It goes without saying that it’s easier for couples to get along when life is running smoothly. But during tough times that are full of strife, difficulty, or uncertainty, holding on to harmony becomes infinitely more difficult for many couples. It’s those tough times that test the strength of your relationship.
“We’re living through an unprecedented time, so there’s little pandemic-related data that speaks to that per se,” says Ethan Kross, Ph.D., professor and founder of the Emotion & Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan and author of Chatter: The Voices in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. “But we can make best guesses based on what research has shown about what tends to help couples thrive.”
Psychologists say stressful events, or even crises — such as a job loss, death in the family or difficult parenting issues — aren’t likely to single-handedly break up strong partnerships. Couples can get through tough times with their relationships intact, but it helps if they’re flexible, empathic, and team-oriented, says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, Ph.D., author of Date Smart.
The glue binding couples even in times of strife, in fact, isn’t that mysterious. Although relationship experts might use different terms for them or group them in different ways, they’ve identified pretty consistent qualities among resilient couples. Here’s what couples able to weather struggles together tend to have in common, and how to strengthen those qualities in your own relationship.
1. They accept each other.
Research suggests the most important ingredient in sustaining a long-term relationship is emotional accessibility, or availability, says Brent Sweitzer, a licensed professional counselor in Cumming, Georgia. This can show up in many ways, he says, but it’s the answer to the question, “Will you be there for me when I need you?”
Put another way, couples able to weather tough times together tend to have established emotional safety, says Jennifer VanBoxel, marriage and family therapist and a trauma researcher and instructor at Michigan State University.
“It can be really difficult to achieve, especially when couples are struggling,” VanBoxel says. “But with that sense of safety and security, people feel they can be exactly who they are in the moment and still be accepted and understood.”
The freedom to be completely yourself doesn’t mean your partner needs to accept mistreatment, however. Couples who are emotionally accessible to each other prioritize making the other person feel safe, which requires respect as well as acceptance.
“You can’t feel safe with somebody if you don’t feel like they value you as a person,” VanBoxel says.
2. They know themselves.
The way people react to stress differs greatly and has a lot to do with their upbringing, says Laura Petiford, a marriage and family therapist in Fairfield, Connecticut. Some people might yell when they’re upset, for example, or tend to run away and avoid their partner during stressful times.
“If the person you love is distant, it can bring about a kind of panic – the same panic that a child feels when their mother, father or caregiver is nowhere to be found,” says Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Ben Fineman.
The ability to manage your own emotions, therefore, is extremely important, Kross says.
“We know when people have trouble managing negative feelings, or chatter, the spillover effects can negatively affect relationships,” he says.
There’s no one way to react to stress, but having some awareness about our tendencies can help keep marital problems from escalating. Once people recognize their patterns, they can create more healthy interactions, Fineman says.
And when couples have some awareness about their partners’ patterns, it can help them be more compassionate toward each other as well, VanBoxel says. For example, rather than blowing up at a partner for storming out during an argument, they can de-escalate without avoiding the problem by saying something like, “I know you need some time to cool down, and that’s fine, but we need to talk this through in the next day or two.”
3. They appreciate one another.
Appreciation and affection top the list of core qualities among strong, healthy couples, according to Strong Families Around the World: Strengths Based Research and Perspectives, a publication based on research of 30,000 families in 18 countries by John DeFrain, Ph.D., and Sylvia Asay, Ph.D.
Part of meaningful appreciation is showing it. People in healthy, long-term marriages are likely to put marriage researcher John Gottman’s magic ratio into practice, says Petiford. What Gottman Institute researchers have found in decades of studying relationships is that happy couples tend to have five positive interactions for every negative interaction.
For appreciation to have a real impact on a marriage, it needs to be deep and authentic. It’s the difference between saying, ‘Thanks for taking the trash out,’ and ‘I recognize we’re having a hard time right now, but I see that you’re trying’, notes VanBoxel. The latter, she says, would probably matter more than a surface level show of appreciation.
Put another way, couples able to weather tough times tend to be mindful of pointing out the good in their partner, says Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist specializing in marriage counseling in Boulder, Colorado.
“Couples who provide regular appreciation fill up their love tank so their relationship can take the hit of tough times,” he says.
4. They communicate compassionately and fairly.
Kurt Smith is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating men. He says that one of the things that surprises the men he sees in his practice the most is how important it is to connect on an emotional level with their partners.
“Men are all about fixing things, but sometimes you can’t fix it and just need to be emotionally present for your partner,” Smith says. “A related habit is the ability, or inability for most men, to empathize. Very few couples know how to do this well, but all couples can learn.”
