Relationships take a lot of work. For long-term success, two people with different values, ethics, lifestyles and goals in life must see eye-to-eye on major life decisions – or at least reach a formidable compromise. Even if that sounds challenging in theory, it is even more difficult in practice. It is no small wonder that approximately 1/3 of all Australian marriages end in divorce¹.
Couples that do last the long haul have certain things in common. John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher and clinical psychologist in the United States, has undertaken empirical research to identify common characteristics of long-term, happy couples².
So what makes a relationship last?
1. Knowing your partner: Couples that last tend to know each other inside and out. Couples that are deeply in love know each other well. They learn everything about each other – from their favourite movie to their best friend in grade school. They know all of this not just because they hear the stories over and over – but because they have a genuine interest in knowing everything about each other.
2. Respect for your partner: Common to most happy couples is their mutual respect for one another. Respect comes in the form of paying attention to one another and taking that extra minute out of your day to show your partner that you love them (such as a simple phone call at work to say “I love you”). Happy couples not only interact positively, they also think positive thoughts about each other.
3. Communication: Conflict is something that is a part of every relationship. The manner in which you settle conflict will likely be a predictor of whether your relationship will last the long haul. Gottman writes in depth about this. Arguments that are devoid of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are much more likely to resolve, and relationships where the couple are able to communicate well and resolve conflict with in a healthy way are far more likely to survive. In contrast, couples who engage in all four of these emotional responses during conflict are on a fast-track to ruining their relationship.
4. Shared meaning: A long-term partnership must have shared meaning. This means sharing values, goals, and having a mutual understanding of each other’s dreams. Hopefully, you work toward these goals and dreams together, but at the very least you must support one another in achieving individual goals. This is part of building your lives together as a family.
These criteria may seem pretty obvious, but it’s amazing how these natural affections and ways of being together get more difficult to remember after years of marriage and togetherness. We get tired, bored, lazy and frustrated with our partners, and we lose many of the qualities that we know make a successful relationship. Relationship counselling can investigate shared meaning and remind couples of their deeply held respect and love for each other. A relationship therapist can also teach couples how to communicate better so as to be better equipped to avoid some of the problematic communication patterns that so many couples fall into.
We’ve all seen a couple in love. They can’t keep their eyes or hands off of each other. They are accepting of one another’s flaws and forgiving of one another’s grievances. They simply glow in each other’s presence. Few couples still feel this way after spending decades together, but it is possible. The key to a happy long-term relationship is not in finding the perfect partner – but rather, in finding harmony and balance among two very different people.
About Joanna Fishman
Joanna is the director of Associated Marriage & Relationship Counsellors and a primary contributor to their website and blog. We are a leading network of marriage counsellors and relationship therapists working across the Greater Sydney area. More information about our Sydney relationship counselling service is available on our site, as well as access to a range of articles on issues relevant to couples.