
Study of 700 people searches for the answers to a long-lasting marriage. 

A successful marriage requires falling in-love many times, always with the same person.

While these are the wise words of American journalist and author Mignon Mclaughlin, it is likely many of the 700 participants involved in a recent study investigating the key to a happy marriage would agree.

Each person interviewed by Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer was over the age of 65 and had been married for at least 30 years, with a combined equivalent to 40,000 years of marriage. That's a lot of anniversary presents.

The medium marriage of the group was 44 years, and the longest marriage was between a couple aged 98 and 101 who tied the knot 76 years ago.

So what is this so-called 'key to a happy marriage' Pillemer discovered? Well, it is no singular secret, rather a jigsaw puzzle with nine pieces, designed by the "wisdom of crowds" over millennia spent together.

Relationship expert Dr Nikki Goldstein offered additional advice for each finding:

1. You have to learn to communicate 

The participants told Pillemer you must "talk talk talk" to overcome challenges. Dr Goldstein agreed marriages can suffer severely from a lack of communication, but said the difficulty is learning how to communicate effectively at different levels. She said it's important to ensure your partner feels supported on a day-to-day basis, but you must always feel comfortable to voice your concerns even if they may cause an argument.

2. Getting to know your partner before marriage is key

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Most couples studied had gotten married young, but - perhaps surprisingly - recommended against it. They advised partners to know each other's imperfections, observe them in diverse environments and learn what makes their blood boil. Dr Goldstein believes it's equally important to accept that people's life experiences over the years cause them to become different "versions" of themselves. Otherwise "you're locking someone into a category and saying 'this is who I married you as, this is who I'm going to see you as for the rest of my life'".

3. Have a lot of shared experiences before you settle down

The study found it's crucial to solidify your relationship with a range of experiences before you commit to a life together, and Dr Goldstein agreed.

4. Don't hope you can change your partner

This was a reoccurring piece of advice among participants, but Dr Goldstein said there is a discrepancy between seeking to amend superficial elements and attempting to alter underpinning beliefs. An example is when men leave their dirty towels on the bed. "You can change that, it may just mean he's being lazy," Dr Goldstein said. "But maybe you're trying change their religion or make them more introverted or extroverted… I don't believe we should try to change the core values of who they are as a person."

5. Regard marriage as the commitment it is  

There were 118, 962 marriages registered and 47, 638 divorces granted in Australia in 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the interviews, many couples blamed the high rate of divorce on the modern tendency to see marriage as a "voluntary partnership that only lasts as long as the passion does", rather than as "unbreakable". Dr Goldstein stressed the importance of having a mutual understanding of the significance of matrimony. While some people firmly believe in 'till death do us part' as an absolute, others believe in the right to walk down the aisle a second time (or more) if it doesn't work out.

6. Accept that it won't be easy

When the going gets tough, accept it's a part of marriage and work through it. That's the advice these couples had to offer. However, Dr Goldstein said it's not that simple. "Marriage is hard work… [but] if the bad times are outweighing the good times, you need to stop and consider if it's worth sticking it out," she explained.

7. Remember you're a team

This is a heart-warming one, as Pillemer found majority of partners saw their special someone as a signicant part of them, and as their unconditional support system. This is about equality, and ensuring no one 'wears the pants', Dr Goldstein added.

8. Learn to see things through your partner's eyes

Showing empathy will enhance your perspective and insight into your marriage, the research found. Dr Goldstein said while the husband may think his wife is nagging when she asks him to move his dirty towel, he must understand that she sees it as disrespectful and rude. This also comes down to communicating why you feel a certain way – how do you expect your partner to walk in your shoes if you don't allow them to?

9. Choose a partner similar to you

Most participants disagreed with the saying, 'opposites attract' and highly valued shared interests, money habits, parenting styles and religious beliefs. "Opposites can attract in terms of different likes, but the values of who you are and how you live your life need to be similar," Dr Goldstein said.

The reality is, there is no universal 'key' to a happy marriage, or one set of guidelines that work for everyone. If your puzzle requires more, none, or just some of the above pieces, that's okay. Not even 40,000 years of combined marriage can reveal all the answers.