Creating a place called home, sharing the day’s events, and planning a future together can make a couple’s life rich and wonderful. Whether you’re just finding someone special, saying “I do”, or marking years together, you know a lot of care and attention goes into building a bond that lasts a lifetime.
Looking at the real world, you may wonder if having a stable happy love is more the exception than the rule. As psychologist and author Ty Tashiro figures it – only about one in three marriages remain healthy and satisfying. Counting spouses who split but do not officially divorce, more than half of all US marriages break up. Many other partners stay together, unhappier than they want to be.
For partners who intend to enjoy being together, this is sobering news. Is there a positive side to such a bleak picture? One good outcome is the factual wisdom we have learned over the last several decades from studies that have asked: What makes happy relationships work? Psychologists and therapists have learned much about why remaining happy as a couple is so challenging, and what successful couples do.
What is a Healthy Relationship Anyway?
Because so many couples struggle to stay positive about being together, few children grow up surrounded by good examples of happy, thriving relationships. It may not be your fault if you are wondering what a “healthy argument” or lasting happiness with your partner looks like or feels like.
Building a healthy relationship is something every successful couple must learn. It takes careful observation and hard work, some trial and error, and some trial and success!
Many feel unable to learn by example. Fortunately, researchers have found time-tested ways couples approach and handle their differences in a relationship so that the love still grows. Among all the traits that are important to successful couples, studies of happy couples tell us these are among the most important habits for personal happiness and the couple’s lasting love:
- Accepting influence from your partner
- Treating your partner as a friend you turn to (rather than a foe)
- Being generous with your kindness and respect toward your partner
- Looking for positive words, actions and intentions, from your partner and showing you see them
- Bringing up issues gently, to invite openness
Psychologist John Gottman, who took a math-based approach over decades of research, tell us that partnerships need at least five times more positive connections (even little ones, like smiles) for every one negative exchange for a relationship to remain stable and satisfying.
Tips and numbers like these may be helpful, but they can only take us so far. How do you accept influence when you’re upset that you disagree about something important? While learning to try new approaches, we can also learn about “fair fighting” by example.
An Example of a Couple’s Healthy Problem Solving
Let’s look at how one couple resolves a conflict while helping their chances of staying happy together. Though not a real-life couple, Jodi and Ben represent real people with real struggles that happen when two authentic individuals share their lives together.
Jodi tells her husband Ben she wants the family to have a theme park vacation. She’s always dreamed of it as a special adventure. She pictures the smiles, the sunshine, the photographs, and the stories they can tell their friends. Providing this happy event for their children is very important to her.
Ben has set up a college fund for the kids. He has studied the costs and how to meet them with a savings plan. He has considered the theme park vacation, done the math, and sees it will not work out. He wants to give the kids an education without crushing debt. He can’t agree to this vacation idea knowing how it is going to impact them financially.
They both have the greater good in mind for their family. But they disagree on how to get there.
Jodi and Ben argue, trying to resolve their disagreement, and they get stuck. How can they address their differences and come out feeling as good (or better) about their relationship?
A Gentle Start Gives Connection a Chance
As a first step in arguing successfully, they seek each other out when they are calm and can focus on understanding their differences.
Jodi tells Ben she wants to celebrate the security and joy she feels to have the family they have made together. A theme park vacation has always been something she wanted, and never had herself. This is the vision of happiness she cherishes for herself and her family.
Ben can see how strongly she feels about the idea of this vacation. And he can accept these are important feelings for her. He senses the deep longing she still wants to fulfill.
By “seeing and saying” what he understands Ben can create a moment of connection that strengthens their ability to be there for each other.
“I can see how important this is to you. I can see how you’ve always wanted to do this. You don’t want our kids to miss out on something you’re sad you couldn’t have.”
What It Means To Be Present
Honoring what a partner feels doesn’t mean you have to agree or give in to all the wishes and wants. It means being present as the emotions arise, being there with your partner to share them.
Ben explains he wants to protect his family from debt, and keep them safe from worry about their financial security. He knows their savings are vulnerable to things beyond their control — like stock market changes and government shutdowns. He is disappointed he can’t do it all — the vacation, the savings — and provide for them.
Jodi sees how seriously he takes the burden of financial responsibility, how concerned he is about their security, and understands how much he cares.
“I had no idea you were so worried about being able to keep everyone out of debt. I didn’t know you were sad to give up the vacation idea too.”
Sharing her understanding allows Ben to feel accepted and safe, and to trust Jodi despite their differences.
Such moments of connection can take just a few seconds. But often, working through each person’s thoughts and feelings may take longer. A couple creates positive feelings between them each time they are able to hold and respect each person’s emotions and thoughts. They will also experience much deeper that connection when they go on to brainstorm possible solutions.
Maybe on his side, he can share his best childhood vacation memory — one he remembers and cherishes — an event unique to his family. For her part – she can share her own story. And together they can help each other past the disappointment of not getting one dream, and help create another.
When Therapy Helps
“We help [couples] step back and look at the pattern they’re caught in.” This is how therapist and researcher Sue Johnson describes a powerful approach to helping couples heal: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). “It’s really about knowing how to step out of the pattern and reach for each other.” Therapy helps couples appreciate the deep and important psychological impact they have on each other as partners.
When couples find they are stuck in patterns of pursuit and withdrawal, it’s important to say, “We are caught in this dreadful place… you must be hurting too.” It’s all about creating this emotional safety for the two of you. EFT therapy, is an important part of our practice, helps couples out of a stuck place:
- Move from distress to forgiveness
- Learn to trust each other with who they are
- Find a safe place to share their fears hopes and dreams
- Invite openness from each other
- Move beyond frustration, to look for understanding
- Go from fighting about differences to brainstorming better because of them
Emotions need a safe place to be seen, honored and held. Learning how to have healthy arguments can help couples build important connections for a meaningful, supportive relationship together.
More Support For You
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