219: Mending Relationships and Aging Gracefully in Retirement with Karl Pillemer
Karl Pillemer is a leading family sociologist and expert researcher when it comes to aging. He’s a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, as well as a Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Over the course of his career, he’s focused on how family relationships change over the course of people’s lives, working with both families and the professionals who work with them in his research.
In his book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, he explores the issue of family estrangement. He shares what he learned over the course of hundreds of interviews with estranged and reconciled families to get at the heart of this silent epidemic, to better understand what breaks families apart, and how to heal.
Today, Karl joins the podcast to talk about his fascinating work in the nascent field of gerontology, why so many people struggle to find fulfillment or purpose in retirement, and what we all can learn from his conversations with people from all walks of life who have had long, satisfying relationships for decades.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- What makes retirement such a huge (and unique) life transition compared to even marriage and childbirth.
- Why your own expectations and feelings about aging have such an influence on how you will age–and why this makes ageism so pernicious.
- Why almost every family experiences some form of fracture, fissure, or estrangement–and what we can do as parents to prevent this from happening in the future.
- Steps to take and questions to ask as you work to reconcile a damaged relationship–and who to talk to if you need help.
- "What a thousand older people told me is, in general, despite loss and illness, this period of life is much more fulfilling than most people think it is." - Karl Pillemer
- "This notion of time is the most precious resource and thinking carefully how you allocate it is one of the strongest pieces of advice that older people would give." - Karl Pillemer
- 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans
- 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage
- Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them
- Cornell Legacy Project YouTube channel
- Episode 3 - Choosing Happiness with John Leland
- You’re probably not ready to retire — psychologically (article)
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Casey Weade: Karl, welcome to the podcast.
Karl Pillemer: Well, it's a pleasure to be here. I even love the title of Retirement With Purpose. It really dovetails with a lot of the work my colleagues and I have been doing for years. I also love the idea of watch parties. I hope there are hundreds or even thousands going on.
Casey Weade: Well, I hope so too.
Karl Pillemer: Only kidding but I just like to imagine that even if it's not really happening.
Casey Weade: Well, I like too that we can sit here and imagine that we have thousands of individuals watching us right now and at the very least, thousands of individuals will catch it on in the back end.
Karl Pillemer: Absolutely. Hey, look, I'm happy with tens of individuals watching. That's fine, too.
Casey Weade: Well, there's a massive impact that you've made in the world and in the lives of others in this world, relationships or marriages, so much more. And I want to get to those things. You know, originally you were introduced to me by John Leland. John was Episode #3 of the Retire With Purpose Podcast. So, we're talking close to three years ago now that I received your name from John. And John said, "Hey, you got to talk to this guy,” and look, here he is.
Karl Pillemer: That’s right. It only took three years but it's the right time.
Casey Weade: Well, you weren't an easy guy to get a hold of but it was the perfect time because of the things that you're currently working on. But before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit about what you do because I think what you do is a relatively new concept, definitely a foreign concept to many out there today. You are a professor of human development and a professor of gerontology. So, human development, gerontology, what are these two areas of study in layman's terms and where do they interact?
Karl Pillemer: Yeah. It's a great question. I'm fortunate to have lived a dual life at Cornell between our tree-lined Ithaca campus, which is where the main body of the university is, and then our medical school in Manhattan. And it's all pretty much the same thing. The idea of human development and what I'm interested in is how people grow and change and develop over the life course, how earlier challenges, opportunities, and resources affect our lives way into later life. So, how what happens earlier in life and in middle age changes things. I'm also very interested and I think this relates to retirement so well, in life course transitions. So, as people go through life course transitions, how do they manage them effectively? How do life course transitions affect our social relationships, our personal relationships? So, for example, I've looked at when people have an older relative who comes down with a terrible disease like Alzheimer's, how do they get over it? Same is true with retirement. As you know, people's lives change, their social relationships change. How do we track that over time? So, both my work in gerontology is about older people, but we're also looking at the whole life course and I put it simply, why do we turn out the way we do over 80, 90, or 100 years? So, it's been fun, I have to say.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Now, when you look at all these different transitions we go throughout our entire lives, some will say retirement is the biggest transition that we’ll ever go through. Some say marriage is the biggest transition we ever go through. Is it possible to wait our major life transitions we go through in general and say these are bigger than these and we should put more time and effort into these versus those? What are your thoughts?
Karl Pillemer: It's a really, really fascinating question. All of these life course transitions have something in common to be sure that they take us from one stage and into another. Of all the transitions, probably the transition to parenthood is the most dramatic because for every other transition, we have some previous knowledge of what it's like. Let's imagine going to college, well, the kid's been away to summer camp, has had some experience. Marriage, you probably have lived together. Retirement, you have a sense of it. Childbirth is the one that radically reshapes life into something that you couldn't really have anticipated before, even if you'd been a babysitter. But retirement is a really interesting one and I'm curious what you think, and I'm sure you're aware of this. Research used to suggest that retirement was traumatic, that it was this massive transition. Now, more recent research shows that most people negotiated pretty well and that it's somewhat less impactful maybe than other transitions in terms of exactly how much lives change. Of course, there's a huge difference between voluntary and involuntary retirement. But for voluntary retirement, where folks have planned, there's been a sense that, oh, you lose all these relationships and lose everything. Probably, as you found, a lot of people do flourish in it, and especially as people are retiring earlier and in good health. So, the retirement transition is nuanced I would say and, in general, is more positive than some other life transitions are. Does that match up with what you found with your clients?
