8 Traits of a Happy Marriage, According to a Couples Therapist

No. 5: They are flexible.

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What makes for a happy marriage? Well, it’s safe to say that the happiest long-lasting couples probably 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 SHEILA!” when the garbage hasn’t been taken out. But when looking at long-term happy marriages, what traits appear again and again? Well there’s no magic formula and each couple must go about it in their own way and blah blah blah — you know the spiel. But when we zoom out a bit, common traits appear. To help make you more aware of what makes unions last, here are eight defining characteristics of long lasting-marriages.

1. They stay committed.

Sounds obvious. And, well, it is. But according to Janet Zinn, a New York-based LCSW and couples therapist, 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 his or her 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

“We all communicate. Even when we’re not speaking to each other, that is a form of communication,” explains Zinn. “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. 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.” Zinn also offers some tips for respectful communication. “Repeat what they say, so they get a sense that you understand their concerns,” she says. “And ask if there is a way to come to an agreement, even if you see things differently.”

4. They laugh.

According to a University of Kansas study, those couples who laugh together, stay together. Zinn explains why: “Laughter lightens things up when there are hardships in your marriage. 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.

“When a couple’s values are aligned, moving forward becomes easier,” says Zinn. “This is especially true with money issues, the number one subject of partner disputes.” 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. “If you want to save up for a home, for example,” says Zinn, “and she wants to travel the world and live in a small, temporary home, see if there is a way you can have two savings accounts. Or find opportunities to volunteer together, for various causes you might support.”

8. They are willing to learn and grow.

“We will make mistakes in the relationship,” Zinn admits. “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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