What are the traits of a happy, successful marriage? They’re hard to pinpoint. What works for one couple might be given the stink-eye by another. Different strokes, man. But when it’s your job to study and counsel happy and unhappy couples, trends do appear. That’s why we reached out to Carrie Cole. A master trainer and director of the renowned Gottman Institute in Seattle, Cole has worked with thousands of couples over the course of her career and understands better than most what defines a relationship that can last the test of time. She was gracious enough to provide these nine traits of happy, successful marriages. One thing that defines them? Both partners play active roles in the prioritization and upkeep of their relationship.
They Make a Habit of Staying Positive
Every marriage has its ups, downs, and a few sideways in between. The couples that succeed accept that things go wrong; they don’t allow themselves to become waylaid by unrealistic expectations that will remain unmet. “Most successful marriages develop a positive habit of mind,” says Cole. “They operate out of the belief that their partner has their best interests at heart. They work hard not to allow resentments to build.”
They Are a Support System for Each Other
Being there for each other would seem to be a given in a marriage, but it’s surprising how many couples don’t get it right. They either don’t listen or spend the entire conversation telling their partner everything that’s wrong and what they can do to fix it. Being supportive, per Cole, means just sitting and listening to what the other person has to say. As a solution, Cole refers back to John and Julie Gottman, who recommend that couples have a daily stress-reducing conversation where each partner has an opportunity to share stresses that are outside of the relationship, and that each partner listens empathetically, without attempting to solve the problem.
They Learn From Their Conflicts
Conflicts are an inevitability in any marriage. However, happy and successful couples learn from these little skirmishes and take them as opportunities toward greater intimacy, understanding, and connection. “Instead of vilifying each other, successful couples talk to each other respectfully when processing conflicts and listen to each other’s perspective,” says Cole, “and then validate their partner’s perspective even when it is different from their own point of view.”
They Make the Most of What They Have
A lot of couples worry about not having enough time, enough money, or enough freedom to do the things they want to do. However, couples that are happy and successful don’t allow themselves to be bogged down by worrying over when they’ll have more of something; instead, they focus on making the most of what they have. “It could be that people are expressing a sense of boredom or being in a rut that they need help to get out of,” says Cole. “So, it might be helpful to ask the questions ‘How can we incorporate some enjoyable rituals into our lives?’ Sometimes couples’ most fond memories are of times when they had no money.”
They Accept Each Others’ Differences
No one is perfect, and sometimes the traits that couples first found endearing are the same traits that are driving them nuts today. The key is recognizing that those fundamental differences are a part of who our partner is and accepting them for who they are, warts and all. And, for those instances when their character traits do cause conflict, they become the catalyst for positive, forward-looking conversations.
“The only way we can truly change is when we feel that our partner accepts us for who we are,” says Cole. “For example, my husband and I have a fundamental difference about time. I love that he is so laid-back about most things, but that includes being on time. I need to be early to feel like I’m on time. There are times when he works hard to make it out of the door on time to ease my anxiety, and then there are times when I need to soothe myself that he is really doing his best to work on it and it just doesn’t always happen.”
They Can Weather a Crisis
No marriage is crisis-free, and some crises are bigger than others. But, Cole says, a crisis doesn’t have to end a marriage, and strong couples are the ones who realize that and are willing to do whatever it takes to work through the problem, no matter how difficult it might be. “It requires that they express their emotions and thoughts and pain with their partner,” says Cole. “It also requires that they listen to each other’s pain without trying to minimize it or take it away. People need to feel that their partner is willing to listen to their pain and validate it.”
They Don’t Criticize
That’s not to say that they don’t get annoyed with each other or feel the need to point out when one or the other partner is coming up short. But it’s the way that they choose to go about it that makes the difference. Attacking your partner and laying blame at their feet will only create more strife. “The antidote is a gentle startup,” says Cole. “‘I get annoyed about the dishes in the living room. I would appreciate it if they would get picked up.’”
They Don’t Accuse
Anytime you send your partner the message that you’re somehow superior to them or that your partner is somehow defective, you’re expressing contempt for them and setting yourselves up for conflict down the line. If you feel your partner is not always being truthful with you, don’t tell them that they’re a liar. Instead, stay positive. “Express your need in positive terms,” she says. “Say something like, ‘I need complete honesty and transparency.’ ”
They Don’t Stonewall
In any marital argument, there comes a point where one or both partners can no longer engage. Couples who aren’t successful, says Cole, tend to just shut down and give their partner the silent treatment, which means that the argument remains unresolved and negative feelings will begin to fester. The solution, says Cole, is to take a break to calm down and then return to the conversation. “Your heart rate is likely quite high,” says Cole. “After you’re calm, re-engage with your partner and calmly explain what you got upset about.”