In an interview years ago, Jane Pauley asked family and relationship researcher John DeFrain, Ph.D., what he thought was the major cause of divorce in America. “Marriage” was his response. He wasn’t trying to be flippant (well, maybe a little), but rather, he was acknowledging the many obstacles to happy, long-term unions.
Marriage is “putting two people together under the same roof and dumping all the problems of the world on top of their heads,” says DeFrain, professor emeritus of family studies at the University of Nebraska and the author of more than 20 books, including a study of strength and resilience of more than 30 families around the world that he co-authored with Sylvia Asay, Ph.D.
“Society is set up to satisfy business interests, not family interests,” DeFrain, now in his 70s, continues. “There are all these forces against couples and families and they don’t have any organization to protect them. They don’t have allies like a union or party; they have to figure it all out themselves.”
So how do happy marriages stay happy? What qualities help a marriage endure? Researchers like DeFrain have spent decades publishing studies dissecting marriages to figure out what works to keep couples happy for the long haul. Here’s what DeFrain and couples therapists say is truly essential for happy, long-term marriages.
1. They are friends — and have friends
Marriage researcher John Gottman developed an infographic of a “sound relationship house” containing the elements of successful relationships, says certified Gottman therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Dana McNeil. Three things on the lower level — caring, fondness and admiration — are essential for building the friendship important for the house’s foundation, McNeil says.
“Like a real house, if something is going on with the slab or in the crawl space and you try to put the enormous weight of a house on it, you’re asking too much of the foundation and will have problems,” McNeil says. “Those three things go into the basis of friendship, which gives us the foundation to build upon.”
The increased life satisfaction researchers have associated with married people was twice as great when participants felt their spouses were their best friends, according to a study published in 2014. DeFrain has made similar observations in his work.
“Having studied great marriages for eight years, it boils down to simply that best friends don’t do bad things to each other.,” he says. “They wouldn’t think of it.”
It’s important to remember, however, that best friend shouldn’t mean only friend. Couples need to have space from each other, DeFrain says, and notes, “Oak trees won’t grow in each other’s shadow.”
In addition to alone time, having reliable friends and family help buffer people through storms, adds Justin Lavner, Ph.D., family researcher and associate professor at the University of Georgia.
2. They think like a team
Teamwork really does make the marital dream work. People in successful relationships feel supported and assured that their partner will always be on their side, McNeil says. In a true partnership, you hurt when your partner hurts, and a problem for one of you is a problem for both of you.
“It’s not codependent but interdependent,” she says. “It’s thinking, ‘My life wouldn’t be the same without you’ and ‘I know what to expect with you even though the entire world is chaotic right now.’”
Consistency and empathy are essential in true partnerships, McNeil says. If your partner asks for a hug after a rough day and half the time you’re happy to do it but sometimes you snap at her that you’re busy, for example, she’ll learn she can’t count on you 100 percent of the time. Attachment injuries, she notes, occur in children when caregivers are inconsistent or sporadic.
“‘Partnership’ is a great word for what two people of any gender would want to have,” says Pellham, New York, social worker and therapist Richard Heller. “Resilience in relationships to a large extent are based on agreement, understanding your network of support, and a basic sense of well-being.”
Couples who don’t feel quite there in their own relationships can learn to model healthy partnerships, Heller says. But what can stand in the way is an antiquated idea that the husband is “the boss” in the relationship, DeFrain says. The boss-employee relationship has little in common with the kind of partnership necessary for happy marriages.
“You don’t communicate positively with your boss, and you’re not really committed to your boss,” he says. “You just do what you have to do to make them happy.”
3. They accentuate the positive
Natural optimism is an extremely valuable asset in marriages. Married optimists engaged in more positive problem-solving strategies when there was conflict and showed less decline in marital well-being one year into the marriage, the authors of a 2013 study found. Another study concluded that reacting positively to positive news their partners shared was more predictive of relationship satisfaction than men’s responses to bad news, according to research published in 2006.
If you’re not a born optimist, some research suggests you might grow a little sunnier later in life: In a study of long-term marriages, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that positive emotions increase and negative emotions decrease with age.
Practicing gratitude is a good way to learn the ways of the optimist. Gratitude appears to function as a “booster shot” for romantic relationships, according to a study published in Personal Relationships in 2010. When partners felt more gratitude toward their partners, they felt better about their relationships and more connected to their partners, not only on that day but the following day as well, the authors noted.