Casey Weade: Yeah. In general, I think most tend to transition into retirement quite successfully. However, I'm working with a different segment of the population than just the general population, and I wonder if that has a lot to do with the way we approach retirement today and how different it is today versus the way it was for my grandparents, where there was this hard stop. They hit 60 years old, got the pension, got the gold watch, got the Social Security, and then it was a very hard transition. There wasn't a bridge to retirement where today we have these bridges to retirement and more people are actually working in retirement than ever before where there's not this hard stop. We continue to kind of ease ourselves or wean ourselves off of those relationships or that work or that job that we had previously.
Karl Pillemer: By the way, you're poking the bear with the stick by asking an academic to talk about what he's interested in, so if I go on too long. But you make a point that I think is something I've come to so firmly believe in. And it was the major point in a way of my first book is 30 Lessons for Living, but it carried its way through all the other ones. I have always viewed the way that young people think about old age is there was a famous cover of The New Yorker where it was the Manhattanites’ view of the country. And so, it had Manhattan, it had detail up to the Hudson River, and then it just goes all the way to California with no detail at all. That's what a lot of young people think about 60 or 65. And we have something here that sociologists like to call, and listeners can drop this at any cocktail parties they want to, that they like to call structural lag. Structural lag means our social structure has changed and our thinking hasn't. And that's the case with old age. People need to get through their minds and even my students can't, that they may have as long in retirement as they had in the labor force. And since rates of disability are going down, they may have a longer, healthy time in retirement as they had in the labor force. So, they need to radically rethink this. It requires a whole different kind of life planning as to what you're going to do.
The major demographic shift, one of the major demographic shifts in the history of the human race is the longevity bonus that we're experiencing. I mean, in 1900, there were seriously, in the U.S. under 200,000 people 85 and over. Now, it's many millions. So, that this longevity bonus, people have to think from age 20 what they're going to do with it and do their life planning radically differently. So, finally, as you know, when my parents retired, it was done. Now, there's typically this honeymoon period in which people do the things they want to do and then they get re-engaged in productive activity frequently, which I imagine you see with your clients. So, I agree with you. It's an entirely different phenomenon now. And really it's because of this massive longevity bonus and people have to think about how they're going to spend it.
Casey Weade: I wonder if this has you fired off right now because there was an article that we included in our weekend reading for retirees not long ago. And I think the title was Are You Prepared for Retirement… Psychologically? And you in there talked about different stages of retirement. Do you see well-defined stages throughout retirement? And if so, what are those stages?
Karl Pillemer: It has become clear and, of course, these things always change because our society is so dynamic. But generally, when people retire healthy and voluntarily, they experience what they call in gerontology sort of a honeymoon period where people do enjoy being at home now. It's funny because everybody's at home now. But think about a more normal world at the moment. They travel, they engage in a lot of amenities, they do often exercise, personal fulfillment, spending time. Then, well, within a period of one to three years, especially people retire at 62 or even 65, there's a desire to return to some kind of productive engagement. And for a surprising number of retirees now, this involves re-entering the paid workforce. As I'm sure that there's a wave of retiring entrepreneurs, of folks going back and starting businesses in their 60s and 70s, I've also found that people who were in what I would call sort of moneymaking professions, folks who were in business or in the financial services industry, will go back and retrain as teachers or they want to have a more purpose-filled experience. So, you really have this young-old retirement period of lots of activity. Then, unfortunately, as people get to statistically 80 and beyond, there's this little bit more of a no-go phase where people's lives begin to contract because of physical issues and they may scale things down. But for a lot of people, that second phase of retirement is very vigorous and very active, and very productive.
Casey Weade: Well, it sounds to me like that old go-go, slow-go, no-go, it sounds like what you're saying is I think most would say, well, that go-go is 60 to 70, 70 to 80 is my slow-go, 80 plus is my no-go. It kind of sounds like you're saying many today are going from 60 to 80 go-go and then they hit more of a hard stop.
Karl Pillemer: You know, a lot of it has to do with our expectations, too, that we know from a lot of research now that your own expectations and feelings about your own aging are highly predictive of how well you age. So, it's one reason why ageism is so pernicious. People who feel like their lives and you're sort of thinking are going to be purpose-filled and active and that this is new opportunities, run for new opportunities actually do better, longer. So, I think that's a piece of it. I just think and I'm curious about your thoughts, I think people, as they approach retirement, have to think about it a little bit like they planned a career. But what do I want to do? I mean, what are my major goals? Again, I think people go into it just with that first phase thought out. I'm going to go on a cruise or whatever, and I think they will have more of a fulfilling time if they are more planful and purposeful.
Casey Weade: Now, is it possible, though? I think it's hard to really wrap your - if you've never had that freedom to have a couple of years and a sabbatical, for instance, which is really what those first couple of years are, it's kind of like having a sabbatical. If you've never really experienced that, is it possible to truly define what you want in that second act where you're going to find that purpose and fulfillment over a longer span of time?
Karl Pillemer: I think that you've hit the nail on the head with the real challenge. People see that phase of life as more unpredictable. I think the pernicious notion and it's very hard for older people to get out of and extremely hard for young people to get out of is how good old age is for many people that there's much more to look forward to in a positive sense. And that's where that planful side can come in. John Leland probably would have talked about this but the evidence massively continues to accumulate about the simple fact that older people are happier than younger people are. So, it's even got a name. It's this U-shaped, sort of U-shaped band of happiness that you start out here as a young person, pretty happy. Happiness drops to its lowest ebb in the mid-50s and doesn't recover really until around age 60. And at 65 and 70 people are generally happier than younger people on all measures. If you ask older people, "What were the happiest five years of your life?” they're much more likely to say the preceding five years. So, that despite loss and a burden of chronic disease, there's something older people know about leading a happy and fulfilling life that the young people apparently don't. So, I think there's negativity about those later stages of life that come from our age’s culture that interfere with positive retirement planning I think. Again, I don't know if that resonates too.
