What’s the secret to staying head-over-heels in love for the long haul? Researchers believe they have found the answer. Building on a previously established research framework, researchers at the University of Illinois have recently highlighted the most important factors in maintaining successful romantic relationships. Professor of Human Development Brian Ogolsky and colleague Jill R. Bowers conducted a meta-analysis of 35 studies and more than 12,000 individual reports to establish that couples at every relationship stage consistently use the following five strategies to preserve (or improve) their bond:
Secret #1: Openness in all communications between both partners
Engaging in open communication — i.e., talking about your feelings and encouraging your partner to do the same — defines openness, says Ogolsky, co-author of The Developmental Course of Romantic Relationships (Routledge Academic; May 15, 2013). Bowers describes openness as “conversational self-disclosure” between both partners. “During relationship initiation, openness could mean disclosing personal information about yourself or being supportive when your partner does. For couples who have been married for years, it may mean talking about how the relationship has changed — for better or worse.” Tera, 25, and Misha, 26, both of Ontario, B.C., have been together for five years, and the couple saw early on that their easy communication style was an indicator of true mutual compatibility. “We talk about everything,” says Tera. “It began when we first met; that’s how you know this person is different. It’s like: ‘Wow, I was never this open and honest with someone right away before.’ We’ve tried to maintain that.”
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Secret #2: Approaching every issue from a place of positivity
The idea that a cheerful smile or playful jab trumps an exasperated sigh is actually true. “Rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to put the toothpaste cap back on,’ take a fun or silly approach by putting a sticky note by the toothpaste that says, ‘Help! I’ve lost my cap,’” recommends Bowers. “It’s the playful approach and the positivity in your tone that makes a difference in how your partner perceives your actions.” Having a positive outlook helped Maura Sweeney, author of The Art of Happiness series, bond with her husband after meeting him at Boston College more than 35 years ago. A self-professed former “bookworm” who had never “engaged in any kind of athletic pursuit,” Maura felt intimidated when Jim — a basketball player on an athletic scholarship — asked her to shoot a few hoops with him. “He said, ‘You can’t put the ball in the basket? Did you ever try?’ But in the next minute, he said: ‘Well, if you’ve never tried, then how do you know that you can’t?’ I am so much of who I am today because I married a guy who saw every bit of potential in my life,” says Sweeney.
Secret #3: Mutual assurances about spending the future together
Couples who aren’t married still appreciate knowing their relationship has staying power. “Assurance means inspiring confidence in your partner that you’re going to stick around,” explains Ogolsky. “So, make plans together. If you plan a vacation, you’re basically indicating that you’re not going to run away between now and when that trip will occur.” Julian Sutter, a communications director for online mental health resource HealthShire.com, says that he and his girlfriend Ally don’t make rigid plans very far in advance, but their conversations about the future seem to arise organically. “We have very different furniture styles; on our fifth date, we had that funny moment of wondering, ‘What are we going to do with all our furniture?’ We’re not at that point in our relationship yet, but those kinds of conversations do come up.” Bowers says a demonstration of commitment and faithfulness like this varies by a couple’s relationship stage. “In earlier stages, it could mean saying: ‘I really enjoyed spending time with you and I want to go on many more dates,’ but later, partners may openly talk about getting married,” explains Bowers. “Talking about things that you’ll do in the future together emphasizes that you’re both in it for the long haul.”
Secret #4: Equable division of household chores both partners can agree on
Although divvying up household responsibilities mostly affects couples who live together, those who plan to cohabitate in the future should discuss what they think is fair when it comes to doing dishes and taking out the trash. “Each partner’s perception of this strategy is important to his or her satisfaction and to the quality of the relationship,” says Bowers, who emphasizes that every couple’s approach to this issue will be different. Taking equal roles or going grocery shopping together (as opposed to one person doing everything) provides opportunities to strengthen the relationship, adds Ogolsky. “My husband loves to cook, but hates to clean,” says Sweeney. “I do the dishes and clean the house, and he handles all the food shopping, preparation and cooking. He’s a great laundry folder, and I always start a load and change it out when they’re ready. We both do household chores; there’s nothing about us that’s sexist.”
Secret #5: Nurturing a shared social network
Your brother-in-law may be the most annoying person you know, but inviting him to dinner shows that you still care — and that’s a gesture that’s more thoughtful than even the biggest bouquet of roses. Calling your partner’s in-laws, inviting his or her coworkers to dinner or asking family members for gift suggestions for your honey are all good ways to integrate your social lives. “Friends tend to be a very good source for getting feedback about your relationship,” says Ogolsky. Maria and Onno met on Match.com while she was living in Geneva and he was based in London; the two have been married for 11 years. Their courtship inspired the couple to co-author From a Virtual Fling to the Real Thing: Diary of an Internet Relationship. They make a point to see friends and Maria’s family (who lives nearby) regularly. Onno calls his in-laws “absolutely fantastic” and looks forward to spending time with them; Maria says that “they get along really well” with her husband. “By sharing circles of friends — at least, those who are happy in their own relationships — you’ve got groups of people that you can adapt maintenance strategies from and people who’ll hold you accountable as a couple,” explains Bowers. “This can influence your relationship in positive ways.”
Appreciating your partner’s efforts to keep the relationship going strong is essential
Appreciating your partner’s efforts is essential for maintaining a happy relationship. Ogolsky and Bowers’ research suggests that seeing your partner devote the time and energy to making these efforts may have even stronger positive effects than doing them yourself would. “We saw a stronger association between observing or perceiving your partner following these strategies and feeling good about your relationship,” says Ogolsky. “If I see my partner doing positive things, it makes me feel better and more committed to the relationship.” And if you’ve hit a bump in the road, Bowers recommends seeking out a professional’s advice. “There can be negative connotations with couples who seek counseling, [but] if most people had not gone through some rough patches, there would not be so much research on these issues,” she explains. As two individuals with distinct personalities and expectations, you’re bound to eventually disagree on some issues. Seeing a therapist for regular tune-ups can get your relationship back on the road again.