This last Tuesday was Thom and my 35th Wedding Anniversary. I’m delighted to say that not only is our marriage getting better every single year, the experience has been more than I ever imagined. And believe me, both of us had pretty high expectations. In fact, before Thom would even agree to marry (yes, I asked him), we both vowed that we would end the relationship if it dissolved and we became miserable. Where did we get such an idea? It surfaced because neither one of us could remember a couple ever telling us how much better a marriage could be over the long haul. That’s why I’m here to confirm that not only can it grow, deepen and transcend—if you are with the right partner, are reasonably lucky, and follow certain guidelines, a good and healthy relationship is one of the very best things you can do to live a happy and SMART life 365.
Let’s face it—the world is full of examples of marriages that are less than inspiring. Neither Thom’s, nor my parents offered us a model of the type of relationship we craved or felt was worth the effort. Although I could see that my parents loved one another and were good parents to my sisters and I, I knew they were very different people both emotionally and psychologically. They might have remained married, but I didn’t consider them “best friends.” Thom’s parents were even more distant from one another. Again, although they stayed married, they seemed to prefer to be apart. While neither set of parents was violent, abusive or neglectful, they also did nothing to enthuse. Instead, what we saw over and over were couples who appeared to have settled into a dull routine out of comfort and convenience—or for the sake of their children. I’m not sure exactly how we knew, but Thom and I were convinced there had to be a better way to create a marriage. And if marriage wasn’t something getting better after all that time and effort, why bother?
The good news for all of us dedicated to an outstanding relationship is that we are not alone. There is a growing body of evidence that points out the qualities of long and healthy relationships. In fact, a current study recently published in the prestigious journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” lists the factors that lead to couples being in love and happy in a long term relationship. K. Daniel O’Leary, Stony Brook University psychologist and author of the study, along with his research team, interviewed couples married for ten years and discovered that 40% of them were “very intensely in love”—the highest rating on the scale. The next group, 15%, gave their marriages the second highest rating on the love scale. But what surprised the research team the most, was that when interviewing couples who stuck together for over 30 years or more, they rated their marriages up at the very highest (intensely) in love level even though they had been married over 20 years longer than the previous group. This study confirmed that some couples are able to develop deep, satisfying and happy marriages for the greater part of their lives.
Intrigued by couples that were able to maintain such intense love for many decades, the O’Leary research team turned to uncovering the qualities that helped these relationships thrive. Here are the twelve traits they discovered:
#1 Thinking consistently positive thoughts about your partner.
2) Remember and think about your partner when apart.
3) Difficulty concentrating on other things when thinking about your partner. In other words, if it is easy to multi-task when thinking about your partner, then your partner isn’t that important to you. FYI…this was especially evident in men.
4) Enjoying novel and challenging activities together. Not only was it important to spend time together, facing challenges or growth together increases happiness/love especially in men.
5) Spending lots of time together. Doing things as a couple—even mundane chores—was vitally important. Again, this was very important for men. If he’d rather be at work or out with the guys, and she’d rather be at work or with her girlfriends (or her children), the relationship will struggle.
6) Expressing affection daily. Regularly taking the time to express your love vocally, or do things for each other, to let them know you care.
7) Being turned on by your partner—feeling a response to your partner’s touch ranging from showing simple affection to something more.
8) Making love on a regular basis. O’Leary’s study says that people who are happiest in their relationships, both love their partners more, and have sex more frequently. Such activity builds and maintains feelings of love and even happiness that endures over time.
9) Feeling generally happy. Happy people are able to feel stronger feelings of love for their partners. The flip side is also true—if you are unhappy, your relationship will suffer.
10) Concern for where your partner is at all times. According to O’Leary, those intensely in love (especially men) are frequently preoccupied with knowing their partner’s whereabouts.
11) Preoccupied thinking about your partner. Interestingly enough, the study showed that women were not as concerned about the whereabouts of their spouse, but instead were more likely to engage in thinking about their partner in an obsessive way.
12) Having a strong passion for life. People who express zest and strong emotion in everything they do—also do that in their relationships.
When taken separately it is easy to see why these qualities can lead to deeper happiness in just about any relationship. However, the O’Leary study did not specifically mention a trait that relationship guru John Gottman lists as critical. Dr. John Gottman is the renowned researcher who could, after listening to a three-hour conversation, determine with 91% accuracy which couples would divorce or which would stay together. His primary indicator for success was a large percentage of fondness and admiration among the couple, even when in conflict. Another important quality he believes necessary is the ability to allow your partner to influence you. This quality is described as when, “the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her.” Obviously, if the wife did not share equal decision making with the husband, the same lack of respect would be evident. This quality is clearly about equality and “partnership” in the relationship.
Some of you might be wondering what any of this has to do with SMART or simple living. Yet, if you think about it, one of the best ways to create a happy, peaceful and content life is to form loving relationships. To me, all the qualities listed above boil down to making our relationship both a partnership and a deep, BFF (best friends forever) bonding. And hopefully it should go without saying that this type of relationship and long-term connection does not require formal marriage to be achieved, so it is also true in many same-sex relationships. The type of long lasting love and dedication that flows out of a relationship exhibiting these qualities is not only a joy to those involved, it is also an example to everyone else about what is possible. Even better, for those of us who believe we are deeply bonded in this type of long-term relationship, it’s proof that the future holds even more rewards than the past. In fact, Thom and I can’t wait to see what the next 35 years brings!
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
“I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” ~ Mary Ann Shaffer