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7 Keys to Long-Term Relationship Success

7 keys to making your love last

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Most of us want to meet and settle down with the “right” person, and most of us want such a relationship to last. Have you ever seen an elderly couple holding hands, taking a romantic walk on the beach or in a park? You may think to yourself: “That’s how I want to be when I grow old.”

It’s a wonderful notion: having someone as your mate in a happy and lasting relationship. At the same time, over fifty percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Between what we want, and the reality of our society, there’s a deep chasm of false hopes and unfulfilled promises.  What are some of the most important ideas when it comes to making your love last? Below are seven keys to long-term relationship success.

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1. Do You Trust Your Partner?

Trust is the first and perhaps most important predictor of long-term relational success. Without trust, none of the other six predictors that follow will have much meaning. Ask yourself the following questions:  

  • In general, is your partner reliable and dependable?
  • Does he or she keep important promises and agreements?
  • Can you count on your partner as the “rock” in your life?
  • What about you for your partner?

For some of us, trust is a complicated matter. Some people trust blindly. They are with someone who has shown time and again to be untrustworthy, yet they continue to give that person underserved chances. As the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” To allow a chronically untrustworthy individual to be one’s significant other is to create an inherently insecure relationship, which may ultimately lead to disillusionment. Evaluate your partner’s trustworthiness based not upon unproven promises or wishful thinking, but on a strong overall record of dependability.

While some people trust blindly, others have trust issues. Often due to negative experiences from the past, there are those who can't trust a committed relationship, or the opposite sex, or people in general, or even themselves. In romantic relationships, they struggle to trust their mate, no matter how dependable their partner is. Here, of course, the trust issue is likely within oneself. Ask honestly whether the lack of trust is based on solid evidence or unjustified fears. If the answer is the latter, it may be beneficial to seek counseling and support, to allow oneself to trust appropriately again. Don’t allow fear push away a good man or woman in your life. 

"For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. Our friends seldom profit us but they make us feel safe. Marriage is a scheme to accomplish exactly that same end."

 – H. L. Mencken

 

2. Are You and Your Partner Compatible in the Dimensions of Intimacy?

Authors Ronald Adler and Russell Proctor II identified four ways with which we can feel closely connected with our significant other. The four dimensions of intimacy are:

Physical – Hugging, kissing, caressing, cuddling, holding, and other forms of physical affection. Physical intimacy certainly includes sexual intercourse, but doesn’t have to. As long as other aspects of the relationship remain sound, physical intimacy between partners can often last a lifetime, even if sexual potency diminishes due to factors such as health, age, and stress.

“Millions and millions of years would still not give me half enough time to describe that tiny instant of all eternity when you put your arms around me and I put my arms around you.”  – Jacques Prévert

Emotional – The ability to effectively express and validate tender, loving emotions, in a manner that's nourishing and constructive, and being able to respond affirmatively when the other person does the same. For example: "How are you doing?" "How are you feeling?" "I love you," "I appreciate you," "I like it when we talk like this," "I'm glad we're spending this time together," "you're very important in my life," "I'm sorry."

A person's "heart withers if it does not answer another heart."  – P. Buck

Intellectual – Can brains be attractive and sexy? Absolutely! Especially for those who feel a sense of kinship when they engage in discussions or endeavors with a partner whom they feel is an intellectual equal.

“The marriage was a meeting of hearts and minds both. Madame Lavoisier had an incisive intellect and soon was working productively alongside her husband (chemist Antoine Lavoisier)…they managed to put in five hours of science on most days – two in the early morning and three in the evening – as well as the whole of Sunday, which they call their day of happiness."  – Bill Bryson

Shared Activates – Interactions that build a positive memory bank of shared experiences. Examples include playing, cooking, dancing, exercising, art-making, traveling, worshipping, and problem-solving together. In this dimension, it's not just the activity that matters, but whether two people are able to bond while interacting with one another. 

“When partners spend time together, they can develop unique ways of relating that transform the relationship from an impersonal one to an interpersonal one.”  – Ronald Adler and Russell Proctor II

For more on love and intimacy, see "Irresistible and Funny Quotes About Love to Brighten Your Day."

Here’s a quick exercise to check you and your partner's compatibility in intimacy. List the four dimensions as follows:

_______________________________________________________

                                  Partner A    Partner B

Physical

Emotional

Intellectual

Shared Activities

_______________________________________________________

Next to each dimension, rank whether this is a “Must” have, “Should” have, or “Could” have for you in your romantic relationship. “Must” means this dimension is crucial for you, without which you would feel the relationship amiss. “Should” means this dimension is good to have, but you don’t necessarily have to experience it every day. “Could” means this dimension is relatively unimportant - you can take it or leave it. 

After answering for yourself, next ask your partner to rank, or on your own put down how you think your partner would prioritize. Below is one example of some possible combinations:

_______________________________________________________

                                   Partner A   Partner B       

Physical Intimacy        Must         Must      (Excellent Comp.)

