science backed tools for happy couples

Being in love is awesome! And it can also be a huge pain in the ass! Nothing brings us more joy (or more pain) than our romantic partnerships but all the information out there about what to do can be so confusing! Today, I’m cutting through all the noise and bringing you the keys to a long, happy relationship, backed by research.

12-minute read

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In 1938 the now-famous Grant Study, also known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, set out to answer one question: what makes a good life? It’s one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever done (at least on white privileged males – I say with love) and produced some amazing findings. But according to George Valliant who led the study for the majority of decades it’s been in existence, what it all boiled down to, is this: “The 75 years and $20 million expended on the Grant Study points…to a straightforward, five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.'”

The current director of the study, Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has more recently talked about another shocker they discovered: “The really surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health…The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Strong relationships help to delay mental and physical decline. Taking care of your body is important but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

So, we’re pretty clear that having healthy, connected and happy relationships is one of the secrets to a happy life, but how do you get there? The good news is that the Grant Study hasn’t been the only game in town. Researchers around the world have been studying what makes happy, lasting relationships and there are three consistent findings that you can apply to your own life.

How to Have a Happy Relationship Backed by Research

Happy Relationship Key No. 1: Be Delusional

Yup. No kidding. One of the biggest findings from the research is the ability to sustain positive illusions or, easier said, idealizing your partner.

I know, you’re thinking right now, “But isn’t a happy relationship based on having shared values and communicating effectively?” I’m not saying these are bad things, of course, but what I am saying is that there’s no research to support that those things are the most important.

In a meta survey of 470 studies on compatibility, Marcel Zentner, PhD from the University of Geneva, found that there actually weren’t any common character qualities that lead to lasting, happy relationships. In other words, despite combing through that vast amount of research, he couldn’t find any combination of personality traits that added up to the holy grail of relationships. But there was one exception: “the ability to sustain your positive illusions.”

You know how you feel in the beginning of a relationship? I’m not talking about the buzz you’re having from all the sex. I’m talking about when you first described your new partner to your friends or family and just went on and on about how fantastic they were? Well, if you want to be happy now (and make it last), you’ve got to keep talking that way.

You’ve got to still think that your partner is hot (or at least attractive), smart, thoughtful, kind, funny and caring (or whatever you thought about them in the beginning that was enough to want to stay with them and get serious). In other words, you’ve got to be love blind.

You might call it self-deception to think that your partner still looks as good at 50 as they did at 30, but I call it smart. I say be grateful and excited that you feel this way. I must admit that this particular key is alive and well in my own relationship. My man still looks at me like I’m magic and I still think he’s hot as hell.

How do you keep this feeling even after many years together? There are many answers to this question but I’ll tell you that the low-hanging fruit is to do your best not to be overly familiar with your partner. For instance, close the damn bathroom door! I don’t pee in front of Gary, ask him to look at that funny skin tag on my back or joke about how I blew up the bathroom with that huge poop I just took!

And I hold him to the same standard. It’s not funny to fart in front of me. If you need to fart, leave the room.

But it’s not just the physical. It’s also about showing up with enthusiasm for your partner’s interests and wins. It’s about noticing how you’re thinking about them day-to-day. If all you do is focus on their negatives or complain to your friends about them, then that’s the energy that becomes your relationship. That becomes the story of your relationship. If you want a happy, long-term relationship – you need to change the story to a really good one!

In addition, don’t complain about yourself or point out how there’s no room between your thighs or rub your big belly and tell your partner that there’s more of you to love. Really?

Thinking and believing that your partner is better than they are is the best love blindness you can have. In fact, in other research they found that people who were unrealistically idealistic about their partners when they got married were more satisfied years later in their relationship than those who were less idealistic about their partners! I know it seems counter-intuitive (If I’m going in with these amazing thoughts about my partner, I’ll just be disappointed), but that’s now what the research shows!

Sandra Murray, the lead researcher of this study explains it this way: “People are very good at changing their definitions to match how they want to see themselves or how they want to see others… Someone can decide they’re a good driver—even if they’ve had speeding tickets—if they’ve never been in an accident. In the same way, people might be able to decide that their spouse matches their ideal, even if it’s not really true.”

Letting yourself be a little crazy — crazy for your partner — pays off.

Happy Relationship Key No. 2: There’s Only One Similarity that Matters

Gary, and I don’t like the same things. I love food and talk about it constantly. Being the daughter of a chef, I love to cook and bake and make gourmet meals and scrumptious desserts. Gary would just as soon take a pill every day instead of eating or get some takeout from Wendy’s.

Gary loves to challenge himself physically, works out often and did many triathlons until switching to obstacle course races a few years ago. Meanwhile, I consider walking from the couch to the refrigerator my required steps for the day.

And I could go on. He’s a country mouse and I’m a city mouse. He thinks spending $100 on a pair of sneakers is way too much (even though he, literally, wears them every single day) while I have a shelf of Louis Vuitton bags.

Gary and I are also very much in love after many years together. So, what gives? Don’t you have to have a ton of similar interests to make a relationship last? Don’t you need to be more alike than different to find long-term happiness with a mate?

Not according to the research. A study of 23,000 married couples found that the similarity of spouses only accounted for 0.5% of couples’ satisfaction. Another meta study (which analyzed the results of 313 other studies) found that similar preferences had no effect on being happy in the relationship! Overall, being alike and liking the same things is actually less than 1% of the variation in overall relationship satisfaction. People come to me often worried that they don’t have enough in common with their partner or that they’re not enough alike, but the research says that’s not where your focus needs to be.

