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Older People Reveal 5 Ways to Regret-Proof Your Relationship

They learned the hard way what makes marriages work and fail

By Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.

(This article appeared previously on Huff/Post50.)

Regret is a strange thing, especially when it comes to love and romance. Very few of us can say, as Edith Piaf did in her famous anthem, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” For even the happiest person, there is often a sense of something left undone or unsaid, of the wrong choice made, of an opportunity for love lost, of a relationship that went on too long. But very little is written about how to avoid having relationship regrets.

In my interviews with 700 older people — who had vast experience in and out of relationships — I was keenly interested in what any person can do to avoid regretting actions when it comes to love, relationships and marriage. I was not disappointed. They provided very useful guidance on how we can improve our chances of “regretting nothing” in our lifetime search for love.

Here are five rules from the older (and wiser) Americans on avoiding relationship regrets:

Rule No. 1: Pay Attention to Your Intuition

In choosing partners, nearly all of the elders described a powerful sense of rightness — an intuitive, overwhelming conviction that you have made the right choice. Call it what you will (a spark, an intuition, a gut feeling), they agree that you shouldn’t commit to a relationship without it.

But in even stronger terms, they warn you about the flip side of the in-love feeling: the "this is wrong" feeling. Many older Americans described this feeling in remarkably similar terms, as a visceral, intuitive, nagging sense that the relationship is just not right. It may be so faint that you have to search your feelings carefully for it.

A vivid and poignant example of this hard lesson came from Kathy, 78. She met Ben while they were undergraduates. Early on, she told me, there were red flags that should have warned her away from the relationship. But Ben was extremely persistent and her friends were encouraging. She fell into the engagement and then did not have the will to break it off.

Looking back, she talked about the absence of the “in love” feeling:

It was my turn, and of course many girls looked forward to this. ... I knew I should be happy and excited.There was a ritual in our college. ... When a guy got engaged, a bunch of other men would dump them in a lake on campus. For girls it was different; they dragged them into the pool and doused them in there.But when they came to me for the dousing, I noticed a sinking feeling in my stomach. I was — this wasn’t quite right. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It was a feeling like: “I don’t think so...” If only I had listened to that feeling!Here’s the thing — I sort of had a sick feeling somewhere down there. A gut feeling that at some level, I knew that I wasn’t really in love with him and that this was a mistake. It was a warning sign. But I wasn’t wise enough to realize it at the time. I just kind of shut my mind to it.

The marriage was disastrous and ended in divorce. Kathy’s message is that you probably know on some level if the relationship is just plain wrong, but it requires listening to your inner voice and follow the warning of the “this is wrong” feeling, even if there is social pressure to stay the course.

Rule No. 2: Conduct Due Diligence

The people I spoke to said instinct and intuition are important, but you also must pay attention to the second rule for regret preventions: Don’t park your reason at the door.

My interviewees believe you need a systematic process for evaluating your prospective partner. Some of them even used a business metaphor: conduct “due diligence” on your partner.

Lest this seem unromantic, recall that’s exactly what they want you to do — bracket romantic love in one compartment of your brain. Now take a good look at whether your partner has objective characteristics that make him or her a good life partner.

When you’re serious, the questions should move to the forefront of consideration: “Is he or she good marriage material? Is he or she likely to be a responsible and committed partner?” The couples say there are important practical issues you should assess before committing to a relationship. They may sound old-fashioned, but that’s just what you should do — think in an “old-fashioned” way.

You need to ask the time-honored question: Will my partner be a good provider? Most couples in our society need two incomes to achieve their financial goals. As it has been forever, marriage is an economic institution in which most people pool their finances. Your economic success and standard of living will be connected inextricably to that of another person. Therefore, you must consider whether your potential partner is economically viable.

Cecilia Fowler, 76, summed it up:

Imagine what two people could accomplish if both were filled with the same fire and drive. But if one has to be carried all the time, that’s hard. So you should look at the personality of the person. Do they want to succeed in school, or succeed in their work or succeed period? It’s something you need to take into consideration.It’s hard to think about material things when you’re physically attracted to someone; it’s hard to put that aside. But one thing to look at is both of your attitudes toward work. If you’re a hard worker and you want to push, push, push and the other person doesn’t, it’s hard. It’s awfully hard to be working all the time and someone else is sitting there watching you.

