Of all the people who get married, only 3 in 10 remain in happy. The rest of the relationships end either in divorce or dysfunction. So what does it take to maintain a healthy relationship and a lasting, loving marriage?
Romantic relationships are important for our happiness and well-being. Yet with more than 40 percent of new marriages ending in divorce, it’s clear that relationships aren’t always easy.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your romantic partnership in good working order.
Psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples over 40 years to answer that question. In 1986, he and a partner set up “The Love Lab,” where they brought in newlyweds and watched them interact. Researchers in the Love Lab hooked up the couples to electrodes and measured their heart rate, blood flow, and how much sweat they produced as they asked them questions about their relationships.
After compiling data over several years, Gottman found that there were two types of couples: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still together and happy after six years of marriage or more. The disasters had either split up or were unhappy in their relationships.
What set these two groups apart? The disaster couples had strong physiological reactions while discussing their relationships, despite the appearance of calm on the outside. The higher their heart rates and the more sweat and blood flow they produced, the quicker their relationships fell apart.
What caused these physiological responses was the environment that the couples had created for each other. Even when talking about minor details of their relationship, the disaster couples were prepared to attack or be attacked. Their interactions were hostile and aggressive. Meanwhile, the masters had low physiological responses during their tests. Their environment was one of trust and intimacy, and this allowed them to feel calm and connected in each other’s presence.
Gottman found that the way that couples react to each other’s bids for attention can determine what kind of environment they create. For example, a wife who is a video game enthusiast might be looking for attention or support from her husband by remarking on a game that excites her. The husband has two choices: He can either dismiss her or engage her. Dismissal can be as minor as a distracted “that’s great, babe” or as aggressive as a disparaging comment about how video games are waste of time. But if he engages her by showing interest—”Oh, I remember you telling me about this game. Is that the one where you fight evil trolls?”—he is meeting her emotional needs.
Partners who stayed together engaged in their significant other’s bids for attention far more often than those who fell apart—the masters clocked in at 87 percent while the disasters only did so 33 percent of the time. Essentially, couples who showed more kindness and support towards one another—in the good times and the bad—ended up in happier, longer-lasting relationship
For example, if a husband receives a promotion at work, an active, constructive response would be to enthusiastically congratulate him and then ask questions to show interest. “A partner who says, ‘Congratulations! That’s amazing! How did it happen?” is demonstrating kindness that helps to build the backbone of a lasting relationship. A partner who grumbles, “Great, now you’ll be away from home even MORE,” is having the opposite effect—deflating her husband’s good news and criticizing his behavior for good measure.
As you choose from potential partners, look out for these signs. Does he respond positively to your interests, even if he doesn’t share them, or does he tend to brush you off? Does she make negative assumptions about your intentions (for example, does she assume you were getting a text from another date when your phone went off during dinner), or does she view most of your actions as well-meaning? People who demonstrate kindness and support in a relationship will not only put you at ease in the present, they might also be the key to a long and happy future.
Communication is a key piece of healthy relationships. Healthy couples make time to check in with one another on a regular basis. It’s important to talk about more than just parenting and maintaining the household, however. Try to spend a few minutes each day discussing deeper or more personal subjects to stay connected to your partner over the long term.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid bringing up difficult subjects. Keeping concerns or problems to yourself can breed resentment. When discussing tough topics, though, it pays to be kind. Researchers have found that communication style is more important than commitment levels, personality traits or stressful life events in predicting whether happily married couples will go on to divorce. In particular, negative communication patterns such as anger and contempt are linked to an increased likelihood of splitting up.
Disagreements are part of any partnership, but some fighting styles are particularly damaging. Couples that use destructive behavior during arguments — such as yelling, resorting to personal criticisms or withdrawing from the discussion — are more likely to break up than are couples that fight constructively. Examples of constructive strategies for resolving disagreements include attempting to find out exactly what your partner is feeling, listening to his or her point of view and trying to make him or her laugh.
Keeping it interesting
Between kids, careers and outside commitments, it can be difficult to stay connected to your partner. Yet there are good reasons to make the effort. In one study, for example, researchers found couples that reported boredom during their seventh year of marriage were significantly less satisfied with their relationships nine years later.4
To keep things interesting, some couples plan regular date nights. Even dates can get old, though, if you’re always renting a movie or going to the same restaurant. Experts recommend breaking out of the routine and trying new things — whether that’s going dancing, taking a class together or packing an afternoon picnic.
Intimacy is also a critical component of romantic relationships. Some busy couples find it helpful to schedule sex by putting it on the calendar. It may not be spontaneous to have it written in red ink, but setting aside time for an intimate encounter helps ensure that your physical and emotional needs are met.
Don’t Forget the Small Things
Saying please and thank you shouldn’t be reserved for the company. Manners are important – even with the person you’ve been with for 20 years. Extend the same respect to your spouse as you would to a visiting guest. Say please and thank you, make polite conversation and why not offer your partner a drink? A few manners and niceties will go a long way to maintaining a culture of mutual respect.
Studies show that couples who exercise together are not only healthier, but more satisfied with their marriage. Psychology Today cites several studies that report that the symptoms of physiological arousal (the type of high you get from exercise) mimic the effects of sexual and romantic arousal. If you work out together, you will feel sexy, and in love!
Go On Vacation
A couple’s retreat can be energizing for a relationship, but so can traveling separately! Many happy, healthy couples take their own short vacations, or have regular trips away with a social group. Being alone, meeting new friends, or enjoying adventures without your partner can be very empowering. Ultimately, you will return to your partner energized, enthusiastic- and more in love than ever.
Never Go to Bed Angry (But Do Sleep On An Argument)
There is an old saying, “never go to bed angry”. But is half-past midnight really the time to discuss a problem? If you have a disagreement in the evening, do not discuss things if you are both tired. Set a time to talk the following day, say goodnight, and sleep on it. Things will be much clearer in the morning.
Be tolerant of physical change
As your partner and you grow old together, you will both mature and change – and because you have grown so comfortable together, you may be quick to point out flaws in each other. But, if you want your happy relationship to last, you should never mention the stretch marks, the beer belly or the bald spot! No matter how old and wrinkly you both get, the answer to “How do I look?” is always: “You look beautiful (and I love you)”.
When should couples seek help?
Every relationship has ups and downs, but some factors are more likely than others to create bumps in a relationship. Finances and parenting decisions often create recurring conflicts, for example. One sign of a problem is having repeated versions of the same fight over and over. In such cases, psychologists can help couples improve communication and find healthy ways to move beyond the conflict.
You don’t have to wait until a relationship shows signs of trouble before working to strengthen your union. Marital education programs that teach skills such as good communication, effective listening and dealing with conflict have been shown to reduce the risk of divorce.
If you’d like professional help improving or strengthening your relationship, use the Contact us to find a psychologist in your area.