Emotional Intimacy     Must         Should   (Good Compatibility)

Intellectual Intimacy   Should     Should   (Good Compatibility)

Shared Activities        Could       Must       (Poor Compatibility)

_______________________________________________________

The more “must-must” and “must-should” combinations between you and your partner, the greater the possibility of an intimate relationship.

If there are one or more "must-could" combinations, dialogue with your significant other to see if the "Could" can be transitioned to a "Should." For example, a partner who's not very physically affectionate can learn to give a hug a day, or a spouse who's emotionally reserved can learn to share important feelings when necessary. While some expressions of intimacy may come to us more naturally than others, we're all capable of learning and growing in new directions.

When left unreconciled. The “must-could” combination, even if manageable in the short term (perhaps due to the intensity of sexual attraction and/or relative newness of the relationship), may in the long run become problematic. Few experiences in a romantic relationship feel more lonesome than an unmet “Must” need for intimacy.

Since relationships are not static, a couple may evolve in the dimensions of intimacy. Even similar intimacy preferences need flexibility to mesh and jell. Understanding one another’s priorities, and connecting in ways that are important to both partners help ensure long-term relational success.

“Complex, fulfilling relationships don’t appear in our lives fully formed. Rather, they develop one encounter at a time.”

“The key to a happy marriage isn’t having a “normal” personality but finding someone with whom you mesh.”  – John Gottman

 

3. What Type of Person Shows Up Within You in this Relationship?

Consider the friends in your life. Do different friends bring out different sides of you? Maybe you’re more reserved with one and more rambunctious with another. Perhaps you’re patient with some and quarrel with others. A friend may trigger your higher or lower tendencies.

Just as a friend can elicit a particular side of you, so does your partner. Consider the following questions:  

  • Does my better self show up when I’m with my partner?
  • Does my worse self show up when I’m with my partner?
  • Perhaps it’s a combination of both? If so, what situations tend to bring out a particular side of me?
  • Fundamentally, do I like myself in this relationship?

Your honest answers to these questions offer important clues to the long-term health and happiness of your relationship.

"Around people who are positive…I'm happier and able to be who I am."

– from the Internet

For more on emotional health in relationships, see "5 Keys to Enhancing Your Emotional Intelligence," "7 Ways to Say "No" and Keep Good Relations," and "Are You Too Nice? 7 Ways to Gain Appreciation & Respect."

 

4. Does Your Partner’s Communication Lift You Up or Bring You Down?

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington, a foremost expert on couple studies, concluded after over twenty years of research that the single, best predictor of divorce is when one or both partners show contempt in the relationship.

Contempt, the opposite of respect, is often expressed via negative judgment, criticism, or sarcasm regarding the worth of an individual. In communication studies, this is known as being “tough on the person, soft on the issue.” An effective communicator knows how to separate the person from the issue (or behavior), and be soft on the person and firm on the issue. An ineffective communicator will do the opposite – he or she will literally “get personal” by attacking the person, while minimizing or ignoring the issue.

For example:

Ineffective communication: “You are so stupid!”
Effective communication: “You’re a smart person, and what you did this morning was not very smart.”

Ineffective communication: “You never do any chores. You’re useless!”
Effective communication: “I noticed that you didn’t do the chores this week.”

Ineffective communication: “You’re always forgetting about me – do you even have a clue?”
Effective communication: “I know you have a lot on your mind lately, and I think it would be good for us to have a date night to reconnect.”

Contemptuous communication works like poison - it destroys the health and well-being of a romantic relationship.

Consider the following questions:

  • Does your partner’s communication lift you up, or bring you down?
  • Is your partner’s communication with you “soft on the person, firm on the issue,” or the other way around?
  • What about your communication with your partner?

If your relationship suffers from ineffective communication, the good news is that as long as you and your partner are willing, improvements can be learned quickly and put to use immediately. For more resources on this topic, click on titles & download free excerpts of my publications: "Communication Success with Four Personality Types" and "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People."

"Communication is a skill that you can learn. It's like riding a bicycle or typing. If you're willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life." 

 Brian Tracy

 

5. How do You and Your Partner Deal with Conflict in the Relationship?

It’s normal for a couple to quarrel from time to time – just part of what it means to be together. Conflicts and arguments won’t necessarily jeopardize a relationship. In fact, there are times when disagreements can actually bring a couple closer together. The key is in how you and your partner decide to handle the conflict.

Couples with poor conflict resolution skills typically engage in Fight, Flight, or Freeze behaviors. They fight and stay mad, sometimes holding grudges for years. They flight and avoid important issues by sweeping them under the rug. Or, after endless arguments with no resolution in sight, they freeze emotionally and shut down. Someone who freezes in a relationship typically goes through the motions on the outside, but has stopped caring on the inside.

Successful couples have the ability to solve problems and let it go. They focus on taking care of the issue rather than attacking the person. Even when angry, they find ways to be upset and stay close at the same time. Once the matter is resolved, they forgive and forget. Most importantly, successful couples have the ability to learn and grow through their interpersonal difficulties. Like fine wine, their relationship improves with age and gets better over time.

