Sunday, February 14, 2010

How to Build a Satisfying, Long-Lasting Relationship (through Science!)

Joined Hearts fabric card (Deborah C. Stearns, 2007)

It's Valentine's Day, when we extoll the wonders of romantic love.  And yet, it is very rare that we see concrete, specific suggestions for how to actually build and maintain an intimate relationship.  The couple falls in love, gets married, and lives happily ever after.  Right?  Isn't their love enough to sustain their relationship? 

Alas, no.  That heady feeling of falling in love (what psychologists call "passionate love") is not enough to keep a relationship going.  The good news is that there is now extensive research on relationship satisfaction and longevity, and we know a great deal about the characteristics of happy couples who stay together (as well as unhappy couples who break up).  So, in honor of Valentine's Day, here are some tips on how to build a satisfying, long-lasting intimate relationship from the science of intimate relationships. 
  • Manage conflict effectively:  Contrary to popular conception, even happy couples fight.  Having more conflict does not, in and of itself, mean that the couple will break up.  It doesn't matter whether you fight, it matters how you fight.  John Gottman's research has found that the way in which couples deal with conflict can predict divorce with 90% accuracy.  Basically, it comes down to this:  don't escalate the conflict.  Destructive communication tactics are those that make the fight worse, whereas constructive communication tactics de-escalate the conflict without avoiding it altogether.  A harsh start-up for example, in which you come at your partner with angry criticism, is likely to result in either defensiveness or stonewalling (emotional withdrawal), which is probably going to make you even angrier and escalate the conflict further.  Avoiding conflict can result in growing resentment and anger, which would be more likely to result in a harsh start-up -- it's better to deal with the conflict early on.  On the other hand, starting fights for the sake of starting a fight (belligerence), is also a destructive communication tactic and should be avoided.  The idea is to deal with the conflict without making the fight worse.  Avoid angry accusations and sweeping criticisms of your partner, which tend to elicit defensiveness.  Try listening to your partner and validating their concerns -- you don't have to capitulate, but at least you can empathize with their feelings.  This will usually reduce anger and de-escalate the fight.  If you or your partner are just too angry to deal with the conflict constructively, take a time-out and come back to it when you are calmer.  If you are really having trouble breaking destructive communication habits, a couples counselor can help. 
  • Share power equally:  Egalitarian couples (those who have equal power), have greater relationship satisfaction than couples in which one partner has more power than the other.  Do you and your partner have equal say over important decisions, or does one of you tend to have greater influence?  Egalitarian couples share decision-making power.  In Gottman's study of heterosexual couples, when a man was unwilling to share power with his wife, there was an 81% chance the relationship would end.  Do you and your partner have equal responsbility for housework and child care?  What about the relationship maintenance work, the "glue" that holds relationships together -- identifying and solving problems in the relationship, keeping in touch with family and friends -- do you share this work equally?  Couples who share these responsibilities tend to be more satisfied than those in which one person holds primary responsibility for domestic and relational labor.  This doesn't mean that you and your partner have to keep some strict accounting in which every task is appointed in turn, but it is worth thinking about whether the relationship is an equal partnership, both parties sharing equally in the duties and benefits of the relationship.
There's Always Time for Love fabric card
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2010)
  • Be good friends:  Happy couples tend to say that their partner is their best friend.  Gottman's research found that the quality of the friendship was a powerful factor in how satisfied men and women were with sex, love, and romance in the relationship.  We tend to think of romantic relationships as utterly different from friendships, but we would do better to consider a romantic relationship as built on a solid basis of friendship.  Rather than assuming that fiery passion is the key to successful relationships, we need to build intimacy, which is based on knowing your partner well and developing familiarity and companionship.  Spend time together.  Share your thoughts and experiences.  Even idle chitchat and talking over the affairs of the day can provide a sense of connection.  Don't worry if the flames of passionate love die down -- just make sure they are replaced by companionate love and intimacy.
  • Love and respect:  You thought I'd never get to love, didn't you?  But love does matter -- just not the passionate variety.  What matters is that each person cares for and respects the other. Happy couples show fondness and admiration toward each other -- they sing each other's praises and talk about how wonderful the other person is.  On the other hand, running the other person down or expressing contempt toward your partner is a bad sign.  It may be commonplace for people to disparage their spouse, but it is not a sign of a healthy or happy relationship . . . it's a warning sign of potential breakup. 
  • Positive times five:  Gottman's research finds that happy couples have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions when they are discussing an area of conflict.  When the positive to negative ratio drops below 5:1, the couple is less satisfied and more likely to break up.  That is, even when they are having a disagreement, satisfied couples continue to express praise, love, acceptance, humor, and caring five times more often than criticism, anger, disappointment, or other negative affect.  Of course, when not discussing a conflict, the ratio was even higher, more like 20:1.  This tells us two things.  One is that negativity is very powerful and has a greater impact than positivity; one negative interaction requires five positive interactions to balance it out.  The second is that a strong foundation of positive interactions is necessary for a good relationship and serves as a buffer against the inevitable moments of negativity. 
Split Hearts fabric card
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2007)
Of course, this research is based on average trends, and each couple is unique.  Further, the research is largely correlational, showing an association between certain relationship patterns and satisfaction, and this does not prove causation.  But it does seem to make sense that if we express caring and respect for our partners, deal with conflict without escalation, and build an equitable and intimate relationship, we're more likely to be satisfied and stay together.

So, as you ponder whether to buy flowers or chocolates for your sweetie this Valentine's Day, take a moment to check in on your relationship and see if there is something you could improve.  If you are currently single, think back on previous romantic relationships and consider ways in which you could make the next relationship better -- or use these tips to improve your relationships with friends and family, as most of this research could apply just as well to any relationship.  The best gift, for you and your partner, is to build a strong and satisfying relationship.  That's the gift that keeps on giving. 

Want to read more about relationship research?  Try these books:

Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1983). American couples. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.

Coontz, S. (1992/2000). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gottman, J. M & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Johnson, S. E. (1990). Staying power: Long term lesbian couples. Tallahassee, FL: The Naiad Press, Inc.

Risman, B. J. (1998). Gender vertigo: American families in transition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schwartz, P. (1994). Love between equals: How peer marriage really works. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Steil, J. M. (1997). Marital equality: Its relationship to the well-being of husbands and wives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


  1. Great Post!

    For some inspiration that couples can read together you might like to add to your list: "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage" (Boston Globe #1 relationship self-help pick) -- come visit @

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Sharon! I'll put it on my reading list.

    Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Hi there, i've a question. What are some of the factors by which people measure the level of their satisfaction in their relationships? i mean, what r some of the conditions, criteria, situations, expectations, demands, desired behaviors, triats, .... by which people measure their satisfaction in their relationship n their mate??
    Tnx in advance!!