Just before you couple up, or as soon as your relationship reaches a new level of depth, you’re probably thinking the same thing your partner is thinking… Is this really going to last? Let’s face it. Energy is finite, and no one’s gonna bank on a relationship that’s trajectory is akin to a roller coaster at Six Flags.
Whether you’re trying to improve the quality of your relationship, or just start out on the right foot, you can change the game by focusing on how you relate to your significant other. I asked three marital therapists exactly what they look for when determining if a pair is going to survive the tough times. (Get these right, and you’ll probably go the distance.) Here’s what they notice among the strongest couples.
Do they make time for each other?
A relationship isn’t going anywhere without quality time, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage. “Lasting couples make time for intimacy, so regard your face-to-face time as sacred,” she says.
Ah, intimacy… do we actually know what that means, though? “Intimacy is the art of making your partner feel understood and accepted,” she says. “When this feeling is created, barriers fall. Gentle touch, eye contact, a sense of humor and the right words all create the atmosphere.” Reconnect by going the extra mile to listen and understand your partner’s needs and wants — and cuddle up and touch as often as possible, says Tessina. (Can do, right?)
Do they let the little things go?
Small tiffs can be as harmful to a relationship is those big, blowout arguments where lines are drawn — and more confusing if they accumulate over time. “A very good sign when both partners can let go of small things,” Juliana Neiman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in New York City. “When they accept they are different from each other, and they have different wants, needs and personality traits.”
Neiman says she looks for couples who embrace their differences and quirks, and are genuinely accepting that they can still have a good life together — even if their spouse is always running late or is a liiiittle bit forgetful. “It is a good sign when partners take care of each other, support each other, have fun together, make each other laugh and surprise each other with small gestures of love, romance and mutual care,” Neiman says. So, in essence: let the negative little things go, bolstering your relationship with positive little things.
Are they a team?
Lasting marriages are the result of two people becoming a united front. “The most powerful thing a couple can do to keep a marriage strong is form a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed,” says Tessina. They’re on the same page, they talk through issues instead of running from them, and they fight fair.
Tessina says this foundation is built through connection — shared time, continued communication, and considering your S.O.’s side. “If you really want to restore the marriage, begin not by complaining, but by seeking to understand your partner,” she explains. “Once the connection is there, you can begin to work out the issues.”
Can they forgive each other?
Long-lasting couples don’t hold a grudges. That means, if he stays out late with the guys and doesn’t tell you beforehand, you approach the subject directly at the next opportunity — not getting passive-aggressive about it the next day. “Successful couples know how to talk about what’s bothering them in a rational way,” says Tessina. “Ask clearly for what you want, and let your partner know why it’s important to you. If you can’t find a way to agree, go for a counseling session. Resentment will destroy your marriage.”
Think about it. If you’re still mad about something unspoken that he did a month ago, and get increasingly passive-aggressive about it, he’s never going to know. Speak up, hash it out, and move on.
Do they show appreciation?
When’s the last time you told your spouse thank you? Lots of couples falter due to a lack of gratitude in their relationship. “Lasting couples show their appreciation — so let your partner know you appreciate what he or she does, their personality traits like sense of humor or hard work, and companionship,” Tessina says. “The more you praise what you like, the more you’ll get of it. We all want to be appreciated.”
No one wants to feel taken for granted, and everyone loves getting snaps for their successes. Here’s the formula, folks: celebration + appreciation = motivation.
Do they both value a long-term commitment?
Marriage isn’t all romance. At the end of the day, it’s a conscious decision to stay the course, even through trying times. “Every single time I meet a couple who has been together for 20 years or more, I always ask what they think has kept them going,” says Jodie Voth, a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Manitoba, Canada. “So far, every answer I’ve gotten has been some version of, ‘Because we decided that we’re committed.'”
Voth says, because they’ve decided to remove the exit door from their marriage, it changes the way these men and women behave in their relationships, so it’s an important question to ask before you get hitched. “A forever commitment doesn’t fit within everyone’s value system, and that’s okay — but be honest with yourself and your partner,” she says.
Do they fight fair?
Super-awesome, lasting couples don’t take opportunities to bring their partners down — even if those opportunities present themselves during a rift, and no matter how upset or angry they feel. “It is never a good sign when both partners show a lot of contempt towards each other, demonstrating not only anger, but dismissiveness and a complete lack concern for each other,” says Neiman, who cringes when couples utter phrases like, ‘How can I even talk to him?’ or “I should have never married her!’ (…but I’m sure you’ve never said that.)
Making your partner feel worthless is not a recipe for a healthy, happy relationship; listening closely, refraining from cutting remarks and calmly talking about faults and problems is.
Do they accept responsibility for their parts?
You gotta own your piece, because, more often than not, there are two guilty parties when problems arise. “When both partners blame and criticize each other constantly, and they attribute all their problems to each other, they are not able or willing to look at themselves in order to become more aware of their own negative contributions to their difficulties,” says Neiman.
Common examples of the blame game are, ‘Of course this is all his fault!’ and ‘Let me tell you what she has done in the last few years…’ But couples who are strong and steady? “They are very willing to look at themselves and in a very honest way, understand what their own negative contributions to the relationship are, and they are willing to try some changes,” Neiman says. As the saying goes, relationships are all about compromise.
Do they respect each other?
In healthy couples, there’s a serious lack of one-sidedness. Each spouse is engaged in the thoughts and opinions of their counterpart — in good times and bad. “It is a very good sign when partners are genuinely interested to listen and hear each other,” says Neiman. “To know what they each need, what they are unhappy and unsatisfied with, and again, they are both willing to seriously try and challenge themselves to make changes.”
When Neiman asks partners to share what they think their partners need and want — and they seem to know their partner well — she senses the respect. “It’s a strong foundation, and this relationship has a good chance to fix, repair, tolerate crisis and move on into an even stronger, loving relationship.”
Do they agree about the future?
If one spouse sees a white picket fence, while their partner is dreaming of grad school or European getaways, those differing views of the future don’t bode well for a smooth marriage. “For those who are young and don’t have kids yet, do they agree on whether or not they’ll have a family? This is a big one,” Voth says. “If they’ve been able to have this conversation, it tells me two things: they’ve each asked and answered for themselves an important question, and they’ve been able to have a challenging conversation that is often avoided.”
Whether you’re married or not, issues like these need to be sorted out stat — because it’s impossible to compromise on some things. “There’s no such thing as having half a baby,” says Voth. So, work on hashing out these biggies before you walk down the aisle, or see a counselor if you’re already wed and need help deciding how to move forward in your relationship.
Are they truly friends?
The spark only sizzles for a few years, tops, before that searing blaze starts to dwindle — which is why it’s essential to make sure your spouse is your best bud, too. “Romance and lust will only go so far, so after that, couples need to have shared interests, and enjoy being together,” explains Voth. “If a couple does a lot of activities together — even the day-to-day stuff like grocery shopping — it’s a good sign they’ll have something to carry them through when times get challenging.”
So, join a book club or cooking class, laugh at trashy TV together, and remember that relationships aren’t all work. Sometimes, happy relationships are basically just geeking out about the new Star Wars movie together. (Which is pretty sweet, in my opinion.)