I was sitting at a coffee shop once when I witnessed a brilliant example of an elderly couple’s conflict resolution. They were sitting next to me when the husband accidently knocked a cup of water over the table and onto his wife. As he got up to get some napkins, his wife announced to everyone: “He’s been doing this to me for twenty-three years!” And as the husband gently cleaned off the spill on his wife, he turned to us and said: “She deserves it!” His wife laughed. He laughed. We all laughed.

“The group with whom I’ve always been most fascinated is the one I call ‘marital masters’ – folks who are so good at handling conflict that they make marital squabbles look like fun. It’s not that these couples don’t get mad and disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”

– John Gottman

“Let the little things go. People who struggle often fight over little things. We obsess over things that don’t really matter. We create resistance instead of letting things glide off us. Let the little things go, breathe, and move on to the important things.”

– Leo Baubauta

“...and at the end, so much of it turns out not to matter.”

– from “Evening”

 

6. How do You and Your Partner Handle External Adversity and Crisis Together?

Several years ago, my elderly mother sustained a major injury and became incapacitated. My wife, the amazing woman that she is, helped me care for my mom. When I told my wife how grateful I was for all that she’d done, she simply smiled and said: “No problem, she’s MY mom too!” The flip side of this example is once when my wife felt extremely stressed studying for a professional exam, I poured over a three hundred page study guide and outlined it for her. I simply wanted to help make her task a little easier.

Like all couples, my wife and I are a journey in progress. One of the traits I’ve noticed about highly successful and enduring relationships is the partners’ ability to stand together in the face of external challenges. A true test of a relationship is whether two people have each others’ back when times are tough.

Consider these questions: 

  • Do external adversity and crisis bring you and your partner closer together, or pull you farther apart?
  • In difficult life circumstances, do you and your partner act like adults or children?
  • Can you and your partner share the bad times, or only enjoy the good times?

“Companions who have endured physical challenges together… form a bond that can last a lifetime.”

– Ronald Adler and Russell Proctor II

For more on how to stay strong in the face of life’s challenges, see "Eight Keys to Life Hardiness and Resiliency."

 

7. Do You Have Compatible Financial Values?

Numerous studies have identified disagreements over finances as one of the top reasons couples seek marital counseling, as well as one of the top reasons for divorce. While a variety of financial factors can affect nuptial happiness, such as the level of one’s consumer debt and spending habits, one of the most striking statistics is the correlation between frequency of financial disagreements and divorce. According to Jeffrey Dew of the National Marriage Project, “Couples who reported disagreeing about finances once a week were over 30 percent more likely to divorce over time than couples who reported disagreeing about finances a few times per month.”

Differences in financial values often appear early in a relationship. For example, who pays for the first date? What about the second date? And the third? Is your partner happy when you give a thoughtful but non-monetary birthday gift, or will he or she feel disappointed because you didn't purchase something? Additional questions to consider:

  • Do you and your partner argue over finances regularly?
  • Do you often cringe when you see your partner buy items you believe are a waste of money, or vise-versa?
  • Is your partner generally happy with what he or she owns, or is there a constant, insatiable desire to always acquire more? What about you?
  • Are you and your partner able to solve financial difficulties and differences as a team?

Formulating with your partner a viable financial plan, paying attention to patterns of financial discontent, initiating conversations early to resolve differences, and seeking financial or couples counseling when needed are some of the keys to maintaining financial peace.

“Married couples don’t have to be facing poverty or a job loss for financial issues to impact their marriage. Rather, decisions like whether to make a major purchase using consumer credit or how much of a paycheck to put into savings can have substantial consequences for the short-term and long-term health of a marriage. In particular, couples who are wise enough to steer clear of materialism and consumer debt are much more likely to enjoy connubial bliss.”

– Jeffrey Dew

In closing, whether you’re single, dating, or in a committed relationship, these seven keys to long-term relationship success may serve as a “check-up” of your relational health and well-being. With self-honesty, openness, and a desire to grow, you can significantly increase the possibility of not only having a wonderful partner in life, but making the love last. To grow old with your life mate, knowing that in each other’s warm embrace you have found Home.

For more on personal and professional success, download free excerpts of my publications (click on titles or covers): "Communication Success with Four Personality Types," "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People," "The 7 Keys to Life Success," "Wealth Building Attitudes, Values, and Habits," and "Branding Your Career Like Steve Jobs — Seven Essential Lessons in Work Success."

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Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to commsuccess@nipreston.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.

© 2013 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide.

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RECOMMENDED READINGS

Gottman, John. The Relationship Cure.

Gottman, John. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Lerner, Harriet, The Dance of Intimacy.

Ni, Preston. Communication Success with Four Personality Types.

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.

Keirsey, David. Portraits of Temperament.

Dew, Jeffrey. Bank On It: Thrifty Couples are the Happiest.

Alberti, Rogert and Emmons, Michael. Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships.

Solomon, Marion & Tatkin, Stan. Love and War in Intimate Relationships.

Johnson, Sue. Hold Me Tight.

Amen, Daniel. The Brain in Love.

Adler, Ronald and Proctor II, Russell. Looking Out, Looking In.

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Preston Ni is a professor, presenter, private coach, and author of Communication Success with Four Personality Types and How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. more...

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