By Karl Pillemer, PhD, Author of 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage
“You don’t just marry a person; you marry his or her family.”
Filmmakers love one particular love story. A woman and a man are polar opposites, and for the first part of the movie they clash with one another as their discord makes it seemingly impossible to get along. And then, slowly but surely, love conquers all and they find they fit together perfectly, like complementary pieces of a puzzle. Depending on how old you are, you will recognize this theme in, say, The Philadelphia Story, The Sound of Music, West Side, Bridget Jones Diary, Pretty Woman, and right up to the Twilight movies (now there’s a difference!).
But what about in the real world? Can two people who are extremely different come together and live happily ever after? I asked the advice on this issue of over 700 older people with around 40,000 years of experience in marriage, and here’s what I learned: Not so much. In the view of these experienced elders, marriage is much easier when you and your partner are very similar in background, interests, and worldview.
Kevin, age 79, has thought long and hard about marriage. His life changed in his late thirties when he went through a divorce. Here’s why it happened:
We had whole different backgrounds, different perspectives. We decided, “What’s the point with this?” So in my first marriage, we were opposites. I would advise younger people: Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. Because there is a certain kind of excitement of opposites. They are attracting. It’s more magnetic. It’s more energetic. But it’s also delusional. Because we were so different, we shouldn’t have taken that step and we should have known it. But we didn’t take time to understand our differences. When you are in the romantic phase you want to be on your best behavior all the time, so we say what we think the other wants to hear. It’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.
Similarly, Marcia, age 87, divorced but then found a happy marriage for over 50 years. Her advice is to explore in detail potential differences in values, goals, and outlook:
Well, people aren’t always what they seem. It’s very bad if you don’t really know them until after you marry them. My husband, I thought he wanted the same things I did and I found out he didn’t have any idea what I wanted and I really didn’t have any idea what he wanted. And the things we wanted were totally and completely different, like night and day. That was a rather large, large, error, but I was so in love with him that I couldn’t see anything else, and that’s a big problem.
So conventional wisdom tells us that opposites attract. But according to elder wisdom, opposites may attract, but they don’t make for great and lasting marriages. Indeed, you are much more likely to have a satisfying marriage for a lifetime when you and your mate are fundamentally similar.
You may be wondering whether the emphasis on similarity in marriage is “conservative,” a “stick to your own kind” mentality. However, this viewpoint cut across all groups of my interviewees: economic, political, geographical, and racial. For example, April Stern, 75, is far to the “left” among the elders I interviewed. Nevertheless, she eloquently articulated the importance of similarity when talking about her 47-year marriage:
It sounds simple, but you have to like each other. We both loved certain kinds of things. We both loved movies, good movies, and part of our courtship involved staying up all night and figuring what a foreign film really meant. We both loved to read and we loved to talk about what we’d read. We shared political values, feelings about not living in an ostentatious way, about commitment to other people, and our own commitments.
She added wistfully:
And you have to have a similar sense of humor. In fact just two weeks before he died, we were talking one night and he said something and I just dissolved in laughter, and he looked at me so self-satisfied and said: “I can still make you laugh after all these years!” And he could.
The wisdom of the elders is highly consistent with research findings. Studies show that similar marriages in terms of social background, religious views, life goals, and interests tend to be happier. But, you may say, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers, and understanding and appreciation of differences. What if the person I love is very different from me?
The good news is that the elders don’t tell you unconditionally not to marry someone who is very different from you, but with whom you are deeply in love. They simply want you to recognize that if you marry someone very different, you are much more likely to face complex challenges in married life. In the end, they say, you have to follow your heart. But be ready to spend a lot of time working to make your decisions and life goals align. And in the face of objective differences like social background, having shared values and a similar outlook on life will go a long way to promote both the quality and stability of a marriage.
© 2015 Karl Pillemer, PhD, author of 30 Lessons for Loving
Karl Pillemer, PhD, author of 30 Lessons for Loving, is an internationally renowned gerontologist whose research examines how people develop and change throughout their lives. Dr. Pillemer is professor of human development at Cornell University and founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. He has authored five books, including 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, and more than a hundred scientific publications, and has spoken widely throughout the world on issues of successful aging, family relationships, and elder care. He lives in upstate New York.