I have had the opportunity to talk with thousands of happy couples over the past 22 years in my work as a couples’ therapist and relationship coach. I also have the experience of a 20-year relationship with someone who is still my best friend. And there are a few themes that seem to run through relationships that feel satisfying to people for the long term.
The list is long, and my guess is you might be familiar with one or two of these stories.
When I was 9 years old, my parents divorced, and while their marriage wasn’t great and the fighting was emotionally disturbing, the divorce more importantly disrupted my sense of security and deleted my belief in “happily ever after.” That belief took some time to recapture.
You could say that healthy and happy relationships were like unicorns. I knew about a few of them, but I hadn’t paid attention to any of them, in part because they were few and far between. My “aha” was that I was paying attention to negative relationship examples.
I began researching the positive. I looked to my grandparents who had a 50+ year relationship and were in love until the day each of them passed on. I questioned any and all couples that I met who seemed to have the happily ever after, long-term relationships. The deeper I dug, the more I realized that I had some unrealistic expectations of my own.
Happily ever after can happen and what I have found is that it takes some serious commitment to the outcome.
For many of us, there are universal stories that impact our understanding of relationships. Maybe our parents divorced, they had poor communication skills, or we had parents who were critical, contemptuous, and didn’t like each other. We may have witnessed our parents’ anxiety, depression, addiction, or family violence.
They were quite willing to demonstrate the old patterns and added in some new ways of interacting: verbal jousting, unhelpful memory matching, unrealistic expectations, disappointment, blame, jealousy, threats, manipulation, and emotional and physical abuses.
After their divorce, both my parents remarried into new, equally dysfunctional relationships. And, I got to watch the ‘wash, rinse, repeat’ of unhealthy relationship skills all over again.
What this did for me was create some reasonably dysfunctional beliefs about relationships and, on some deep level, I determined that I would never be vulnerable to another person. I didn’t have a lot of examples of people who were demonstrating long, happy, fun relationships.
I was looking closely at dysfunctional relationships and seeing what I didn’t want. While knowing what we don’t want is helpful, I realized that I needed to have just as clear a vision of what I did want.
What was required was a shift of focus.
I didn’t understand what love was, what it takes to stay together for the long term, and how to be happy in the process. I started to notice patterns that seemed consistent across cultural, religious, and generational lines.
Here is some of what I discovered of the 10 secrets of a happy marriage that happy couples learn:
They value their relationship more than the need to be right.
- There is a high degree of willingness to give and take with each other. Not every opinion is the one on which they plant their flag. They let go of the issues that aren’t that important.
They maintain their friendship their entire relationship.
- They never forget they liked each other. They share experiences and they continue to “get to know” each other, supporting their shared and individual dreams.
They share fundamental values about life.
- They have discussions on what their values are and what they mean. They agree to hold themselves and each other, with integrity, to those stated values. They see themselves as a great team.
They don’t hold grudges with each other.
- They work through any resentments, forgive each other, let go, and move forward. There is transparency around important issues. There is a commitment to working it through.
They accept and appreciate each other.
- In my grandparents’ case, in the areas that each struggled with (like shyness or being bossy), the other one either accepted it or helped to balance out. They complemented each other in their personalities and human frailties. They had no deal breakers in their relationship at all.
- Sure, there were things that they found annoying, but there was a sense of acceptance of who the other person was and the love outweighed the superficial annoyances.
They can shift into humor.
- They often laugh and share a sense of humor. Sure they grouse at each other, and still, they find ways to turn their annoyance into humor. They quickly settle back into lightness.
They take personal responsibility.
- They work on being honest and still kind to each other’s feelings. When they hurt each other, which happens, they apologize and take ownership. They try not to press the test button too often.
They feel able to speak up for themselves, honestly.
- They speak their mind, even if the other person won’t agree. There is a level of safety that they maintain at all times, that keeps both people in dialogue. They don’t call each other names, and they don’t shame each other.
They both want to be in a relationship with each other.
- Every couple I have spoken to stated that they were ‘all in’ versus ‘one foot out the door.’ You can muddle through anything when both people are invested in the relationship working.
- We tend to be kinder in our approach if we care about the other person and want to keep them around.
They don’t talk badly about each other to other people.
- Last but not the least, they work through disagreements together; they don’t ask others to take sides. They remember that they are on the side of their relationship, it’s not about sides, it’s about what works to support the relationship being healthy.
- The more I learned about what a happy couple could look like, the more I was willing to risk growing into the person that could bring these qualities to a relationship of my own.
- Intimacy requires vulnerability. I might go so far as to say, there is no intimacy without vulnerability, and it takes courage to be vulnerable, so intimacy involves courage too.
- I was not going to settle. I was going to be courageous, and I was going to find my happy ending.
- In my late 20s, I set out to meet a partner, not a savior or a project. I gave up the ideas of “Prince Charming” or “Frog to Prince.” To find my happy relationship I got clear on what I was going to bring to the table and looked for a partner who was willing to show up in similar ways.
- I did my own personal development work so that I could be brave enough to show up authentically, instead of trying to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be.
- In the end, these 10 secrets to a happy relationship have been precisely what was needed. What they did was give us the best shot at our own happily ever after.