A key step in the due diligence process is therefore a careful observation of your prospective partner’s work habits. Does he bounce from job to job? Is she unable to make career plans and plugs away in a dead-end job without looking toward the future? Does he or she not even look for work, instead depending on you for support or asking for loans? Such behavior is unlikely to change after marriage — and you may regret it.

Rule No. 3: Make Sure Your Values Align

Americans love the idea that “opposites attract” and that two radically different people can overcome their differences to live happily ever after. Movies replay this theme again and again, from My Fair Lady to Pretty Woman toYou’ve Got Mail. Because isn’t love all that matters? In answer to that question, my sources say: Nope.

Indeed, among all of the advice about choosing a partner, one particular lesson stands out: You and your partner must share the same core values.

The interviewees hold that much of what is good in a long-term marriage comes from having similar values and world views. Conversely, much of what goes wrong results from incompatible value systems. If you want to avoid regrets, they say, every couple must ask the question: Do we share the same values regarding the most important things in life?


Warren, 86, put it succinctly:

Most important is understanding the other person’s values to see if they reasonably relate to your own. What do they care about? How do they think about the world? What matters to them?      

They tell you to think twice (or many more times) before committing to a relationship with someone who does not share your core values. Personalities can be complementary. Different interests can spice up a relationship. But a clash in basic values is hard to overcome. Three especially important areas to talk about before you commit: values about money, religion and how children should be raised.

Rule No. 4: Look Carefully at Your Partner’s Family

Everyone I spoke with agreed on this: You don’t just marry a person; you marry his or her family. By this, they mean that your partner’s relatives will be a lifelong ingredient in the recipe of your married life. Thus, an essential part of avoiding regrets is to take your prospective partner’s family into consideration before committing to marriage.

Most people don’t think about in-laws much while dating. But the older couples tell us that once you are married, each partner brings a cast of diverse — and sometimes quirky or difficult — family members to the marriage. If we like them, it’s a bonus. If we don’t, we can be locked in a lifelong struggle to minimize conflicts and accommodate to disappointments.

Cindy, 72, put the fundamental issue succinctly:

I figured out a long time ago that the only trouble with in-laws is that they are not you. They don’t have the history you have. That’s what makes your family easier to deal with because you know what to expect. But your in-laws’ biggest sin is they’re not you and they’re not your family.

Scientists agree. Studies of newlyweds find that satisfaction with in-law relationships is strongly correlated with overall marital happiness. On the flip side, marriages in which there are discordant in-law relationships have lower chances of succeeding over the long term. There’s no question: in-law relationships really matter.

Of course, some couples overcome in-law problems. But the couples warn you to be wary of a combination of a highly toxic set of future in-laws and a partner who is enmeshed with them. They won’t make your decision for you. But they say failure to take your future in-laws into account when selecting your mate is often a path to regret.

Rule No. 5: Express Yourself

One of the major regrets the interviewees expressed was not the things they had said, but rather the things they did not say. Some of the saddest comments had to do with the failure to express deep feelings of love, gratitude or even simple compliments throughout the relationship.

Janice, 83, told me:

Well, we of course are quite old now, and when we were young, it was common for people not to be demonstrative. So neither I nor my husband were very much into showing our feelings or our emotions much. That is one thing that I would do differently. I would try to be more affectionate and then I think he would have eventually learned how to be also. I knew that he cared about me and everything, but it was just the small little things that weren’t there, just through everyday life. I really missed that. I could have done something about it, but I did not really realize that at the time. And as the years went by it was just a pattern that never changed.

So try simply upping the number of small, positive things you say to your partner. According to the the older couples, it can improve and enliven your marriage — and help you avoid regrets.


Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. is founder of The Legacy Project, a compendium of practical advice for living from America’s elders, and author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. He is a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Read More
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