The wisdom of those with age and experience can help prevent divorce

A gerontologist from Cornell University conducted a project that studied nearly 400 Americans who were 65+ years old and had been married for 30+ years . Extensive interviews were designed to capture the wisdom and insights of these people who had managed to overcome the common marital challenges and problems of their shared life and keep their unions intact. Divorced individuals were also interviewed for their experience with breaking-up and how others might avoid the problems they encountered.

The Cornell Marriage Advice Project’s conclusions are detailed in the book by Karl Pillemer, the project’s author. In 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and marriage; Pillemer presents a list of the most frequently selected lessons for successful, long-term relationships.

Here are his top five lessons:

  • Learn to communicate. Couples who talk things through openly and candidly usually work them out.
  • Get to know a person well before making the commitment. This came even from those who married young and after a short courtship. Their bottom line, you can’t change anyone, ever.
  • See marriage as a lifetime commitment, not just a limited contract that you can break when it’s no longer fun and/or easy like it was. It’s important to hang in there and work through your problems, not walk away.
  • Be a team. If you treat marriage as two individuals, it will be every man for himself when the going gets rough. You are in it together and this attitude leads to mutual support and happiness.
  • Choose someone who is similar to you or compliments you. It’s important that your interests, values, and world view are compatible—especially when it comes to handling money and raising children.

This study is important not just for those who have already walked down the aisle—but for those who are out there dating and in relationships moving towards commitment. It starts with who you choose and why—then it’s using both your head and heart when you make that important choice and once made—staying true to that commitment through thick and thin.

Seeking marriage? Try shorter men

Science has been backing up the worst kept secret about women for some time—they go for the tall guys. Two sociologists, one from the University of North Texas and the other from Rice University found that 48.9 percent of women have a height requirement for their online profiles—he needs to be taller. They collected data from Yahoo dating personals and used open-ended questions in an online survey they conducted. The reasons women offered for their height preferences were connected to societal expectations and gender stereotypes. 29 percent of the women also talked about feeling awkward about being out with a shorter guy. Interestingly, the men came in at 13.5 percent who wouldn’t date a taller woman. Among college students who were also surveyed as a separate group–55 percent of women required taller men and 37 percent of men said the women needed to be shorter.

Now a new study that has yet to be peer reviewed is suggesting that shorter guys might make better partners. According to this new research—they do more housework, earn more than their taller peers—and are less likely to get divorced. Take that, tall guys. Two sociologists from NYU used data from a University of Michigan project that’s been collecting data on 5,000 families for almost 50 years—and used it to see how a man’s height impacts his relationship once he is past the dating/courtship stage. It’s hard to argue with such a rich trove of data and what it shows.

They also found that short men are less likely to get married—their marriage rate is 18 percent lower than taller guys. Their sample included men from the ages of 23-45—so who knows if it goes up later, when women are more savvy about who they choose and why. Apparently short men are seen as less masculine and this impacts their marriage rate. This might explain the “Napoleon” syndrome. Perhaps because finding partners is harder for these guys—they are more likely to marry older and less educated women. One theory the authors came up with is that older women may help them feel more mature, worldly and masculine. Yikes.

My take away from this is that SMART women who seek a good partner who will make both a good husband and Dad should look twice at shorter men. What’s wrong with wearing flats—easier on the back? Of course, I have a bias here—I am married to a man who is shorter than my type was when I met him, taller than me by only a small inch or two. He is successful, masculine and aggressive, and his height has never been an issue-ever. I’m certainly glad I was able to see who he was in the package he came in back then. Or otherwise—I would have missed out on a great life/family.

Pay attention to your gut before saying “I do”

A new study out of Florida State University on using your gut when making the decision to get married was published online this week in the Journal Science. It found that newlyweds had unconscious positive or negative gut feelings about their partners that they were not consciously aware of. These feelings actually predicted the satisfaction and survival of their marriages several years later.

Essentially, the study used photos of the person’s spouse along with a series of positive and negative words. The photo was only shown for a couple of seconds, enough time to recognize the person- and then they were given a positive and negative word and had to push a button for only one of them. The design left no time to construct an answer- it was instant and knee-jerk, often referred to as a gut reaction. Remember the word association game where someone says a word and you immediately say the first thing that comes into your mind? It’s much like that except a picture is used.

135 heterosexual couples who had been married within the past 6 months participated. The couples also filled out a marital satisfaction survey- and these came out as very positive across the board regardless of what the other part of the experiment showed. They were asked to reevaluate their marriage for four years at six month intervals, using the same questionnaire. Over time, their responses on both the questionnaire and their reactions to photos came closer together and showed a more consistent response. Twelve of the couples divorced within the four years the study was conducted- and their responses supported this outcome.

What this boils down to is that many people ignore their feelings, brush them under the rug, push them aside in order to achieve the goal of marriage- and then over time find that they can’t hide from these feelings anymore. In my work with couples I encounter this too frequently- folks who had doubts but either ignored them or rationalized them. They usually write them off as the typical “cold feet” experience that can happen before taking such a major step. However, as we discuss their pre-marriage concerns it becomes clear that there were many red flags and signs that said STOP and THINK that they ignored.

It will be nice for therapists like me to actually have a study to back up what we have been trying to tell couples for years- if it doesn’t feel right, slow down and delay making that huge commitment.

Could “Chick Flicks” replace couples counseling?

The results of a new study were published in December in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. The researchers, lead author Ronald Rogge (of The University of Rochester), Thomas Bradbury (the Relationship Institute at UCLA), and others found that discussing five (relationship) movies a month could cut the three-year  divorce rate in half. The long-term study included 174 newlywed couples who participated throughout  their first three years of marriage. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups- conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, and relationship awareness through film- and the movie-and talk approach was just as effective as the more intensive therapist-led methods. The results suggest that couples know what they do that is right or wrong- however, they don’t think about their behavior as it is occurring, and this leads to conflict and divorce.

