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7 Secrets for a Relationship That Lasts

How to make your relationship healthy and long-lasting.

Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock
Source: Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock

Whether you’ve just begun a committed relationship, or you’ve got decades under your belt, whether your song is "Sunday Morning" by Maroon 5 or "Best of My Love" by the Eagles, whether your next anniversary is paper or diamond, we all need to tend to our relationships.

Married, cohabiting, or simply in it for the long haul, any committed relationship needs a few tools to make it through the years. Here are 7 science-backed secrets to make your long-term relationship feel more like a Bruno Mars flash mob and less like the theme song from Married with Children.

1. Be your own person.

Before welcoming another adult into your life, it’s important to have spent time adulting yourself. Your life need not be cross-indexed and color-coded, but it is important to have separated in a healthy way from your family of origin. If your mother still wakes you up in the morning or does your laundry, now is the time to get your life on solid footing before merging it with another human’s.

2. Be a team.

Problems like differing views on parenting, cleanliness, and money may seem unsolvable. But the least constructive approach to difficult problems is to blame each other and fight it out.

Instead, try an approach called unified detachment. Unified detachment is a fundamental shift in perspective that joins you and your partner together against the problem. Rather than approaching a problem as you against your crazed, headstrong partner, approach the situation as the two of you united against the problem. For example, “How can we collaborate to better budget our money?” or “How can we work together to argue less?”

3. Outweigh the negatives with positives.

A classic study out of the University of Washington asked heterosexual newlywed couples to discuss a touchy subject in their relationship for 15 minutes. The headline-making results found that divorce could be foreseen by analyzing the first three minutes of the couples’ argument. The key was the balance of negative and positive interactions. In their discussions, spouses in stable relationships displayed less negative affect — contempt, belligerence, or defensiveness — and more positive affect, like validation, affection, and humor.

Interestingly, for the husbands, analyzing the argument in its entirety increased the ability to predict divorce. Over the course of the argument, husbands in stable marriages got a little more negative, but they simultaneously stayed positive: making jokes, listening, and being affectionate.

Husbands in marriages that would eventually end in divorce, however, got increasingly negative and less positive over the course of the 15 minutes. By the end, calling their spouse by a cute nickname or validating her viewpoint went out the window.

Later, the same research lab developed the magic ratio for a healthy relationship: For every negative interaction, they advise, you need five positive interactions. In other words, stable couples argue, of course, but that arguing is filled with joking and teasing and listening and love.

4. Be equal.

A study in the American Journal of Sociology found that couples in egalitarian relationships are less likely to divorce than couples where one brings home the bacon, and the other cooks it up.

So how do you achieve parity? It’s not as simple as splitting up the chores along gender lines.

A study in the journal Marriage and Family Review differentiated between “low-control” and “high-control” tasks. Low-control tasks are named as such, because there is little control or choice in the matter — they have to be done more or less continuously, like loading and unloading the dishwasher; or at specific times, like making dinner; or on demand, like changing a diaper. High-control tasks, by contrast, can be done when it’s convenient and have a specific beginning and end, like mowing the lawn or doing a home repair. Traditionally, low-control tasks have been designated as women’s, while high-control tasks have been labeled as men’s.

Therefore, take a page from many same-sex relationships, and divide responsibilities by interest and value rather than by gender roles. For example, the socialite takes responsibility for playdates and get-togethers. The foodie makes dinner or does the grocery shopping. And the tasks no one wants? You have three options: outsource, workaround (no one has to water plants if you don’t have any!), or divvy them up. Even if the divvying ends up falling along gender lines, as long as you decided on those assignments together, you’ll go a long way towards shrinking resentment.

Next, in families with kids, there’s an overwhelming barrage of kid-related invisible labor: scheduling playdates, researching pediatricians, ordering softball uniforms, and returning them when they don’t fit, etc. In heterosexual relationships, this keeping track of a thousand and one things usually falls to the woman.

How does this get started? It’s been argued that it starts with maternity leave. It takes time and practice to gain expertise in a task. So when moms are given a leave of absence, but dads are not, moms gain singular expertise during those hundreds of hours with the baby, and that gap never gets closed. The solution? Paternal leave. Indeed, a Pew Research survey found that 69 percent of Americans believe fathers should receive paid parental leave, which would help level the playing field.

5. Expect a lot of your partner, but not everything.

While fairytale expectations are bound to be disappointing, a study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that marriages stay happy with a magic combination of high expectations and partners’ ability to reach them.

In the study, couples were asked about their expectations of their relationship. Next, they were asked to come into the lab, identify a point of conflict in their relationship, and work towards a resolution. Researchers observed each partner as they argued and noted when partners avoided the topic, criticized or faulted the other, shirked responsibility, made presumptions, or were hostile. By contrast, researchers also noted when partners stayed on topic and furthered the resolution.

When individuals had high expectations of the relationship, and their partners could deliver, that match of expectations and ability made for a happier relationship.

But not everyone can rise to meet expectations — when individuals had high expectations, but their partners had less-than-perfect communication skills, those same high expectations set the couple up for disappointment.

The take-home message? Expect a lot of your partner, but only what they’re capable of.

6. Lie to yourself a little.

Remember when you first fell in love, and you thought your partner was the greatest, the cutest, the smartest? Keep them on that pedestal, at least a little. A study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that harboring illusions about your relationship went along with greater satisfaction, love, and trust, as well as less conflict. Furthermore, the stronger your initial illusions, the greater the likelihood of your relationship lasting over the years. Even when he gets bald and pudgy, or she’s sporting granny panties, they’ll still be your Prince or Princess Charming.

7. Commit to commitment itself.

Making a relationship last is more than committing to another person. It’s also committing to the idea of commitment. Couple therapists in training are taught to pay attention to three things in the therapy room: each partner, and also the relationship itself. Every couple creates their own little culture, and it’s vital to note if it’s a culture of love, support, and middle ground, or one of criticism, insecurity, and power struggles.

dotshock/Shutterstock
Source: dotshock/Shutterstock

Seeing a partnership as something the two of you build together every day keeps you in the game much more than simply seeing the relationship as a way to get your individual needs met.

To sum it all up, the grass is greener where you water it. So tend to yourself and your relationship, and watch your garden grow. It may not always be a rose garden, but together, it will be yours.

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