Casey Weade: Well, it sounds more discouraging. As I'm sitting here, I'm going to be approaching 50 before too long and I don't want to get unhappier. I want to get exponentially happier. Is it possible to experience exponential happiness or do you kind of have to have these harder times, these times to kind of pull you backwards in order to take it to the next level?
Karl Pillemer: It's so funny. May I digress slightly?
Casey Weade: Please.
Karl Pillemer: There is something that is a solid in the social science literature as anything, and that is the U-shaped bend of marital happiness. So, people start marriage very happy. Marital happiness declines into the middle years and recovers after the last child leaves home. So, the marriage you start out happy and end up happier if you stay in them. So, what's going on in mid-life? What's going on in midlife is you have kids and even though they give you a lot of fulfillment, they provide immense day-to-day hassles. You and your spouse are working and you may have elder parent care that's going on all at the same time. Those responsibilities, even if they're fulfilling way people down so that what folks in the trenches in middle age do have to look forward to generally is improvements in their well-being. And it's really what the psychological research shows us, this kind of paradox of happiness. So, I just think there's immense opportunity in the post-work phase, if people really take advantage of it, and especially if they can maintain a positive viewpoint of the potential of what's going to happen. And that's what the first book was, 30 Lessons for Living, where I interviewed around 1,200 older people. One thing that a 93-year-old woman who I interviewed, who was living on her family's ranch in North Dakota gave a quote, which I've never forgotten. She said, “So, what would I advise people about aging?” She said, “I would tell them to find the magic.”
Many people, especially those in their 80s and 90s and beyond said things like, “I feel clearer now. I feel clear about my priorities and clearer about life.” So, one of the things I have really learned from 40 years of studying gerontology is old age is much better. Our views of old age are much worse than it really is. That what a thousand older people told me is, in general, despite loss and illness, this period of life is much more fulfilling than most people think it is. So, I think that gets your point. I think you are going to have this exponential happiness. I mean, look, it's not for everybody. Dementia gets in the way horribly for some people but, in general, there are positive aspects to later life that don't enter into our daily conversation.
Casey Weade: Yes, something strikes me as contradictory or at least against the statistics today, and that is that marriage happiness. If our marriage happiness follows this U-shaped curve, then why is the fastest-growing segment of divorce baby boomers?
Karl Pillemer: So, you hit on what I think is this key point that for me, kind of organized esteems across these three books. And that is this notion, as mentioned earlier, of taking the long view. So, in the case of that you just said, one very likely reason is that in my parents' generation, there wasn't the expectation that you would live longer and healthier. Now, someone who's in a somewhat unhappy marriage in their late 50s or 60s, they've realized that they're anticipating 20 or 30 more years. Again, it's a side effect in a way of the longevity bonus I think. People see the possibility of change in that life phase that they didn't before and these are the idea that a lot of the choices and decisions that we make in the middle years are going to be with us for decades. That's kind of a new mindset that relates to marriage, that relates to health, relates to our relationships with our children, and a lot of other domains.
Casey Weade: Well, if this purely has to do with our longevity and we just continue to live longer and longer lives, is it possible for us to curb the trend of divorce in that demographic?
Karl Pillemer: That's a really good question. And we have to remember like I don't have them in hand but the statistics about the divorce rate are typically exaggerated and I don't know whether you want to veer down this topic, but it is interesting. People, for example, with higher levels of education are much less likely to get divorced and much more likely to stay in intact marriages. And divorce rates overall have been going down to some extent. So, I don't think it's an epidemic of middle-aged divorce but I do think it's partly related to the idea that I have a chance for something else at this stage of life because I have a longer time horizon. Yeah. How we tamp it down is a good question. Because from the research I've seen and if a Facebook user is more up on this research, they can enter it in the chat, from the studies I've seen, women are equally likely to initiate this late midlife divorce as men are. So, it's not the stereotype of the man necessarily running off with a younger person or something. It seems to be fairly equally initiated. Yeah, you're right, though. No, it's a perplexing thing and one to think about. I mean, from my second book, people who make it through and stay married for very long periods of time tend to find this incredibly fulfilling and to be one of their major life accomplishments. But it's true that not everyone can do it.
Casey Weade: Well, Karl, I'm interested, after you've interviewed all of these people over all of these different years and you have so many insights that you've gleaned from them, what about your marriage? How has this changed your marriage? What do you do differently today that maybe you wouldn't have done had you not spent the time in this field?
Karl Pillemer: So, I've been married for around, see, I should probably get this right, but close to 40 years. And so, when I was writing the book 30 Lessons for Loving, in which just so your readers know, I interviewed hundreds of people who had been married 30, 40, 50, 60 years, and also people in same-sex partnerships who'd been together for that long, as well as some people who hadn't but had good marriage advice of things they wish they had done differently. And I tried out their tips on my long-suffering wife over and over and over. I mean, it was really. So, I would say there were big picture things but there were small tips they gave that I found incredibly useful. So, if I can tell a story, I will. They had lots of suggestions for how couples can resolve conflicts over the life course. And one of their strongest pieces of advice was this. If you and your spouse or partner are disagreeing, stop and ask who the issue is more important to you. So, who's the issue most important to you? And if possible, let that person have their way. So, we had moved into a new house that had in its bathroom a really dilapidated but antique clawfoot bathtub, and I really hated it and I really wanted it moved. I wanted the whole bathroom renovated. I wanted a shower. And my wife just loves this clawfoot tub. And finally, I was doing the research then and we fought about this actually, and I followed that principle. This is obviously way less important to me than her. And actually, it's really beautiful and it was a great decision.
