There's no single "formula" to a perfect relationship. However, we've studied an awful lot about what successful couples do. Everyone's relationships are a bit different, but we can take away a lot from what we know works.
While a perfect relationship might be beyond the grasp of science, studies on what makes a relationship successful are everywhere. Over the years, these studies have come up with some trends that help us better understand what sets a long lasting relationship apart from one that ends quickly. A lot of this is common sense, but that doesn't mean we don't need the occasional reminder.
It's not surprising that the more positive a person is, the more likely they will be happy in their relationships. What's interesting is just how much it matters.
In a study from the University of Chicago, researchers found that when a husband has a high level of positivity, there's less conflict in his relationship. Likewise, the way partners respond to each other's good news matters too. In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the way couples react to each other's good news — either with excitement, pride, or indifference — is crucial in forming a strong bond. The New York Times breaks down the research like so:
In the laboratory as in life, constructive support is generally better for a relationship than detachment, as many people have learned the hard way. Couples who lace their arguments with sarcasm and mean jabs, studies find, are usually headed for a split. But in their analysis of response styles, the researchers found that it was the partners' reactions to their loved ones' victories, small and large, that most strongly predicted the strength of the relationships. Four of the couples had broken up after two months, and the women in these pairs rated their partners' usual response to good news as particularly uninspiring.
Of course, positive thoughts are helpful for more than just your relationships and you don't need to prescribe to over-the-top positivity either. Just make sure you show some happiness when your partner succeeds.
Unsurprisingly, studies show that conflicts about money and poor communication lead to unhappy couples more than almost anything else. Unfortunately, dealing with these types of problems is difficult.
We've talked about proper communication a lot before because these issues are worth a post all for themselves. We won't get into too much detail here, but here are the basics:
- The common communication mistakes almost every couple has : This post deals with the various challenges nearly all of relationships tend to have. This includes expecting your partner to read your mind, not speaking up, and harping on pointless issues. If you're totally not sure where to start, this post outlines some of the best ways to communicate with each other.
- Learn to argue better : The purpose of any argument should be a solution, not just a time to yell about everything. This post helps you get to that point quickly.
- Stop fighting about money : Fighting about money is a huge problem in relationships and this post helps you get over that and deal with it directly.
Good communication takes effort, it's hard, and it doesn't always go smoothly. But when you let small things fester and don't communicate, problems arise. Studies show that it's usually money that causes this rift, but every relationship has its own set of issues that need to get worked through.
Maintain Strong Friendships Outside Your Relationship
When you're in a relationship, it's easy to rely on each other for everything. That's great, but it's important to maintain friendships outside of that. Various survey sshow that happy couples maintain friendships and hobbies outside the relationship.
You don't want to spend all your time with one person, and you want other people to talk with so you don't rely on your partner for everything. Author Tara Parker-Pope puts it well in her book For Better:
Dr. Coontz thinks all this togetherness is not necessarily good for couples. The way to strengthen a marriage, she argues, is to put fewer emotional demands on spouses. This doesn't mean losing emotional intimacy with your husband or wife. It just means that married couples have a lot to gain by fostering their relationships with family members and friends. The happiest couples, she says, are those who have interests and support "beyond the twosome".
Try New Things Constantly And Often
Just like in most aspects of life, we tend to get stuck in our habits with relationships. When that happens, things start to get a bit boring. Studies show that couples who try new things on a regular basis have happier relationships.
In one set of experiments, some couples are assigned a mundane task that involves simply walking back and forth across a room. Other couples, however, take part in a more challenging exercise — their wrists and ankles are bound together as they crawl back and forth pushing a ball.
Before and after the exercise, the couples were asked things like, "How bored are you with your current relationship?" The couples who took part in the more challenging and novel activity showed bigger increases in love and satisfaction scores, while couples performing the mundane task showed no meaningful changes.
This also means just having fun together. Research from The University of Denver shows that couples who make time for fun activities tend to stay together longer:
"The more you invest in fun and friendship and being there for your partner, the happier the relationship will get over time," says Howard Markman, a psychologist who co-directs the university's Center for Marital and Family Studies.
"The correlation between fun and marital happiness is high, and significant."
Sex Is Important
As you'd expect, a number of studies show that couples who have sex at least two to three times a week are happier with the relationship. Put bluntly, regardless of the age, the more sex you have, the higher the level of relationship satisfaction. The New York Times has a few suggestions for finding the time:
"The real issue here, I think, is that couples are not finding enough time for sex,'' said Dr. Smith. "I don't think you can keep forcing more and more activities in people's lives and still expect them to take the time it takes to have sex, let alone good-quality sex."
Anthony Lyons, a study co-author and research fellow at La Trobe, said the main lesson from the study is that couples need to learn how to communicate about their sexual needs or their reasons for not wanting sex.
"Couples need to talk about the frequency of sex," Dr. Anthony said in an email. "Talking openly about sex and finding a middle ground with regard to frequency appears to be very important for overall sexual and relationship satisfaction."
It might seem silly to do something like scheduling time for intimacy, but it's important to open up the dialogue about your sex life to dedicate some time to just be with each other.
Don't Be A Selfish Jerk (Obviously)
For every large study about big idea issues like sex and positivity, there's a lot of research into the minutiae of what makes a relationship successful. To sum it up, the bulk of this research is pretty simple: don't be a selfish jerk. Here are just a few things research says you should be doing:
- Contribute to the household chores: In a small scale study, UCLA researchers tracked the lives of several relationships over the course of 4 years. Their conclusions? Couples who have a system to handle household chores and who evenly disperse those chores are a lot happier. So, when you're significant other makes the suggestion that you do the dishes now and again, just do it.
- Quit gaming your life away: Playing video games is enjoyable, and even excessive gaming doesn't have a negative effect on relationships. However, one survey conducted by researchers at Brigham Young found that when gaming upsets routines in a relationship it can cause problems. That means one person is staying up late playing, missing social activities, or whatever else. We're guessing gaming isn't the culprit here though, and the lesson is more that any hobby that consistently upsets your routine is going to cause problems.
- Quit hashing out problems over text messages: Technology has a knack for disrupting relationships, but one study pinpointed that couples who deal with fights over text have a lower relationship quality. This means couples who used text messages to apologise or work out differences instead of having face to face conversations tended to report unhappiness. That said, positive texts like the occasional "I love you" are still great, just stop trying to work complicated things out over SMS.
- Even out your drinking habits: If you're a heavy drinker and your significant other isn't, chances are you've already had a handful of spats about it. It turns out, studies show that when one person is a heavy drinker and the other isn't, trouble usually follows. The sort of good news? Couples who drink together are just as likely to have a successful relationship as couple who don't drink at all. It's not just drinking either, another study suggests that dissimilarities between spouses about eating and smoking cause similar problems.
We're skipping over some studies that, while food for thought, are difficult to do anything about. For example, some studies have shown that children make a couple less happy, but there's evidence to the contrary as well. Likewise, the effects of living together, sexual orientation, birth order, education, age, and plenty of other things factor into successful relationships as well. A lot of that's beyond your control, and while it's interesting on a social science level, there's nothing we can really take away from it.
The idea emerging from these studies is simple: be nice, keep open lines of communication, and make an effort to do the things that matter. This is the science behind a solid relationships, but it's not rocket science. Sometimes relationships are about more than just science.