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5 Habits Of Mentally Strong Couples

This is what helps couples endure and thrive when the going gets rough.

by Graham Techler
Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images

Mental strength may be a quality that’s hard to pin down, but it’s one we all intuitively seek out and try to cultivate, both as individuals and as partners. What couple wouldn’t like to think of themselves as having the psychological fortitude to withstand any of the many roadblocks life throws their way? The only way forward is through, as they say, and when you’re aligned with one another and better prepared to handle inevitable problems, things are not easier per se but there’s a greater confidence in your ability to persevere. That matters greatly.

But what really constitutes mental strength? Is it that mentally strong couples are flawless creatures who are too enlightened to experience any friction in their relationships? Far from it. Amy Morin, LCSW, the internationally bestselling author of the forthcoming 13 Things Mentally Strong Couples Don’t Do, sees mental strength as a matter of perspective.

Do you and your partner view your issues as being addressable through an applied method and some patience, or as something you need to distract yourself from? In Morin’s experience, the defining trait of the mentally strong couples who come into her office is that they enter therapy with a real desire to make a positive change in their life. They aren’t just looking for validation that the other person is wrong. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are five of the telltale qualities Morin sees from mentally strong couples in healthy, long-lasting relationships.

1. They Discuss Their Problems

The temptation to ignore problems is a strong one, as it offers plenty of short-term benefits— whereas the risks involved in voicing an issue can seem unrewarding. But if you want to develop the mental strength to engage with problems in a healthy way, you have to develop a shared language and methodology. What does that look like? According to Morin, the quality that distinguishes mentally strong couples is that they aren’t interested in blaming each other.

“As a therapist, what we see a lot of in the therapy office is people dragging their partner in and wanting their partner to be ‘fixed,’ ” says Morin. “So we talk a lot about accepting responsibility. You can say, ‘I’m uncomfortable with your behavior, but it’s not necessarily that you need to change. Perhaps I need to work on tolerating my discomfort better. Or, perhaps we can problem-solve some different strategies.’ But we can only change our own behavior. And when you focus on what you have control over, it empowers people to say, ‘All right, maybe I can’t change what my partner does, but I still have the power to change my relationship.’ ”

Entering your discussions with this kind of mindset will make all the difference.

2. They Set Boundaries

Boundary-setting between partners is a tried-and-true signifier of a functioning relationship. But what Morin adds to the equation is the idea that setting boundaries with other people as a couple is just as important.

“It could be anything from how we’re not going to lend money to extended family, to how we’re going to ask people to call before they show up, or how we’re not going to allow people to criticize our parenting in front of the kids,” says Morin. “If you’re having a fertility issue, is it okay to announce that on social media, or shall you not discuss that in public quite yet?”

Becoming a united front on these kinds of topics is a surefire way to prevent avoidable conflict down the road, and having ongoing discussions about what you feel those boundaries should be gives you the space to discover what kind of partnership you both want to have.

3. They Use Their Emotions With Each Other Responsibly

If you find yourself feeling like it’s your job to make sure your partner always feels good, that’s a sign that something needs addressing. According to Morin, mentally healthy couples don’t weaponize their emotions to get what they want, nor do they allow themselves to violate their own boundaries in pursuit of appeasing their partner’s emotional state.

“When people abandon their own values or abandon their own priorities to try and make someone else happy they become somewhat miserable and resentful in the long run,” she says.

Still, if you have a partner who struggles with their emotional state, it’s natural to want to help them as best you can. But finding the healthiest way to do so might need to involve reframing what you can offer. “If someone’s struggling with anxiety,” says Morin, “it might be ‘How do I support you in getting better?’ Not, ‘How do I support you in experiencing less anxiety in this moment?’ Those ongoing conversations can help people to try and figure out a plan.”

4. They Don’t Expect the Relationship to Meet All Their Needs

In 13 Things Mentally Strong Couples Don’t Do, Morin describes a patient placing too much stock in the Jerry Maguire school of romance — i.e. the notion that a partner should “complete” you. It’s a great metaphor for the false impression this idea gives you about love: seemingly swooning and romantic from the outside, it’s a little problematic once you take a closer look. But why does this fantasy loom so large when we enter into a relationship?

“It sort of gives us this sense of relief,” says Morin. “If someone comes along and makes our lives so much better, then I don’t have to do any work.… But then when things really get moving along, and you realize, ‘Oh, right, we don’t always agree, and this is going to be hard work.’ ”

The warm and fuzzy feelings of a relationship’s ‘honeymoon’ period can’t and shouldn’t last forever. “So,” adds Morin, “it’s really important for people to be able to say, ‘I’m going to meet some of my needs and I’m going to meet some of your needs, but it’s also your job to meet some of your needs as well. I can’t do everything.’ So that you don’t end up taking on too much of that responsibility. Because nobody wins in the end when we do.”

Mentally strong couples take this as a given, and understand that there’s a stronger relationship to be built on the idea that you can’t always be each other’s Jerry Maguire.

5. They Want To Grow And Change, And Encourage Each Other To Do So

For couples, the fear that your partner won’t like you as much if you make a big change in your life can be an overwhelming one. If your partner does make a big change (or announce their intention to) it can also be easy to fall into a pattern of negative judgements and assumptions about how this change is a mistake that will disrupt their life and yours.

But maturing as a couple — both separately and together — is one of the joys of being a couple, and mentally strong relationships are ones in which both partners find ample opportunities to support a partner who wants to grow and change.

“I think it’s just about ongoing communication,” says Morin, “so that you know how the person is growing and changing [and] you don’t grow apart… instead you can honor the changes that they’re making and recognize how that might also change the relationship.”

These conversations can revolve around the best way to pivot your initiatives as a couple to support this change, or individual strategies one of you can use that will be helpful to the other. The ultimate goal, as always, is to be able to share in the victory of these positive changes, knowing that the mental strengths you each bring to the relationship are to thank for them.