Over the past decade, young adults have come under the assumption that long-term marriage is a tradition of the past, but Dr. Karl A. Pillemer has made it his endeavor to prove otherwise.

Pillemer, just finished his second book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. And last night, the Ph.D. Professor of gerontology in medicine at Cornell University held a lecture in Edwards Auditorium at the University of Rhode Island.

Phillip G. Clark, professor and director of both the program in gerontology

Credit: James Luther/The Good 5 Cent Cigar
Credit: James Luther/The Good 5 Cent Cigar

and the RI Geriatric Education Center at the University of Rhode Island, explained that the University has been holding these lectures for years and the topics always revolve around aging. He explained that this year, they wanted an upbeat lecture that people could identify with. Pillemer’s second book on long-term relationships happened to fit that criteria.

After working in the field of gerontology for 25 years, Pillemer came to a realization that he had only been studying the problems of old people, including such things as disease and pain.

“It suddenly hit me that old people could be good for something else,” Pillemer explained. “Perhaps we could find out what old people know about living a happy, healthy and more fulfilling life that young people don’t.” Pillemer then began his mission to collect their advice, distill it and make it available to people of all ages.

Starting in 2004, Pillemer went on a 10-year “adventure” slowly collecting advice narratives from older people. Instead of asking them their life stories, he asked them what advice they would give to young adults about relationships, marriage, careers, regrets and how to live life to the fullest. Over that time period, Pillemer collected advice from over 2,000 people from members of the so-called “greatest generation,” those exceeding the age of 65.

Instead of publishing his findings in academic articles, Pillemer had the idea to write the information in the form of advice books, which he believes young people, like students, would find more interesting.

There has been a consistent myth that young adults believe marriage is “going out of style.” To his surprise, after research, he found that marriage rates are increasing, and young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, have the same hopes in a marriage that people did 50 years ago. He discovered that 90 percent of these young adults plan on getting married someday, and 80 percent want a marriage that is a life-long commitment.

It’s evident that these prospective individuals believe in marriage, but Pillemer claimed that the biggest question that arose: How? Young adults question how they know they’re in love with a person, how to avoid conflict in a relationship, and most importantly, how to keep that “spark” alive.

“The major motivation of this project was that the view from the finish line would be uniquely valuable,” Pillemer said. He explained that about four years ago, he created the “Marriage Advice Project.” This required going back to the oldest Americans and asking their advice on relationships and marriage. For this particular study, he interviewed over 700 people who on average, were married for 43 years, with the longest marriage resulting in 76 years.

Pillemer interviewed these various elders using self-report surveys, national surveys and in-depth interview surveys. He sought out people who were in long, happy marriages, but also talked to people who encountered serious relationship challenges or were in unhealthy marriages.

Some of the interviews were filmed, and after long years of hard work and hundreds of hours of film, Pillemer put together an advice book by coding different themes from each interviewee’s transcript. He said that the book is organized into 30 different lessons, each ranging between five to 10 pages, so that they’re quick and easy to read.

“I was afraid that I would get a ton of cliches, but it’s really amazing because a lot of it is stuff you wouldn’t expect,” Pillemer said. “It kind of shakes up what young people think.”

Throughout his studies, he found three lessons to be extremely important, and qualify them as the “Core Insights.” The first lesson from the elders is to “take the long view.” Since life is short, Pillemer found that older people sense their limited time, so they believe it’s important to follow both your head and your heart. He explained how most people told him that marriage is not just about love, but rather, each person needs to consider if their partner will be a good provider, a good parent, act financially stable, and their family and friends must like them.

“You ought to see marriage as a long-time commitment,” Pillemer said. “Or else, it’s hard to get through the gloomy parts.”

The second lesson is to remember to think about the small and positive things in a marriage. This includes surprising your partner, doing a chore for them, and giving them compliments daily. He said that one interviewee explained how just holding her husband’s hand made her happier, because holding hands is such a positive interaction.

Lastly, elders believe that it is important to “lighten up.” Sometimes, relationships can be very serious, but before starting a fight, it’s important to ask yourself, “Does this really matter? Is it worth ruining a marriage?”

By just talking to these people, Pillemer believes that life-long marriage is really worth it and not an impossible dream.

“I think we’re in a situation where young people, especially college aged people, are more than any other time in history, really divorced from older people,” Pillemer said. “On issues like love, marriage, and relationships, it can be incredibly great to talk to an older person and get their ideas and advice. Be open to cross-age friendships.”