So, I used that principle in a small way and that was one of their very strong pieces of advice, for example. So, I found tips like that to be highly useful. You know, Casey, a lot of what they argued, I will say, is something that doesn't help much after marriage. They really argued that people should be extremely careful in choosing a partner. Again, it's taking the long view. Is somebody who's not very much like you, who you're in love with, but is quite dissimilar from you and you don't get along with the family and may not be very responsible. Is that going to last 40 or 50 or 60 years? So, one thing they argued is take the long view in partner selection, too. So, I'd say that was another piece of advice that I think a lot of younger people took up. Choose carefully. I mean, I could go on forever but that's a small point and a big point that I would say they shared. And folks, by the way, we have interviews on the Cornell Legacy Project YouTube channel of a lot of these elders sharing their marriage advice so they're pretty cool to watch.
Casey Weade: You know, Karl, I find a lot of value in these fun, unique things that older couples have done to keep the spark in their marriage. And there was one before when I met my wife, I had the opportunity to sit down with a man that had been married for 50 years. And one of the things they did was he said, "Go over, look at the fridge,” and there was this word there. It said, "SHMILY, see how much I love you.” And he went back and he read me a story, and it was about this couple that had hidden these things from each other on a day-to-day basis. So, they had to hide the SHMILY somewhere in the house and then the other person would have to find it and then they would return the favor. My wife and I adopted that. We've been doing that throughout our marriage. And I always thought that was one of the neatest stories, one of the things that meant a lot to us, and it's made a big impact. These little fun things can make such a big impact. Did you have fun like that that you came across?
Karl Pillemer: I love that example. I interviewed a couple in assisted living who were in their 90s, and the guy told me just that very morning he continually played gentle pranks on his wife. So, like, he knocked on the door and ran and hid around the corner and made her come to the door for no reason, so those kinds of practical jokes, playing together. This sounds like a cliché and I report it, though, because it may be a cliché, but I was told the same thing by hundreds of long-married older people. This notion that friendship is as important as love really is borne out also by research. It's not that anybody wants passion to disappear, and often it doesn't, but your partner has to be somebody you can comfortably hang out with. Oh, listen, here's another tip. Across cultures, a number of elders told me, "Observe how your partner plays games.” So, I interviewed Chinese American elders who spent a lot of time on the mahjong table. I would go into Dominican families where there are always dominoes out. I went to a center that primarily was gay men, older men who played bridge. Each center had its game, each senior center, and over and over people said, "Yeah. I knew he was the one for me like when I saw how he could lose gracefully at dominoes.” So, observing your partner, your potential partner in these kinds of leisure activities was something else they said. So, yes, lighten up is a big thing they talk about.
Karl Pillemer: Well, I want to make sure that we get to your latest book and in order to get…
Karl Pillemer: It’s a little less cheerful. Yeah.
Casey Weade: Yeah, it's a little less cheerful but it's very important and that's something that we've all experienced or are still experiencing to this day, I believe. Can you just share in order to get there, your first book, 30 Lessons for Living, second, 30 Lessons for Loving, and then you transitioned to Fault Lines. Was there intent to that order of those books? How did that come about?
Karl Pillemer: So, there's one thing that links all of them that I firmly believe. So, on the one hand, I consider myself to be Mr. Evidence Based. So, I drive my family crazy reading like the latest study. I love self-help books, things that are based on evidence. So, I believe we should use science. But if science can't help us, I think that the second-best resource we have are people who have experienced a problem, have coped with it, or overcome it, and can talk about it. So, if we don't have good scientific information, let's go ask people who have been through a really challenging life problem, what they did, and distill their advice and make it available for other people. So, in the first book, how do we grow old? There isn't good scientific evidence. So, I asked older people, how can younger people handle growing older? How to stay married and happy? There's limited evidence. So, I went to those folks and in this case, I wanted to go to people who were living in family estrangements and, in particular, who had reconciled even after 10 or 20 or more years, what they did, how they did it, and what they would advise other people. So, that's a common thread. These books none contain my own advice. They're all advice from hundreds of people because I like to gather the wisdom of crowds so I don't just do a few interviews. They're always at least several hundred people who can share their thoughts.
So, Casey, that is really what links them. It's taking a problem and finding out what actual real living human beings do about it. The other link with family estrangement, and by that, I mean situations where a family member says, “I never want to speak to you or hear from you again,” and the relationship is as cut off as it can be in our hyper-connected society. When I was interviewing older people for the first book, I asked them about their regrets and how could you get to their age of 90 or 100 without any regrets? Well, the first thing they said, of course, as you can imagine, is if you get to 100 with no regrets, you probably haven't lived a very interesting life. So, they weren't encouraging that but I expected big-ticket items for regrets. I expected affairs and shady business deals. I was not prepared for how many people had an estrangement as their biggest regret and how upset the interviewees became. The book really began, and when I interviewed a wonderful feisty 80-something-year-old in Texas who told me stories about her love of her daily bourbon and traveling around the world. I asked about her kids and her face fell. She pounded her fists literally on the arms of her chair and said, “I never hear from them. It hurts like hell. I don't know what happened.” So, this was such a persistent source of grief among older people. I began to look at the literature and there was no research on it.
