We asked marriage therapists what the happiest couples say or do that gives the relationship staying power. Here’s what they told us:
1. They make a point to connect every day.
Couples who are in it for the long haul find little ways to stay physically and emotionally connected, even on the busy days. That might mean going in for a nice, long hug, listening attentively while your partner is venting (not looking at your phone, ahem) or offering words of affirmation and encouragement.
“Emotional connection is the glue in our relationships,” marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh told HuffPost. “Over time, these small interactions build into a deep sense of trust and intimacy that keep couples happy and together.”
2. They set aside time to regularly check in with each other.
When life gets hectic, couples often switch into autopilot and start going through the motions rather than being intentional about nurturing the relationship. Long-lasting couples, however, make it a point to regularly schedule opportunities to stop, slow down and check in with each other. It might be a quick nightly catch-up session before bed or a more in-depth yearly sit-down conversation.
“Planned check-ins are times when both are mentally prepared to provide each other the space they need to explore, resolve and plan,” marriage and family therapist Spencer Northey said. “One couple I know even has an annual ‘State of the Union Conference,’ where they rent a hotel room and have a ‘conference’ at the hotel bar to check in and make plans for the coming year.”
3. They know how to say sorry and mean it.
“In big or small ways, partners step on each other’s toes all the time,” said psychologist Ryan Howes. “Having the humility and maturity to recognize your role in your partner’s pain is essential for a long-term relationship.”
And, for the record: “Sorry your feelings were hurt” is a half-assed attempt. Instead, aim for an apology that expresses empathy for your partner, takes responsibility for your wrongdoings and shows that you’re working to change the behavior.
Howes’ suggestion? “I see that you’re hurt, and it kills me to see you in this pain. I take full responsibility for my part in this, and I’m taking these steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
4. And they don’t hold on to grudges.
Mistakes will be made. Fights will be had. It’s par for the course in any relationship. But couples who go the distance don’t hold grudges and let resentments fester. They discuss it, work through it and move forward.
“They understand that mistakes are lessons learned and not reasons to shame or punish each other,” psychologist and sex therapist Janet Brito said. “When mistakes occur, they are certain that they are still loved and valued.”
Spouses who don’t hold past transgressions over the other’s head are better equipped to maturely handle future conflicts, Howes said.
“There are some folks who seem to be grievance collectors, who hold on to every relational sin from their partner and wheel them out for the big arguments, especially if they’re losing,” he said. ”‘You forgot my birthday 17 years ago’ or ‘You made me pay for our third date’ are grabs at power and rarely result in a constructive conversation. The healthiest couples express how they feel if and when they’ve been hurt, they do what they can to make sure it doesn’t reoccur, they accept the apology, and then they work hard to let go and live in the present.”
5. They find little ways to show they are thinking of each other.
Longtime couples are in the habit of regularly expressing how much they mean to each other. It doesn’t need to be some big, romantic overture either. It might mean shooting them a text during the workday to thank them for packing you a tasty lunch or picking up a bottle of the wine they were raving about on your honeymoon.
“It could be something you saw that reminded you of them, or you remembered a shared experience that made you smile and wanted to let them know,” therapist Juan Olmedo said. “The key is that it be spontaneous: Even an unexpected text message can brighten their day. And no reciprocation is needed. It’s just about telling them that you were thinking about them.”
6. They communicate about the fun stuff and the not-so-fun stuff.
Talking about the positive things in your life — an exciting job offer, the trip you’re planning with your BFFs — is easy. Talking about the less glamorous — your crippling anxiety disorder, the dissatisfaction you’re feeling in your sex life — can be decidedly less fun but important nevertheless. It’s often these tougher conversations that bring you two closer.
“Couples who stay together have uncomfortable conversations where they share difficult emotions,” Chappell Marsh said. “When couples feel their expression of distress is seen and heard, their bond strengthens, they become more resilient and their capacity for overall happiness increases.”
7. They accept each other’s friends and family, imperfections and all.
Maybe your husband’s high school buddy is a major story-topper and it really gets on your nerves. Or maybe it irks you that your mother-in-law pulls you aside at every family gathering to ask if you’re pregnant yet. Even the happiest couples occasionally get annoyed with their partner’s friends and family. It’s unavoidable. But these couples also recognize that if the person is important to their partner, it’s probably best to just smile and suck it up. (Note that the grin-and-bear-it approach may not be appropriate if the friend or relative in question is a toxic person.)
“They make efforts to get to know the most important people in each other’s life,” Brito said. “Instead of criticizing each other’s loved ones, they focus on their strengths and similarities, and find ways to cultivate a bond, especially if this is important to their partner.”
8. They make an effort to understand their partner’s perspective, even when they don’t agree.
Listening to your partner is important in any relationship but it’s only half the battle. Long-lasting couples hear each other out and then show that they truly understand the other’s point of view.
“We all have a fundamental need for understanding, so it’s crucial to find ways to tell your partner that you understand what she or he is trying to convey, even if you don’t agree,” Olmedo said. “Being able to say, ‘I get what you’re saying,’ or ‘I can see why that matters to you,’ can set the stage for you to get your chance to feel heard. Being genuine here is key.”
9. They celebrate their differences, not just their similarities.
At the beginning of a relationship, it may seem like you and your partner have so much in common: You’re both introverts who love hiking on the weekends, chowing down on Korean barbecue and watching Pixar movies. But as time wears on, it becomes clear that, although you may be similar in some ways, you’re definitely not the same exact person. Longtime couples can recognize that these differences keep things interesting and help you both grow.
“Some couples have the unrealistic expectation that they’ll enjoy all the same hobbies, have the same opinions and beliefs, and react to life with the same emotions. When they don’t, they can feel alone or even abandoned,” Howes said. “The healthiest couples are able to appreciate their partner’s different tastes and responses and react to them with curiosity instead of scorn. ‘What? You like that candidate? I’m so curious why that is because I have exactly the opposite reaction. Tell me more.’”
10. They don’t make assumptions about their partner’s feelings — they ask.
In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about what your partner is thinking or feeling. But successful longtime couples are able to focus on the context of the argument at hand, instead of making sweeping generalizations.
“Instead of making broad conclusions about a situation, they inquire about the circumstances and setting, in order to consider all angles,” Brito said. “They don’t assume what the other person is feeling but are curious to inquire and are prepared to listen without judgment.”
11. They balance “me” time and “we” time.
Couples who are in it for the long haul value and appreciate their individual independence but aren’t afraid to lean on each other for support — a sign of emotional maturity, said psychotherapist Elisabeth J. LaMotte
“They are able to balance separateness and togetherness. They can enjoy feeling close to each other but are also able to feel satisfied and fulfilled in the separate dimensions of their lives,” LaMotte said.
12. When they argue, their goal is to come to a consensus, not to “win.”
One thing that sets the healthy relationships apart from the unhealthy ones is how the couple approaches disagreements.
“The problems occur when people make it their goal to win every argument and conquer their partner,” Howes said. ”‘Winning’ in relationships should focus on the partners coming to a consensus, not one prevailing over the other.”
Often, couples who don’t know how to fight fair end their arguments prematurely because they’re too frustrated or heated to properly resolve them. But if you don’t come to some type of resolution — even a temporary one — how can you ever move forward?
“Even though arguments are challenging, you’ve got to stick with it to find the compromise or solution that you both can live with,” Howes said. “I’ve known couples who never seem to get to a point of resolution with their arguments, and this has a toxic effect on the relationship.”