What makes relationships last? Let’s consider this question, not from theories or professionals, but from those who have actually LIVED it. After all, thirty years, four decades, and half a century is a long time to be committed to that one special other. The people that have truly made relationships work say they are honed by wisdom, pain, time, trial and error…and so much more. Over my 21 years as a marriage and family therapist, I have been very fortunate to encounter couples that are intensely committed…and their relationships have truly stood the test of time. What might they teach us? What might their secrets be? Here are the top four secrets I have learned from couples who actually stayed together AND had meaningful relationships.
TIP ONE: BE KIND
I cannot stress enough how many of these couples talk about and live KINDNESS. They take TIME to be kind. It is something they practice and nurture day to day, especially when sharing hard things and when busy, hurt or angry. Many of us may think kindness is under-rated or reduce it to just being ‘nice.’ But not these couples – for them it is much deeper than that; kindness is a way of being. Interestingly, studies show kindness is actually a predictor of relationship success!
Specific examples of kindness may be making eye contact, showing sensitivity, having a softer tone of voice, biting one’s tongue, offering support, being willing to listen, giving the benefit of the doubt and not being negative or derogatory when sharing hard things. Personally, when I commit to practicing true kindness, I find that I am happier, less in the ‘stress’ of life, and much more present and gentle. Try it, kindness goes a long way!
TIP TWO: STAY PLAYFUL
When we first fall in love, it is usually no problem to be playful, flirty, fun and light-hearted. For many of us, it comes naturally in the beginning of relationships to have a sense of lightness, levity, and sensuality with our partners. Over time, this seems harder to maintain, and often gets lost among various life stressors. The couples I have seen, married thirty years or more, are emphatic on this one. They believe that staying playful is a true staple in cultivating desire, connection and joy. Some of these couples say that staying playful saved their relationship in some sense – that it balanced out the hard parts and reminded them of what life is really about.
Specific examples of staying playful include having a sense of humor, not taking things too seriously, enjoying the novel and the new, playing games, cards or sports together, taking risks, going on dates, giving gentle surprises, and nurturing your own language of inside jokes. It really is fun to stay playful, not allowing life goals or stressors to squeeze it out.
TIP THREE: ALLOW TIME APART (as well as together)
EVERY couple I have seen, committed for a considerable amount of time, know that ONLY merging together in love and commitment is not enough. While these values are foundational, having time apart as well as a sense of individuality is EVERY bit as critical to relationships lasting and being meaningful. The couples I saw actually nurtured a sense of self separate from the relationship. They also took time apart, on the weekends or while on vacation, to have some time alone. They shared with me that the impact of this brought fresh life and new desire into the relationship versus having life be entirely about one another.
Specific examples of this may include giving oneself time for interests and hobbies separate from one’s partner. Other examples include having a few separate friends or not giving up on goals and dreams that may seem incompatible with family life. There really is a lot of creativity about how this can be balanced and lived while in committed relationships (versus put on a back burner). Perhaps take some time to reflect on what is important to you as an individual and see how you might lean in!
TIP FOUR: WORK THROUGH ISSUES WITH GRACE and COURAGE
Couples that have been together a long time know something about working through tough issues. And, by no means is it that they do not fight. The real truth is, they know how to fight with grace and courage. First, these couples are not afraid of dealing with issues nor do they take their relational issues personally. Second, they view conflicts as something to figure out together and to make work for them uniquely as a couple. And third, they work to maintain a spacious perspective, allowing time, presence and reflection to help work things out instead of forcing a resolution.
Specific examples of this include knowing when to fight. In other words, not fighting when hungry, tired, or under stress from work/health/finances. Other examples include staying focused on the issue at hand as opposed to getting hooked into other relevant issues. Also, knowing when to take a break or press pause – when in a negative loop that won’t get anywhere – proves helpful in avoiding unnecessary pain and frustration. And lastly, showing up with vulnerability and accountability helps these couples fight well. How we fight truly makes a difference in reaching the solutions and healing we hope for.
Having been married less than half the time of some of these couples, I deeply reflected on what they have shared with me over the years. These are things I may not immediately think of, though I resonate deeply with their value. If you can, seek out a couple you respect that has been married for over 30 years. Get curious with them about what their secret tips are. Truly, those that have traveled the path know quite a bit about what it takes!