8 Defining Traits of Couples in Strong, Happy Relationships

Not all happy couples are the same. But many happy couples share these particular attributes.

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Two happy gay men cooking dinner together

What defines a happy relationship? Well, it isn’t a stretch to say that the happiest long-lasting marriages likely don’t have affairs or lie to one another about secret credit cards or fly off the handle and scream “THIS ISN’T A DORM!” when the garbage hasn’t been taken out. But it also helps to hear from those who regularly meet with a wide variety of couples — health and unhealthy — to understand the overlapping threads in the happy relationships they encounter. From prioritizing commitment and making positive assumptions about their partners to staying curious and exhibiting a willingness to grow and learn, here, according to a therapist with 22 years of experience, are eight defining traits of happy relationships.

1. They Stay Committed

Sounds obvious. And, well, it is. But according to therapist Janet Zinn, LCSW, who has spent 22 years counseling couples in New York City, the notion of commitment is one of the most solid foundational elements of a happy marriage. “When there is a foundation of caring and love, then you can trust at all times that you will get through whatever difficulties you are facing,” she says. “Commitment means you can gently lay your head on your partner’s shoulder because you know he or she is there for you when you’re vulnerable or simply tired. It’s a basic shared intimacy, and a necessary ingredient to a healthy marriage.”

2. They Assume Their Partner Is Doing Their Best

We all have off days, when a half-assed effort is just all we can muster. But, in a marriage, a shared expectation of excellence will benefit you both. “If you assume your partner is doing their best, it is less likely there will be blaming and disappointment,” says Zinn. “And there will be an active engagement to resolve issues as they arise since you know you both have each other’s best interests in mind.” Remember “your best” doesn’t mean perfection — it means you’re giving the situation everything you can at that moment in time.

3. They Communicate Respectfully

“Respectful communication means you speak of the issue at hand, rather than bringing up the past in the form of ‘You always…’ or ‘You never…’. Instead, you try to learn your partner’s perspective,” says Zinn. “You try not to be defensive so you can hear your partner’s point of view. You can speak of your experience without negating or dismissing your partner’s experience.” A few tenets of respectful communication to remember: Repeat what they say, so they get a sense that you understand their concerns. And ask if there is a way to come to an agreement, even if you see things differently.

If we are willing to learn from our mistakes as they relate to our partner’s needs and desires, we will thrive – personally, and in the relationship.

4. They Laugh

According to a University of Kansas study, couples who laugh together, stay together. Zinn is not surprised by the obvious correlation: “Laughter lightens things up when there are hardships in your marriage,” she says. “It brings pleasure to both of you at arbitrary times. And it creates a sense of joy – which is essential to a deeply satisfying relationship.” Maybe you prefer fart noises to New Yorker cartoons, but try to find a common source of laughter to keep things fun in the long run.

5. They Are Flexible

Not as in “couples yoga” flexible, but in the sense that they recognize an ever-changing world, and are ready to adapt accordingly. “Unexpected events, expenses, and situations come up in relationships,” says Zinn. “If we are too rigid, we resist facing the unexpected. A couple’s ability to ‘go with the flow’ — especially when it’s dramatically different from what they expected — gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and, more importantly, get to know each other in ways they might never have known before.”

6. They Are Curious

Growth (as a couple or an individual) requires risk. And risk requires curiosity. Being curious together can result in tremendous learning experiences that will strengthen your relationship. “In difficult or challenging situations, you can both learn from what makes those situations hard for you,” says Zinn. “And you’ll grow in the process. In this way you will both have pride for yourselves and each other in the ways you got to the other side.” She adds, “Keep in mind, too, that your partner will likely change over time, so a shared sense of curiosity — being open to the ways in which he or she changes — can allow you to identify the ways you’ve changed as well.”

7. They Share Values — And Try To Support Differing Ones

“When a couple’s values are aligned, moving forward becomes easier,” says Zinn. If your value sets match up, great. If not, the key is to come up with creative ways to support differing values, and avoid devaluing what your partner finds important.

8. They Are Willing To Learn And Grow

“We will make mistakes in the relationship,” Zinn says. “We screw up. We say dumb things. We get things wrong. But, if we are willing to learn from our mistakes as they relate to our partner’s needs and desires, we will thrive – personally, and in the relationship. The willingness to admit mistakes, and apologize sincerely, is an important key in creating a deeper bond with our partner.” So, swallow that pride and burp out an “I’m sorry” the next time you make a mistake.

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