So, when I started this project, there were fewer than a dozen research articles and only a very limited self-help literature on it. And so, I thought, "So, wait a minute, this is obviously a big problem. Everybody knows somebody or has experienced it themselves and their family and there's no research on it and very little clinical guidance. Like, in what world does this make sense?” So, I went on this very interesting research adventure and that's what Fault Lines is about, kind of takes people through my experience and delving into a problem that is just hiding in plain sight in our culture and how people overcome it and kind of what they do. And as someone for you who's a financial planner or this company is, so many of these estrangements revolve in some way around money, inheritance problems in a family business. So, money may not be the root of all evil, but it is a root of a lot of estrangement but that's how I got there. It was this overall idea, ask people how they solve their own problems. And the powerful impact of talking to very old people for whom this was the most distressing thing they could report at the end of their lives.
Casey Weade: I think one of the most important things that comes out of this for many, I would think, would be knowing that they're just not alone. In this realm of social media that we live in today, it looks like everybody has this perfect family and that can make you feel like you are actually alone in this issue. But I am of the belief that every family has experienced some level of fracture or fissure or estrangement. Do you share that belief? What are your thoughts? Are there people out there that never had these problems before?
Karl Pillemer: It's hard to believe, isn't it? I mean, I did the first and it's described in the book, the first true random sample survey of estrangement. So, we actually got a random sample of Americans. I was prepared for high numbers. I wasn't prepared for over a quarter of people to say at this very moment, they have an active estrangement from a family member. So, it's very pervasive and you're right, if you take that quarter, other family members get involved. So, almost every family really does have this to some degree. It's hard to imagine any family that’s completely intact across the generations. What's different about estrangement, though, is that, I mean, it really is different from family conflict, from a distant relationship. There is something really different to what a person says to a parent, a child, a sibling, to a grandparent, even in some cases to an uncle or cousin. This is it. You know, the family bond is broken. We're done. That creates a different kind of a problem than a high conflict relationship where there's still contact. People experience it very differently and experience a sense of profound loss of rejection, of incompleteness. Even if they’re kind of happy to be rid of the other person because they're difficult, it's a chronically stressful, painful experience for lots and lots of people, and that's what I uncovered in this book.
And you're right, people feel alone. They feel ashamed. They feel if they tell someone else about it, like if someone says, "No. I just don't see my son anymore,” the other person has that cartoon bubble over their head of what's wrong with you. So, yeah, in a society where people seem willing to document their entire lives online, this is something that in my interviews, I was often the first outsider they'd ever told about it. So, it's a remarkable thing in our contemporary society.
Casey Weade: I'm going to talk about something that might be fairly controversial, but it's something that my friends and I, my wife, we've talked about this. It's this concept historically that family is forever. Family is forever and you always stand by your family. And when we were kids, our best friends were our cousins and we spent time with our uncles and aunts and grandparents all the time. And today it's just not that way. Now, there seems to be this more general attitude that, well, you get to choose your friends, not your family. And more people are spending time with their friends than they ever did with their family. I think, in my opinion, a lot of that has to do with just the technology and the mobility of society today. But are there situations where family isn't forever? Should we continue to hold on to this notion that just because you're my dad or just because you're my grandfather, that we are required to have a relationship even if it's not a healthy one?
Karl Pillemer: That is such a great question, and it's one I go into considerable detail in the book because, first of all, it's a fascinating question, and second of all, there's no precise right answer. And let me be clear because people often ask me this, the book isn't prescriptive. That is everybody has to make up their own mind. And there are clearly some relationships which are damaging or dangerous, that the only circumstance under which somebody might want to try to re-enter those is with professional help, understanding what they want out of it. So, my perspective isn't everybody always ought to reconcile. Just want to get that point out of the way. But many, many people want to do. I want to take your question in a way and stand it on its head because I was interested in the reverse idea. Everybody thinks or talks about our society as sort of anything goes, traditional family bonds are breaking down families, friends. I began to ask myself, why is family still so important? Why do people continue to care about these relationships as much as they do? So, I interviewed hundreds of people, including some people who at the start of an interview would say, "This is fine.” You know, I don't see my parents anymore. You know, I feel good. I have other friends. And by the end of the interview, they would confess that something felt like it was missing.
So, that is an interest. Why when you could let these bonds go, do they persist? Part of it is social pressure for sure that there's kind of a stigma against abandoning your family. Casey, there's something else that we forget, especially with siblings and parents. You know, there are biologically rooted processes going on here of attachment that have been documented by psychologists for 60 or 70 years. And we don't just get over them when we lose someone. So, we experience that as a sense of loss, even if our head tells us it's fine. So, I think that's one reason is these people that we've grown up with, we have evolutionarily developed biological bonds to them that operate on a different stratum. So, I think that's one reason. Here’s the second thing. You can talk about it in everything-goes kind of society, but families are still the most reliable sources of support that most people experience. The poet Robert Frost said famously, "A family is when you go there, they have to take you in.” And that's the case when folks are struggling economically or with mental health issues, with addiction issues. Often the last source of support is the family. One last quick one for you. If you look at studies of social networks so if I asked you or asked a group of 20 people, "Draw me a target and put your closest associates at the inside,” but they do that for 20 people, for most people, after 10 years, a lot of those people have changed.