Another simple way to think about it is to practice what many people are taught in grade school: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, McNeil says.
Part of having a positive perspective, per McNeil, is asking, ‘Do I give you the benefit of doubt? Can I be ‘curious instead of furious’ when conflicts arise?’
4. They know how to manage stress
Unsurprisingly, stress management is one of the six areas identified as crucial to family harmony, DeFrain noted in his book Strong Families Around the World.
Your personality traits and attachment style have a lot to do with how you deal with stress, which in turn affects how you behave in relationships, Lavner adds.
“What’s interesting is people often aren’t aware of how stress is affecting them,” Lavner says. “For a lot of couples, stress can be very impairing for the relationship.”
Therefore, a first step in couples therapy is getting them to understand how stress affects them physiologically, McNeil says.
“When your heart rate is over 100 beats per second, your cognitive functioning is impaired,” she says. “Before we start learning any tools, you have to have an understanding of the physiological impact conflict is having on your body.”
That stress-affected state is when couples say horrible things to each other, McNeil says. Once couples start recognizing how stress feels in their bodies, they can learn strategies to calm themselves down.
5. They know how to manage conflict
An important piece of conflict management is accepting the unfixable, which according to the Gottman Institute is 69 percent of conflict in marriages. Every couple has “one special argument” they tend to return to time and again, Heller says. Breaking that pattern requires “stepping back and monitoring that critical voice we carry inside of us and not allowing it to dominate,” he says.
To do that, couples also need to understand their individual characteristics, which include personality traits and attachment styles. Individual characteristics are one of the broad domains that affect the quality of relationships, Lavner says.
In addition to understanding your own way of reacting to things, try to understand who your partner is and why they act the way they do. For example, someone might resent a partner for never wanting to hold hands in public and say that makes them feel unloved. But it could be that the person just doesn’t like a lot of touching and prefers more space, he says.
“Part of it is helping couples better understand where the other is coming from,” Lavner says. “Then the hand holding doesn’t bother you anymore because you’ve figured out how to show each other affection in other ways.”
Hand holding in this example is a manifestation of a “core theme” for a couple, such as “How much closeness do I want, and how much distance do you want?” he says. Much like how arguments about dirty dishes might mask deeper issues about how a couple shares household duties.
“Therapists will have couples talk about specifics, but more as a way of getting at some of those deeper issues,” Lavner says. “Unless you deal with the underlying themes of conflict, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole.”
6. They enjoy spending time together
This one might sound like a no-brainer, but think about it: You probably know at least one couple who doesn’t seem to enjoy doing anything together. Maybe all she wants to do with her free time is play video games and her husband gets frustrated trying to get her to engage with others at social functions. Or eating out is miserable because he always complains how much everything costs. Maybe they take the kids to the park, but the focus is the children’s safety and enjoyment, and their presence together as a couple is incidental.
Couples who enjoy spending time together are ahead of the game, as it’s another of the six important elements of resilient families DeFrain identified. In addition, a recent study found that playfulness helps keep romantic relationships healthy. It encourages positive interactions between partners by helping them deal with stress and defuse conflicts.
Most parents figure out how to attend to their kids and their jobs pretty well, DeFrain says, but might wind up scrimping on the marriage.
“Someone might say, ‘He or she is an adult, they don’t need me like the children do,’” he says. “But it helps to literally put the health of your personal relationship on the schedule somehow,” such as regular date nights or even putting sex on the calendar.
7. They share a world view
No, this doesn’t mean you have to be aligned on everything. That’s silly and doesn’t allow room for growth. But you have to have some shared values, DeFrain says, which he describes as “a deep narrative in your heart about how the world works and how you want to live.”
Creating shared meaning is the top layer of the sound relationship house, McNeil says. It doesn’t necessarily have to be religion.
“What I’ve seen work for couples is when they have the same vision at the heart of relationship,” Heller says. “Couples can have completely different interests but have a shared primary mission, whatever that means to them. It could be the environment, religion, racial equality.”
Like a strong house built on a sound foundation, these elements of happy marriages support each other, DeFrain says.
If couples are committed to each other, for example, they’re more likely to have positive communication. “And with commitment,” says DeFrain, “they treat the family like the center of their world.”
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