Do you know any couples whose love you admire? Grandparents or neighbors, colleagues or parents, people whose romantic relationships have endured year after year, inspiring awe for their deep caring, commitment, and joy?
Creating a loving and lasting partnership clearly isn't easy. Most people enter marriage fully expecting to share a life together, but in reality, 40-50 percent of those marriages are predicted to end in divorce. Stable marriages, moreover, are not necessarily happy: People stay in unsatisfying relationships for a variety of reasons (e.g., children, finances, religion). The question then is not one of mere stability, but also of quality: How do two people create and maintain a mutually happy relationship? What are the secrets to a successful marriage?
Relationship researchers are deeply motivated to identify interpersonal patterns characterizing successful marriages. While plenty of empirical questions still remain, certain behaviors commonly appear among happy couples. If you're looking for the perfect someone, or wondering if you've found that person already, these behaviors should be of interest to you.
Will you and your partner adopt the kinds of habits that make for success? Here's how to begin setting the stage for long, healthy relationship.
- Practice mindfulness. In a busy week, it's easy to half-engage with your romantic partner as you push through to Friday, but try to resist the pull of your phone, computer, or the long to-do list in your head. Research consistently shows that relationships are more satisfying when individuals practice mindfulness (McGill, Adler-Baeder, & Rodriguez, 2016). Mindfulness is the art of giving active attention to the moment—not an easy task, but a useful one. You might imagine that individuals on the receiving end of mindfulness could feel deeply valued, a feeling that would foster intimacy, trust, and connection.
- Recommit, every day. When people think of love, the emotional components of passion and intimacy are often the first to come to mind, but commitment is actually the Number One predictor of relationship satisfaction, especially in long-term relationships (Acker & Davis, 1992). Commitment is a cognitive choice, a decision that individuals make to be in a relationship. Couples who renew their commitments everyday, in words and deed, are situating themselves nicely for a long-lasting partnership.
- Be playful. Sure, adult life tends to emphasize productivity and seriousness, but sometimes it's about playing. Playful people take time to prioritize enjoyment, pleasure, amusement, and having fun, and such an orientation in romantic relationships is predictive of satisfaction (Proyer, 2014). This suggests the possibility that play could be an important dimension of a successful relationship.
- Put work into the relationship. Back in the 1980s, relationship scholars identified relationship maintenance behaviors as critically important to the sustained health of a romantic partnership. Recent research supports the idea that individuals who actively work on their relationships help make those relationships happy and lasting (Ogolsky & Bowers, 2013). The specific kinds of behaviors that reliably predict relationship success include expressing positive emotions, being open, giving relational reassurances, using your social circle to support your relationship, and readily sharing the work and responsibilities that come with a long-term relationship.
- If it's not important, let it go. In a recent study, researchers asked a sample of divorcees why their marriages failed. Participants cited frequent arguing as a major contributor, second only to infidelity (Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen, & Markman, 2013). They described how an argument might start around something minor and then escalate into a major fight. Importantly, these arguments were not productive, supportive, or calm; rather, people recalled significant negative emotions. Finding ways to reduce the frequency of conflict, by letting go of the little things, could add more happiness to a relationship. If conflict does occur, how a couple manages it may be predictive of their relationship success.
- When there is conflict, talk it out. Recent research suggests that couples benefit from being flexible in how they respond to conflicts (Overall & McNulty, 2017). When couples are navigating serious conflicts, are secure in their relationship, and have the ability to adapt their behaviors, being direct and oppositional can actually help more than other approaches; however, a more cooperative, affectionate approach may be the best strategy when someone tends to get defensive or when the conflict is minor. In other words, there's no "one size fits all" strategy: Successful couples adapt their approach to a specific conflict as a function of its broader context.
- Show your love. Routines inevitably become part of the daily lives of a couple. While much research suggests that trying something new and interesting together can be an important way for couples to keep the spark alive (Aron et al., 2000), maintaining the romantic side of a partnership can be done in other, simple ways too. Give honest compliments, for example. Research shows that compliments, when they're understood to be sincere and meaningful, can have a surprisingly potent benefit to relationship satisfaction (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). These findings suggest that it's not just the big things that matter: showing love through words and small gestures may be important, too.
Romantic relationships are dyadic interactions, and as such, they are ever-changing and intensely complex. The recipe for a successful marriage isn't fully clear, but this sample of findings points to the importance of work and effort. Successful relationships don't just happen: They emerge when two people invest in their relationship and have the structural support (e.g., manageable life stress) to do so well. Note that much of the research on relationship satisfaction and stability focuses on predictors, which may or may not be causal forces. As such, more research is needed to identify the exact role of critical interpersonal factors on relationship outcomes.
Acker, M., & Davis, M. H. (1992). Intimacy, passion and commitment in adult romantic relationships: A test of the triangular theory of love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 9, 21-50.
Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.
McGill, J., Adler-Baeder, F., & Rodriguez, P. (2016). Mindfully in love: A meta-analysis of the association between mindfulness and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Human Sciences and Extension Volume, 4, 89-101.
Ogolsky, B. G., & Bowers, J. R. (2013). A meta-analytic review of relationship maintenance and its correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 343-367.
Overall, N. C., & McNulty, J. K. (2017). What type of communication during conflict is beneficial for intimate relationships?. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 1-5.
Proyer, R. T. (2014). To love and play: Testing the association of adult playfulness with the relationship personality and relationship satisfaction. Current Psychology, 33, 501-514.
Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Reasons for divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: Implications for improving relationship education. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2, 131-145.