So, a lot of the people who you rely on, who you're seeing, what often doesn't change are your family members. Parents name their adult children. At any time point, kids name their parents. These are still unusually reliable relationships, even if they aren't great. And when we lose them, it can be really distressing for people. So, I agree with you. There's part of that, definitely, that especially for younger people, there is not a sense I'm going to stick with you no matter what. And the book tells parents that. I mean, I tell parents you have more to lose in this relationship and you'd better be aware of that than your kids do because you've invested more. But still, there's this persistent mix. Both social norms, biologically-based attachment, and the fact that families reliably care for us and support us, it's just hard to completely back away from. Does that make sense? I mean, I know it's a long-winded answer but it's the best I can do.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, I think you shared something there about children. The children don't see, you know, they might be more apt to go with a friend. The family is the friends you choose or something along those lines until they actually have their own kids and then once they have their own kids they go, “Wait, I don't want my relationship to be like the one I have with my parents or my parents with their parents. Now, family is forever again. Now, family's forever because I have my kids and I want them to always be around and have this wonderful, beautiful relationship.” So, this is one of the reasons I wore my Front Row Dads hat today to our interview is because I was curious about as parents, what can we do as parents to stay ahead of this risk and avoid any potential risks in the future.
Karl Pillemer: It's such a great question. I'm not noticing your hat, but there you go. So, how many kids? So, you have children. How many of them are there?
Casey Weade: We have three.
Karl Pillemer: There we go.
Casey Weade: So, four months and four and six years old. Two boys and a girl.
Karl Pillemer: There are some. Yeah, I have a 480-month-old or it's something like that. This is a little controversial I'll say and I'll say to folks who hear this, this is kind of some thinking and process, but I do say in the book parents need to be aware of something. One, you're going to want to have your kids around throughout your entire life course if possible. So, that's something that's just true. Two, not from my own research, but from sociological research on the family for 40 years, there's a fundamental fact of life for older parents and their adult children. Yes, adult children love their parents. Yes, they often heroically support them. But in every study, parents care more. Parents are more invested in the relationship than their adult children are. And that's because you've invested all this emotion resources in them. So, that it's called the intergenerational stake. Older parents have an intergenerational stake in their kids that's greater than their kids and their parents. And I say this in the book so that when a parent that decides, as I found in my studies and I bet that you may find around finances, a parent draws the line in the sand around, say, gender or sexual orientation or value differences or violating the family's code or religious differences and says, "This is it,” to a child. It's much easier for that child to say, "Fine. I'm going to develop other options. I'm going to do other things.” So, the relationship is easier to exit for children.
And especially for parents who are as old as me, I'm 66, or above who grew up with the sense that family trumps everything else, that you can behave any way you want to in a family. And people may be mad at you but they won't leave. I counsel parents of adult children to understand that that is not true. They won't always be there. So, you must develop relationships with your children that also have aspects of friendship that don't involve judgment and anger, and hostility. I can't believe I've been on a number of call-in shows since the publication of the book with people calling in and saying the harsh judgments their parents have affected on them and then expect the relationship to continue. So, I do think and here's the controversial part, listen, we have to draw lines, we have to be firm, etcetera, but parents should think about this notion that you want your kids around. Like imagine yourself with what you're doing with your three kids. What if one of them, 25 years from now didn't want to have anything to do with you because of something you had done? You know, it's sort of that's not worth it. So, I think that calculus, "What am I doing now that's going to build a better relationship later?” is important. And I'm going to come back to that longevity bonus. Those 18 years your kids are with you is a minority of the time you'll spend with them. You're going to have 30 or 40 or 50 years with them as adults. They're only there for 18 years and basically, they check out at 15 anyway. So, it's not even 18 years.
You're going to have a vast lifetime with them and you've got to think about what you want the quality of that to be. And I'll guarantee you, having your kids around you is going to be more important to you than some abstract moral principle that may have led to some big fight or if they married the wrong person. So, again, I ask if that makes sense because I think you raise the point. It's really key. It's nuanced. It's kind of hard to take in but I think that parents need to think of what they have to lose when they create immense difficulties for their adult children.
Casey Weade: Doesn't that take us back to your marriage question, who is this most important to you? Recognizing that it's most important to you in that moment so drop it because we want this relationship to last a lifetime. And it also takes me back to something that we've talked about before in Front Row Dads, and that is your children don't owe you anything. Our children don't owe us anything. We owe them everything. It was our choice to bring them into this world. I feel like there's some parallel there.
Karl Pillemer: I love that quote which I am now going to use. Exactly. We had kids because we wanted to enjoy having kids. This notion that they absolutely owe us something causes a lot of problems and I agree with you entirely. You know one thing, can I do a slight shift because I did want to touch on something which I know you're an expert at? And it relates to this question very closely. This concept or this issue of a lot of estrangement certainly between parents and children, also among siblings and other relatives being due to financial issues is one that, again, it shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. And as people are considering their retirement, I'm sure they're considering estate planning and things like that as well. And also, I imagine you deal with people who are experiencing transitions in family businesses. It was really striking how often these disagreements around finances not only split two people but split entire families. And I described this in the book, I think one of the interviewees who made the strongest impression on me was a woman who grew up in a classic Italian-American family. There was always sauce on the stove. Her parents divorced. Her mother was a single mom but they lived near this extended family in and out of each other's houses, cousins like siblings. The grandparental generation didn't tell the kids how they were dividing the business.