Couples able to resolve conflicts in a healthy way know there’s a difference between having anger and acting out in anger, says Deborah Krevalin, a licensed mental health counselor in West Hartford, Connecticut. When anger is dealt with properly, it can bring couples closer together, she says.
People who survive tough times as a couple tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt that the other partner had good intentions when they said or did something. They stop and ask, “Hey, did you really mean that?” when something feels hurtful or they might have misunderstood. This can be more difficult than it sounds, as threat assessment is something our brains do naturally.
“It’s hard to implement if you don’t feel emotionally safe,” VanBoxel adds. “If you don’t feel they’ll hear or understand you, that will feed into a cycle of more fearful interaction, such as avoiding or blaming. What really helps is validating each other, and I don’t think that’s talked about enough.”
When couples communicate by sharing their personal experience rather than judgments of each other they’re better able to navigate tough times, Fineman says. It’s also helpful to reassess negative habits such as becoming defensive and stonewalling, or refusing to talk, when you’re arguing with your partner.
Most crucial: being able to keep the bigger picture of your relationship top of mind.
“We all argue, but the challenge is making those arguments more constructive,” Kross says. “It’s helpful to remind each other, ‘I know we’re arguing right now, but I love you.’”
How couples react to positive news matters, too, according to a 2006 study of nearly 80 dating couples. When people responded positively to positive news shared by their partners, it was more predictive of relationship satisfaction when researchers followed up a couple months later, compared to how partners reacted to negative news. Couples in which partners share triumphs in authentic ways seem helpful in building relationship resources, the authors wrote.
5. They work through problems collaboratively.
Some studies have noted that a willingness to “sacrifice” goes hand in hand with long-lasting marriages. There’s also research suggesting, however, that how people feel about the sacrifices they’ve made might be more significant, a 2015 study concluded. The therapists Fatherly interviewed for this story were not fans of the term in general, pointing out that one person might tend to sacrifice more often than is healthy.
“It might just be semantics, but ‘sacrifice’ gets construed in a way where people will put up with abuse, or sacrifice something that matters to them,” for the sake of keeping the relationship intact, VanBoxel says.
“Compromise,” too, although the term generally is regarded positively, can set up an unhealthy “tit for tat,” scorekeeping dynamic in the relationship. Couples who are adept at resolving problems in a way that feels equitable are able to listen to each other and genuinely try to understand where the other person is coming from. Having that understanding makes it easier to collaborate to find a solution that works for both people, rather than a solution that one person loves and the other hates.
“It’s more thinking, ‘Let’s find something that lifts us both up,’” VanBoxel says.
Facing problems together as a “we” feels more powerful, Manly adds: “A team-oriented couple does not get bogged down on ‘winning’ at the other person’s expense.”
6. They’re committed to the relationship and put each other first.
Researchers have pointed out for decades that commitment is a key factor in couples’ longevity. Understandably, feeling secure that your relationship won’t fall apart at the first sign of conflict takes away some anxiety couples might feel when dealing with problems.
But a deep commitment to each other shouldn’t fall to the wayside when couples become parents. The more secure the couple is, the more that supports the child, says VanBoxel.
“We think we have to sacrifice so much for our kids, but I tell couples that one of the greatest gifts you can give children is having a good relationship with your partner, because that’s what you’re modeling for them,” Sweitzer says. “Children won’t do what you say, they’ll do what you do.”
7. They share core values.
Studies support the old adage that “Couples who pray together stay together.” But it’s helpful to consider the underlying reasons for this rather than oversimplify study findings to assume that couples who share religious beliefs are stronger than couples who don’t.
“There must be a shared commitment to a value of paramount importance,” Petiford says. This can manifest through religious belief, but it can also be that both people value a high degree of independence or a commitment to family or a dedication to the arts.
“The fact that two people pray together likely reflects they have done the work of reconciling the meaning of their own existence, an important task of human development,” she continues.
Sharing an appreciation for nature or service to others by volunteering, for example, can be just as meaningful, Petiford adds: “For a couple who shares a deep love of nature, spending time hiking together might help support them through difficult times.”
8. They know it’s okay if things aren’t okay.
Couples able to pull through even after especially difficult times trust that things will get better.
“Relationships have an ebb and flow,” says Jessica Small, a marriage and family therapist and premarital counselor in Denver. It’s hard, but try not to get stuck in a downward loop and lose hope, she says.
“No relationship is all smiles,” Fineman says. “Sometimes couples feel distant from one another. The problem isn’t in the natural ups and downs of life with a partner, it’s when there isn’t enough safety for things to be temporarily difficult that’s the problem.”