By Pepper Schwartz, published on May 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The experience of love is unique for every person, and using that feeling to measure the potential success of a relationship is even more subjective. Nonetheless, at some point most of us face the timeless question of what makes a relationship work. Though we can't quantify love, we can look at variables that help us choose the right partner. Research shows that a few crucial compatibilities make the difference between making up and breaking up.
We are a love culture. Unlike some societies that think of passionate love as a nuisance that can undermine sound reasoning about whom and when to marry, we think passion is our truest guide. When we say, "He did it all for love," we mean it as a compliment. In many cultures it would be said with pity or contempt. But we sigh with happiness when witnessing lovers who barely know each other connect as powerfully as lightening striking the Earth.
This approach is romantic, but it's also a little daft. Sure, being passionately attracted to someone is a great elixir, but making a commitment based on hormone-addled logic is a recipe for disappointment, if not disaster. We shouldn't be misled by fleeting moments of bliss. Love is not all you need, and you will not know—across a crowded room or even on a first date—that this person absolutely is the One. While some hunches work out (and, of course, those are the Cinderella stories), most do not. There is a real danger when you think that fate has delivered the One: You may stop looking for disconfirming evidence, even if there are big problems (like his tendency to drink too much or her occasional disappearances).
Theories about love that are based on fate are not only untrue, they aren't even in the best interest of love. Of course, Cupid forbid, if the One does not work out, you might think you've lost your true love and forego giving other people a chance. Choosing the right partner is arguably the most important decision you will make. Since 1993, a multitude of studies have shown how bad relationships can negatively affect job performance, physical and mental health, financial security and even life span. Certainly, such an important decision requires more than the adrenaline rush of infatuation.
When considering what it takes to make love work, it is useful to look at those who have tried and succeeded as well as those who have tried and failed. Besides observations from my own work, I have included data from The Enrich Couple Inventory, 195 questions developed by David Olson, Ph.D., David Fournier Ph.D., and Joan Druckman, Ph.D., that were administered to 21,501 couples throughout the country. The researchers compared the answers of the happiest couples to those of the most unhappy and found that the differences between their answers to a few key questions tell a lot about what makes love work. If we are willing to be rational about love, we can learn from others' experiences—and perhaps find and maintain a true love even after the initial chemistry fades.
"My partner is a very good listener."
"My partner does not understand how I feel."
If you want to feel alone in a relationship, be with someone who hasn't a clue about what you are going through. Or worse, someone who does have a clue but cannot understand why your pain is a big deal. The two of you can be totally different people in a number of ways, but if a partner is sensitive to how you see the world and experience life, then those differences are unimportant.
Ruth, who has been married to Alex for 31 years, puts it this way, "When we got married, nobody thought it would last because we are so different. Alex is from a working-class family; I am Jewish, he is Lutheran—everyone thought it was a non-starter from the wedding day on. But what they didn't know, and what has been the most important thing in our relationship, is that Alex knows how to listen. Really listen. No matter what, he can see how I'm feeling and he can feel for me. Trust me, that solves a lot of problems."
"We have a good balance of leisure time spent together and separately."
"We find it easy to think of things to do together."
Although it sometimes works if people have different priorities, most often, being out of sync is damaging in the long run. Allotting time in your day, your week and your life for your partner is an important ingredient in a relationship. If one person wants to spend every Saturday and Sunday relaxing in front of the television when the other wants to hike, bike and explore, both will feel deprived. This may not show up in the busy early years of child raising, but over time it can become a real problem. As Marty, an executive for a shipping company, says, "The best thing my second wife and I do together is hang out, just be friends sharing the same space. My first marriage was all about seeing things, doing things, as if just being together wasn't enough. Well, maybe it wasn't with her, but it is one of the greatest joys I have with Ellen."
"I am very satisfied with how we talk to each other."
"We are creative in how we handle our differences."
Marriage exists in a constantly changing world. Couples need to be able to talk about these changes, how they feel about them and what they want to do in response. They need to have a sense of teamwork, one arrived at by discussion and joint action. If one person refuses to discuss things, one or both persons will feel the relationship is not intimate and perhaps unfair. And if no one's talking, there is no way to fix a problem and keep it from getting worse. Life is not static, it's messy, and it requires communication.
"Making financial decisions is not difficult."
If one person is ambitious, and the other person wants a lifestyle that doesn't support that ambition, there will be growing resentment. Lisa, a young woman who has a small home-based mail-order business, became increasingly unhappy with her husband, Rob. Both wanted a higher standard of living, but he had also promised that he would be "a good father to our children." Instead, he was around less and less as he became more and more entangled in his work. He wanted to spend more time making money; she wanted him to be home more often. Neither she nor Rob had given serious thought to how incompatible their personalities might be. As life went on, she felt more deprived, and he felt more resentful. Ultimately, they separated.
"Our sexual relationship is satisfying and fulfilling."
Sexual incompatibilities can be fixed, right? And sexual disappointment isn't the worst problem when so much else is good about the relationship, right? Wrong and double wrong. First, while it is true that sex therapy can help many problems (especially mechanical ones such as erectile failure or pain during intercourse), it has a woeful track record when it comes to creating or resurrecting sexual desire. Second, while therapists can improve a lover's skill, either you have compatibility in bed or you don't. You can put someone on skates and they can learn to make it around the rink, but triple lutzes? No. Sex isn't important if it isn't important to both of you. But, if one partner is interested and the other is not, the interested party will rarely be content to just forget about it.
"We are both equally willing to make adjustments in the relationship."
"I can share feelings and ideas with my partner during disagreements."
Although it may be mistaken for strength, rigidity is not a good personal or marital quality. If someone doesn't like to admit they are wrong or show some flexibility in how they view problems, the partnership will be either fragile or full of anger and loneliness. Rachel, a woman who describes herself as a "giver," believed she could change her husband's inflexibility. "I thought I could bring him out, make him less rigid by doing so much for him, by always being ready to see his point of view. But he just took and took. When I backed down, he would see it as weakness, not flexibility. Finally, I just couldn't take being so unloved, so I left." There is no marriage in which the ability to apologize and be flexible isn't necessary.
"My partner understands my opinions and ideas."
In the beginning of a relationship, conversation is mostly self-revelation, which is interesting at first. But over time there are many circumstances that allow you to see the quality of a person's mind. It's OK to be awed by your partner's intelligence, but beware if you think she is less than overwhelmed by the way you solve problems, come to conclusions and think about life. The bedrock of mutual respect is comfort and admiration for each other's opinions. If that isn't present, contempt is just around the corner.