They were angry at one son but he was left out of the business. So, when the will occurred, no one knew. Actually, a couple of family members knew but never shared it. That family split so completely that the collateral damage went down through generations. My interview is completely separated from the entire side of the family with whom she had spent her childhood. Over and over, people told me, “Seek help and mediation in those situations. Don't just let them fester. If there are these financial problems in a business, these kinds of business conflicts, get help from probably people like yourself. Put all sources available.” Because that's one of the worst reasons to have a lifelong family rift over the sale of a house. And the problem with inheritance is this, even if you say you're dividing everything equally, you can't equally divide that grandfather clock that came over from the old country or that chipped turkey platter that served Thanksgiving dinner for 50 years. There need to be discussions, understanding of this because I was astonished at how many enduring lifelong until people died rifts occurred because of family business issues, inheritance issues, inequity of how resources were distributed. So, I'm curious whether you come across that in your work with folks.
Casey Weade: Yeah. I've got a half dozen that are just top of mind right now and a few that I'm trying to help people through right now. And as you were talking, I think the commonality amongst all of those were just a lack of communication and not necessarily talking to one another. They’re talking to one another but they weren't being totally transparent in that communication. Totally upfront and honest and communicating what 15 commitments conscious leadership would say is communicating above the line, communicating from a place of not trying to be right and not getting defensive, but really communicating to learn.
Karl Pillemer: Yeah. That is a great way to put it. I mean, I can actually see how that applies. Yeah, because people engage in this kind of motivated reasoning where they only want to hear what they want to hear. But it is one where I think the work you and your colleagues do is so important because over and over people told me that an ounce of prevention would have been worth a pound of cure, that if there had been open discussion, if people had been amenable to bringing someone else in to talk about these because these process of transfer, you know, there was a sociologist who pointed out the importance of a will because a will is really making a statement like into eternity almost. You know, it's like this last thing you do that it's sort of a profound message to the next generation. So, at least being open and transparent about that, you know, you probably see this differential help to kids, I mean, while they're alive causes these kinds of resentments. So, I do think that people can really seek help from a professional in those cases and it can go an extremely long way.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, I can hear some out there just pounding their fists going, "Yeah, but mom did this or he did that and it's unresolvable. It's unfixable. It's unforgivable. We're never going to be able to get past this,” and not in instances where I think there is some, there might be some realms where you shouldn't have that relationship again. It might be mental or physical abuse, for instance, where, yes, don't try to resolve this. You move on with your life. But I think the majority of these issues where people say it's unresolvable might actually be resolvable. But is there a line or something in common with those situations where you would say, yes, it's unresolvable, move on?
Karl Pillemer: You again put it really well. I mean, that really is the dilemma. So, the issue I would say to people is this, and there's a whole chapter in the book about it. People have to very carefully decide if they're ready to try to repair this relationship, whether you initiated it or whether you're the recipient of, “I'm done. I never want to see you again,” there has to be a decision process. And often people who've initiated the estrangement start to think about the other person that's kind of a contemplation stage where the person kind of becomes on their mind or it's like a situation where you learn a new word and then you hear it all the time, they start to hear messages about reconciliation and forgiveness and maybe they hear a sermon or go to a retreat where it comes up. So, there's this early stage where people can just attend to whether they're thinking about it a lot. Then people do and almost everyone who reconciled said, "Get some help,” usually, especially if it's been a difficult relationship or one that was hurtful. Talk to a professional counselor about why you want to do it, why you're thinking of doing it, what will happen if you're rejected, and bring in other friends and supporters. Spouses can be really helpful. You know, like I had people who were in an early stage of reconciliation. Their parents say it was still difficult. Their spouse would sit next to them and give them an idea of, “Okay, now it's time for you to get off the phone.”
So, enlist your supporters is another part of it and ask them, “I mean, really, is this right for me?” So, if it's a fairly simple estrangement and this happens, people have a big fight, don't get in touch afterwards, and as time goes on, it gets easier and easier not to get back in touch. Those can be more swiftly resolved. If it's deeper-seated, though, you have to go through that planning. But then you have a few decisions to make right along the lines of what you're saying. And one of the biggest ones is the question I would call, "What's the least I can accept?” If my relatives said, “I really want to get back together with you,” or if you're asking someone, what's the least you can accept in the restored relationship and is it worth it? So, I've had an example from the book, and this happened more really numerous times. An estranged daughter would say, “Okay, mom, I'm willing to see you. You can't stay in our house. So, when you visit, you can come a certain number of times a year and see the grandchildren. I will never see or speak about your second husband and he can never come and see us.” So, the person who said I'm willing to do anything to restore this relationship has to think about whether they're actually willing to do everything to restore it. And in many cases, people decided that the least they could accept was acceptable but that's part of the calculus.
And the final thing you raise, people have to ask themselves, "Can I live with the fact that we're not going to reconcile our very different views of the past?” That's one of the hardest decision points. If John believes that his brother was emotionally abusive and Mike believes that he was just doing ordinary teasing, after 30 years, you aren't going to resolve those different narratives. People get too invested in them and they've told everyone about them. So, one decision people have to make is can you let go of the view that the person from whom you’re estranged has to accept your view of everything that went on and maybe even has to apologize. These are the hard questions people have to ask themselves. Those who did it but went through that process and successfully reconciled, in general, were extremely happy they did, felt they had grown personally as a result. They felt it was like a challenge that they overcame and they could do anything after doing it but they had to go through that process and there were many points where they almost said no. And that's I think, I mean, that's the best answer I can give to your question. It's asking yourself if you're willing to go through these steps and I do lay them out in the book but it's a highly individual decision.
Casey Weade: Karl, we could stay on this particular topic for quite some time and I know we need to wrap up.