The researchers were excited when they thought about how this model could be adapted to help couples in general- and it is something they could do on their own. In this study, participants were given 47 movies to take home and were asked to watch one a week for the next month, followed by a 45 minute discussion. The results were the same as the more intensive and professionally led groups the other couples were assigned to.

So what is different between this approach and couples watching movies together as a general course in their lives? One is that all the movies have an intimate relationship as central to the plot- chic flicks. The other is that they then discuss the characters and this helps develop insights into their behavior and how it impacts their partner.

My only concern with how this would translate into a regular marital intervention is that guys have to be dragged to chic flicks. Maybe this is why the result doesn’t happen more often outside of the study- guys don’t go to them, end of story. I also wondered if the guys who would be willing to go at all or more often are more “in touch with their feminine sides.” No, this is not a negative- it’s just that some guys are more open to this and to experiencing something that is outside the typical “guy” experience. If a guy is naturally more this way- wouldn’t he naturally be more tuned into his partner and her feelings/needs?

However, these couples were randomly assigned to this group and given this as homework- and it was effective. So, if we can somehow get out men to go to these more often and discuss their thoughts about them afterwards, we could all be more happily married. ? Definitely something to think about if you have hit a rough spot with your mate.


Do the Uncool kids end up being better partners?

A study that was published this month in the journal Child Development came to the conclusion that the cool kids from junior high end up being the marginalized adults by the time they reach their early 20’s. Apparently, cool younger kids only hang out with the best looking kids and often run with older kids (because that is really cool) who may be a bad influence- and experiment with drugs and sex and get into petty crime because they think it’s cool or perhaps it’s another way to stand out.

According to the study, as they move into high school, their popularity quotient drops as other kids are more focused and serious and more mature about school and being responsible. This leads the once cool kids to struggle to try and find a way to fit in more and when they can’t- they often start to become marginalized and drift towards the kids who are less stable and mature. Over time, this worsens and by their 20’s they are often high school drop outs, have a criminal history, and/or are underemployed or unemployed and drifting.

The theory behind why is rather simple- they miss out on important developmental phases and experiences that their uncool peers get to have. This leaves them socially and psychologically delayed- which of course has nothing to do with IQ.

Several things came to mind when I read the study. The first is child actors/musicians who grow into dysfunctional young adults- think Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber to name only two of many. They grew up way to fast and took on adult roles before they were emotionally and developmentally ready. By the time they reached their early 20’s, they were missing some critical experiences that would have prepared them for being responsible adults. Now both struggle with substance abuse and criminal behavior.

I also thought about all the young adults who struggle to set and keep goals, stay in school, hold down jobs- and have healthy relationships. They are often attractive, charismatic and intelligent- but just can’t seem to get their act together. Were they cool kids once? Are bad boys often ex cool kids and is this why they just can’t get it together in their relationships and make healthy commitments?

If you were one of the quiet ones, painfully shy, a geek or a nerd or just more of a loner- it looks like now is your time to be cool. You went through all those difficult adolescent stages with your eyes wide open and you learned a lot along the way. For anyone who is planning to attend a school reunion soon or who has the opportunity to connect with old schoolmates online- don’t rule out any uncool kids from your past. According to this study- they could hold the great potential for a healthy relationship and satisfying partnership.

Shacking Up Can Raise Divorce Risk

For years there has been an on-going debate about the pros and cons of living together before (outside of) marriage. Many folks believe it gives the couple a chance to have a trial run of experiencing intimacy with someone before they make the biggest decision of their lives. They would see each other at their worst, not just their best. All those annoying habits or “cute quirks” could look very different when they become part of the fabric of one’s daily existence. Potential issues would surface before their lives became bound together by a shared mortgage, children, differing needs and wants, etc. Makes a compelling argument for cohabitation, doesn’t it?

Not so fast….A new study has come out that shines a light on the cons of shacking up- and it offers specifics, mostly from men- that should give pause to anyone considering such a move. The study looks at and compares divorce rates and marital satisfaction of those who lived together before marriage and those who did not. It found that those who did not live together before marriage reported significantly higher rates of satisfaction with their marriages- 7 percent higher than those who got engaged before living together, and nine percent higher than those who moved in with no plan for marriage.

This university of Denver study conducted telephone surveys with more than 1,000 married men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 who had been married 10 or fewer years. Their questions were designed to tease out specific data regarding marital satisfaction and what role living together before marriage plays in predicting happiness outcomes. What they found is that many couples who were living together basically “fell into” marriage because it would have been more difficult to make the break after they had combined finances, households, and social networks.

As a therapist and relationship coach, I was pleased and not surprised by these findings. Too often over the years when working with a couple seeking divorce, one of the spouses has verbalized that they just went along with the relationship for the sake of convenience, money or because they did not know how to back out once they had already made the commitment of living together. In a nutshell, it seemed much easier at the time. I have heard this more often from men, and the study did say that men were more likely to verbalize these reasons.

The bottom line is that many of these couples may have chosen to end their relationship due to problems with incompatibility had they not been living together already and concerned about what they may be giving up or facing with such a decision. What singles should take away from this study is the idea that it is important to move toward marriage in a thinking way, making the decision based on all the right reasons. If you must live together before marriage, discuss taking the step towards engagement first. If your partner balks at this, it may be the first sign that you should continue dating while maintaining separate households- and then re-evaluate your relationship and where you want it to go.

To read more about this study, go to