Marriage may have brought you together, but after the clergyman instructs you to “treasure your love,” what next? Married, cohabitating, or simply in it for the long haul, any committed relationship needs a few tools to make it through the years. This week, here are 7 science-backed secrets to make your long-term relationship feel more like a Bruno Mars flash mob and less like the theme song from Married with Children.
Secret #1: Be your own person.
Before sharing your life with another adult, it’s important to have spent some time adulting yourself. You don’t have to have your life cross-indexed and color-coded, but it is important to have separated in a healthy way from your family of origin. If your alarm clock is a phone call from mom or you don’t know how to do your own laundry, invest the time to get your life on solid footing before merging it with another human’s.
Secret #2: Be a team.
Some problems seem unsolvable—a fundamental difference in parenting styles, incurable slobitude, or opposite values around money. But the least constructive approach to sticky problems is to blame each other and fight it out.
Rather than approaching a problem as you against your partner, approach it as the two of you against the problem.
Instead, try an approach called unified detachment. Unified detachment is a fundamental shift in perspective that joins you and your partner together against the problem. Rather than approaching a problem as you against your crazy, unreasonable partner, approach the situation as the two of you united against the problem. For example, “What should we do to save money for the future?” or “How can we work together to fight less?”
Secret #3: Outweigh the negatives with positives.
A classic study out of the University of Washington asked heterosexual newlywed couples to discuss a hot-button issue in their relationship for 15 minutes. The headline-making results found that divorce could be predicted from the first three minutes of the couples’ argument. The key, it turned out, was the balance of negative and positive interactions.
In their discussions, spouses in stable relationships predictably displayed less negative affect—contempt, belligerence, anger, defensiveness, or whining—and more positive effect, like validation, affection, and humor.
Interestingly, for the husbands examining the entire 15 minutes of the argument amplified the ability to predict divorce. Over the course of the argument, husbands in stable marriages got a little more negative, but they simultaneously stayed positive: making jokes, listening, and being affectionate.
Husbands in marriages that would eventually end in divorce, however, got increasingly negative and less positive over the course of the 15 minutes. By the end, calling their spouse by a cute nickname or validating her viewpoint went out the window.
For every negative interaction…you need five positive interactions.
Later, the same research lab developed the magic ratio for a healthy relationship–for every negative interaction, they advise, you need five positive interactions. In other words, stable couples argue, of course, but that arguing is filled with joking and teasing and listening and love.
Secret #4: Be equal.
A study in the American Journal of Sociology found that couples in egalitarian relationships are less likely to divorce than couples where one brings home the bacon and the other cooks it up.
How to make things more egalitarian? It’s not as simple as splitting up the chores along gender lines.
A study in the journal Marriage and Family Review differentiated between “low control” and “high control” tasks. Low control tasks are named as such because there is little control or choice in the matter—they have to be done more or less continuously, like loading and unloading the dishwasher, or at specific times, like making dinner, or on demand, like changing a diaper. High control tasks, by contrast, can be done when it’s convenient and have a specific beginning and end, like mowing the lawn or doing a home repair. Traditionally, low-control tasks have been designated as women’s, while high-control tasks have been labeled as men’s.
Therefore, take a page from many same-sex relationships and divvy up tasks by interest and value rather than by gender roles. For example, the social butterfly takes responsibility for playdates and social events. The foodie makes dinner or does the grocery shopping. And the tasks no one wants? You have three options: outsource, workaround (no one has to water plants if you don’t have any!), or divvy them up. Even if the divvying ends up falling along gender lines, as long as you decided on those assignments together, you’ll go a long way towards shrinking resentment.
Next, in families with kids, there’s an avalanche of kid-related invisible labor—scheduling playdates, researching pediatricians, ordering soccer uniforms, and returning them when they don’t fit. In heterosexual relationships, this keeping track of a thousand and one things usually falls to the woman.
How does this get started? It’s been argued that it starts with maternity leave. It takes time and practice to gain expertise in a task. So when moms are given a leave of absence but dads are not, moms gain singular expertise during those hundreds of hours with baby, and that gap never gets closed. The solution? Paternal leave. Indeed, a Pew Research survey found that 69% of Americans believe fathers should receive paid parental leave, which would help level the playing field.
Secret #5: Expect a lot of your partner, but not everything.
While fairytale expectations are bound to be disappointing, a study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that marriages stay happy with a magic combination of high expectations and partners’ ability to reach them.
In the study, couples were asked about their expectations of their relationship. Next, they were asked to come into the lab, identify a point of conflict in their relationship, and work towards a resolution. Researchers watched each partner argue, and they noted when partners avoided the topic, criticized or faulted the other, shirked responsibility, made presumptions, or were hostile. By contrast, researchers also noted when partners stayed on topic and furthered the resolution.
When individuals had high expectations of the relationship and their partners could deliver, that match of expectations and ability made for a happier relationship.
But not everyone can rise to meet expectations—when individuals had high expectations but their partners had lousy communication skills or fought dirty, those same high expectations set the couple up for disappointment.
The take home? Expect a lot of your partner, but only what they’re capable of.
Secret #6: Lie to yourself a little.
Remember when you first fell in love and you thought your partner was the greatest, the cutest, the smartest? Keep them on that pedestal, at least a little. A study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that harboring illusions about your relationship went along with greater satisfaction, love, and trust, as well as less conflict.
Harboring illusions about your relationship went along with greater satisfaction, love, and trust.
Furthermore, the stronger your initial illusions, the greater likelihood of your relationship lasting over the years. Even when he gets bald and paunchy, or she’s sporting a mud mask and granny panties, they’ll still be your Prince or Princess Charming.
Secret #7: Commit to commitment itself.
Making a relationship last is more than committing to another person. It’s also committing to the idea of commitment. Couple therapists in training are taught to pay attention to three things in the therapy room—each partner, and also the relationship. Every couple creates their own little culture, and it’s vital to note if it’s a culture of love, support, and compromise, or one of criticism, insecurity, and power struggles.
Seeing a partnership as something the two of you build together every day keeps you in the game much more than simply seeing the relationship as a way to get your individual needs met.
To sum it all up, the grass is greener where you water it. So tend to yourself, each other, and your relationship, and watch your garden grow. It may not always be a rose garden, but together, it will be yours.