So why have we been thinking all this time that we need to find someone like us? Underneath that idea is the belief that if we have so much in common, we won’t have problems. But every single couple has problems! This idea that you can avoid them by having common interests is really a little wacko when you think about it.

And maybe this is why arranged marriages are as successful (and often more successful) than so-called “love” marriages. The research on arranged marriages consistently shows that, although these relationships are harder in the beginning, after a few years they improve and find satisfaction. And this is likely because people who are entering an arranged marriage know it’s going to take hard work! I mean, they don’t even know this other person so they go in with the idea that they’re going to have to put in effort over the long term.

Compare this to someone who’s all caught up in the lust and limerence common in love relationships and you can see the problem. The love marriage person is acting on hormones and thinking they’ve found their soul mate (and maybe thinking soul mates are meant to be, so they shouldn’t have to work hard). They’re vibing with their person and have similar goals and values and think, “This is it! We’re a perfect match!” But then reality hits and they’re maybe not so prepared. They start questioning if they really love their partner or if it was meant to be after all.

Happy Relationship Key No. 3: The One Thing You Need to Have the Same is How You Handle Emotions

There is one thing you need to have that’s similar. But it’s not an activity or where you come from. It’s not the language you speak or the movies you like.

The only similarity you need is to handle your emotions in the same way, or what the researchers like marriage guru, John Gottman, call your “meta emotions.” His studies show that the way you and your partner deal with your emotions when you’re reacting to situations and conflict is a big key to whether your relationship will be happy and last.

So, what do I mean by a meta-emotion? Basically, it’s how you “feel” about feelings. How you were raised and how much work you’ve done on yourself will add up to the emotions you have around your emotions. For example, you might think feelings are helpful while your partner might believe they’re unproductive or even frivolous!

What was the emotional climate in your house growing up? In my house, we didn’t express anger. I never saw my parents fight. Instead, when they were upset with one another, there would be (what I now know to be) passive aggressive statements or even sniping under the pretense of a joke or teasing.

In his research, Gottman identified three types of emotional families you might have grown up in:

1. Emotional Dismissing: This is the kind of family where your emotions were dismissed and minimized. People were uncomfortable talking about emotions and would try to quickly move on. You might have heard, “Don’t be upset,” “You’ll be fine,” or the ubiquitous, “Boys don’t cry.” As an adult you’ll have a hard time identifying or showing your true feelings or connecting with others around their emotions.

2. Emotion Disapproving: In this family, you might have gotten punished for showing your anger or sadness. There was an unsympathetic reprimand or criticism about expressing your feelings or asking others about their feelings. Expressing feelings means you’re trying to “get your way” and feels like they get out of control easily. As an adult you might get angry and harsh when feelings are expressed as you try to contain and control the situation.

3. Emotional Coaching: If you were lucky enough to grow up in this type of family you were surrounded by people who were quite comfortable sharing, expressing and discussing emotions. You were asked how you felt and validated around your feelings. It was OK to be sad or angry and you were encouraged to express yourself. As an adult, you won’t be afraid of emotions in yourself or others and won’t feel threatened or attacked in a disagreement.

Major problems happen in relationships when there’s a mismatch of meta-emotions between you and your partner. So, let’s say you come from a family that was great with emotions. You were encouraged to say how you felt and to explore how others are feeling. Your partner, however, comes from a family where they were taught to put on a happy face and just keep moving, no matter what was happening.

So, something upsets you and you express your anger and sadness, but your partner is triggered by this. They don’t empathize and, instead, jump into problem-solving mode or try to dismiss what happened as “not that bad.” You feel abandoned and rejected by your partner and like they’re not there for you but what’s really happening is that your partner is trying to save you from these terrifying, negative emotions that have made them uncomfortable (so they must be making you uncomfortable)!

What to Do: Learn to Identify Your Feelings

Learning to identify and get comfortable with your feelings is huge. When you’re comfortable with your own feelings, you’re able to express them while also supporting and validating your partner.

Start to notice your feelings throughout the day.

  • If you’re angry, is it OK to yell or get loud?
  • Is it OK to show anger at all?
  • Do you believe in rocking the boat, or letting things pass?
  • When something wonderful happens, do you share it and get excited with your partner or were you taught to tamp down happiness and wait for the other shoe to drop?
  • If you’re sad, should you suppress the feeling or have yourself a good cry?
  • If you feel hopeless and want to quit something, what do you do with that? Do you share the feeling of sadness or do you substitute it with anger and blame?
  • How do you feel when someone else is expressing anger or sadness?

Identifying your feelings is a skill, so it’s going to take some practice but, like any other skill, repetition will make you great.

I also want you to start noticing how you respond when others are expressing their emotions. To do this, you’re going to have to practice your mindfulness throughout the day. Do you get uncomfortable and dismiss or immediately try to problem-solve? Or do you ask questions, explore and encourage them to share more?

Wrap Up

Daniel Wilde famously said, “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.” In the end, you’re not looking for someone who’s so similar to you so you think you won’t have conflict (because you inevitably will). Instead, it’s about being with someone who handles emotions and conflicts the same way you do. Put your energy there and watch what happens!

Dr. Abby with her Book "Be Happily Married, Even If Your Partner Won't Do A Thing"


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