Karl Pillemer: That’s too bad. Yeah. Because I'd be interested in hearing more of your thoughts, too, as to what you've seen.
Casey Weade: I'd love to share and hear the insights as well. But I want to ask this question. We talked about you as a husband and the impact that writing 30 Lessons for Loving and just your research in general made and some of the things that you do in your life with your wife. But what about as a father and as a grandfather? What kind of changes or impacts has your research made in those areas?
Karl Pillemer: Oh, yeah. So, I was doing this research. I had adult children and then only recently I have grandchildren, which of course has been hard during the pandemic but thank God for FaceTime. Yes, and for parenting, it really, really did affect me. One thing that wise older people do tell you to do is be available to your adult children but pretty much stop trying to influence them. That's immensely difficult for me. I mean, I hold myself back much more now on a daily basis. For example, I decided that when I had grandchildren that unless I felt there were danger involved, I would give no parenting advice. And fortunately, my daughter and her husband are actually better parents than we were so that's actually worked out well. But it is hard. I mean you want to give nutritional advice. Somebody who studies human development, as you can imagine, I'm a fountain of advice, I know you for sure, so one thing which the elders describe is they have good relationships with your children throughout the life course, that kind of holding back. For parents of young children, Casey, they had one strong recommendation that came up again and again and again, and that was the importance of time, of spending time with children, of carving out time in a busy family life, and it's difficult, as much unstructured time as you can give to them.
One of the biggest regrets, especially of older men in that generation was not spending enough time with their children. And even small units of quality time doesn't make up for this sense of really being there. Look, a working dual career, a low-income couple is going to struggle with this. But throughout the many relationships, this spending time with children is more important than sort of anything else. I know it sounds like a cliche again but it was one of the major regrets of the old. And it's one of the ones I have to say, even before I did this, I kind of knew to do it but it's true even after they become adults and with grandchildren, this notion of time is the most precious resource and thinking carefully how you allocate it is one of the strongest pieces of advice that older people would give and it certainly applies to kids.
Casey Weade: Well, I can hear my dad talking to me through you right now. He goes, “I know, son, I shouldn't say anything. Now, don't take this the wrong way and maybe I shouldn't say anything at all but I just…”
Karl Pillemer: You have no idea how many times. Yes. And then you let something slip out once and then it's like, "Oh, how can you be?” But it's really very simple though that the simple thing is for almost anyone and we have decades of research showing this, unsolicited advice is often perceived as a person, and yet we sort of do it in our own family and we forget that that's really kind of the case. I would say one thing that there's a theme I've noted in sort of all of your questions, and it's maybe a good way to sort of as a parting statement because it applies to all of these things in almost everything we've talked about and certainly to retirement as well, one of the things if there's one thing that every older person I talk to or my research team talk to, which now amounts to a couple of thousand over the years, if there's one thing that they said emphatically, if there's one piece of advice I would give to younger people or one thing I want you to put in that book, it's that life is short or life is really short or life is really, really short. Or as an older engineer said, it passes in a nanosecond. And the older you get, the more people would say it, 90 or 100, they were the most likely to say, “I can't believe how fast this went.” One 99-year-old actually said, it's one of my favorite quotes, “I don't know how this happened because the next thing you know you're 100.” And that's the feeling of the next thing you know you're 100.
So, they argue that all of these domains with your family life, child life, is to live life like it's really short. And their view of younger people's ideas about time is the way like a desert tribesman might view our profligate use of water, that it’s just an unbelievably scarce resource that we absolutely waste. And that's I think that's taking the long view. As a parent, how is what you do now going to lead the beneficial relationships later? As a worker, how is the savings I'm going to do now going to lead to productive 30 or 40 years? And as a new retiree, how am I going to use this incredibly precious resource because I have a much more limited time horizon? I would say that's the one theme from America's elders that unites a lot of their advice. And look, it sounds like a cliché but imagine 2,000 grandparents yelling at you that life is incredibly short and if you waste time, you're going to really regret it. I'd say that was the most profound change for me, as I think about that almost on a daily basis as I make decisions. And it's definitely what America’s elders want younger people to think about. This notion of live life like your life is really short is something that older people know that younger people don't and they should really wise up to.
Casey Weade: Perfect place to wrap things up. Thank you for that, Karl. Just amazing. I know so many are going to benefit from your conversation here, your words of wisdom, and also your book. We want to give that book out at no cost right now. And so, we're going to give out Fault Lines. We've got a box of books here that Karl sent over to us. We're going to give them away until they're all gone, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. If you would find benefit in that book, this is all we ask, go on over to iTunes or just go to RetireWithPurpose.com and leave a review, an honest rating and review over on iTunes for the podcast and then shoot us an email firstname.lastname@example.org with your iTunes username and address and we will send you a copy of Fault Lines at no cost. I know it will make a huge impact in your life if you are struggling with these things. So, Karl, thank you so much for the opportunity to have this conversation. Hope we get the chance to do it again.
Karl Pillemer: Well, thanks, Casey. If we aren’t off the air, I will say I'm embarrassed to admit that I finally had to create a KarlPillemer.com website and that links to all of our research, resources, and other things on these topics. So, if folks are interested in more information, it's easy to remember because it's my stupid name dot com.
Casey Weade: Absolutely. We will drop that right there in the show notes which you can catch at RetireWithPurpose.com.
Karl Pillemer: Alright. Thanks a lot. Nice spending some time with you. I hope we can do it again.
Casey Weade: Thanks, Karl.