The demise of Brad and Angie, while sad, shouldn’t necessarily have been unexpected—we all know the statistics on divorce. Still, we can’t help but feel like if those two can’t make it, who can? This led us to do some digging into the matter, as we wanted to know some research-backed ways in which successful couples make it work over time. Here’s what we found.
How Successful Couples Keep The Spark Alive
While University of Toronto psychologist Amy Muise and her colleagues specifically studied sex in long-term relationships, we believe their findings likely apply to all areas of a partnership. They found that people in successful, long-lasting relationships maintained strong sexual connections over time because each partner was willing to sacrifice what he or she needed in order to make the other person happy.
The same study, conducted by psychologist Amy Muise, found that those who looked to sexual intimacy as a source of pleasure rather than as a source of stress reduction were more likely to be satisfied in their relationships long-term.
Or, to put it another way, they have a similar style for dealing with conflict. If you like to yell and get angry and hash out issues ASAP, your partner should, too. If you prefer to let conflicts linger so you can process them and let the associated emotions either collect or dissipate over time, your partner should share this preference. This advice comes from research outlined in A Book About Love. This one similarity between romantic partners trumps any other similarity, in terms of predicting the outcome of a relationship.
Love-blindness is the phenomenon you bemoan after realizing the object of your affection is actually a sociopath. (Or, is that just us?) In any case, the University of Geneva reviewed over 500 studies and concluded that a couple's ability to maintain positive illusions about one another was the only predictor of relationship success they could find. So, if you still place your partner on a pedestal after the honeymoon phase has ended—and vice versa—this is probably a good sign. A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science similarly showed that partners who tended to focus on each other's positive qualities and behaviors (as opposed to the negative ones) experienced greater happiness.
Scientists call love infatuation "limerance" and, according to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, if your long-term aspirations for a relationship are hung on this ideal of romantic love, you are likely to be disappointed. A Book About Love asserts that arranged marriages are often, ultimately, more successful than "love" marriages because the two people involved go into the relationship knowing it's going to be hard work. As a result, they work hard at the relationship, "and it works," as author Jonah Lehrer puts it. He also maintains that couples who don't argue regularly are not likely to last, as this lack of conflict demonstrates a detachment, or a withdrawal from the relationship. Finally, Lehrer found that those individuals who were "strong soldiers," or had a lot of grit, were more likely to make a relationship last.
The New York Times purports that, "New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner." The Berkeley Science Review agrees, stating that, "Participating in novel and arousing activities keeps us from getting bored, and boredom is a relationship killer. Novel and arousing activities are, well, arousing, which people can mis-attribute as attraction to their partner, reigniting that initial spark." In other words, trying new things with your partner is a way of tricking your brain into being more attracted to them (hey, whatever works!).
According to Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel, neediness kills desire over time. One way to avoid this phenomenon, she advises, is to maintain independent activities and, at times, allow your partner to observe you "in your zone." If you've taken up the violin, for example, it may be beneficial to the health of your relationship if you allow your partner to watch you practice every so often. (Though perhaps, in this case, you may want to wait until you won't also destroy their eardrums with your amateur efforts.)
All couples struggle, according to A Book of Love author Jonah Lehrer (again debunking the dangerous idea that "when it's right it's easy"). It's how they look at their past struggles, however, that hints at their odds of long-term success. If you think back on what you and your partner have experienced together and think, "it has been awful," versus "it has been awful but we are better for it," the odds of your relationship lasting are not so great.
Psychology professor Eli J. Finkel worked with psychologists Chin Ming Hui, Kathleen L. Carswell and Grace M. Larson to develop a new theory of marriage, one which purports that marriages today can be stronger than the security-based marriages of the past only if both partners are willing to "invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership." Finkel says that we now live in a time of "self-expressive marriage," wherein we "look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth," instead of using it to fulfill lower-level needs such as food, drink and shelter. Finkel further asserts that satisfying these higher-level needs through marriage requires more of an investment in time than it would take to satisfy lower-level needs. As proof, he quotes a study which found that couples who spend "time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity” at least once per week were three and a half times more likely to be very happy in their marriage, versus spouses who did so less frequently.