Today is National Spouses Day, so it’s a great day to celebrate long-term love. I wanted to really dig in and learn what makes happy, healthy couples tick. What’s the difference between the couples who go the distance and seem to love every moment of it, and the ones who seem miserable until they call it quits? Sure, natural compatibility is part of it, but the work we do in a relationship matters, too. Whether you and your partner are married, slowly getting there, or just getting started, keep these ten things in mind as you work towards keeping your relationship happy and healthy.
Healthy couples have interests in common…
It’s important to have shared interests with the person you spend the better part of your life with! Common interests give you something to bond over and appreciate together. They also make it possible for you to choose what to buy and what to eat, what movie or TV show to watch, or what music to listen to on a road trip (along with where to go and what to do on that road trip). No couples will like ALL the same things, but make sure you have enough common ground that you can generally “get along” and can nurture those shared interests together.
This applies to friendships, too. While it’s important to have mutual “couple friends”, and it’s well-known that frequently their friends become yours and yours become theirs, too much crossover in this department can get reeeeallly tricky if the relationship ever goes south. Enjoy your mutual friends together, but maintain your own friendships and encourage your partner to do the same. Even if you have nothing in common with some of their friends, they do, and it’s important to nurture that. Having some interests and friendships in common and some outside of the relationship ensures you’ll always have plenty of things to talk about and someone to talk to.
…but they also have their own interests outside of each other.
No matter how long they’ve been together, people in healthy couples make time away from each other to do their own thing. As stated earlier, no couple will ever have EVERYTHING in common. It’s important to continue to nurture your own interests and your sense of self outside of the relationship, even when they don’t align with your partner’s. If you love horror movies and your partner hates them, watch them on nights they’re not around. If your partner loves wine and you don’t drink, encourage them to go on that wine tasting trip with their friends instead of you. It’s all about balance.
Go on “friend dates” to do things you enjoy that your partner doesn’t. Take weekend getaways on your own or with your friends where no partners are coming along. Take a class about something that fascinates you and only you. Maybe notch out one night a week where you both focus on communication and connection with people other than each other. You shouldn’t have to change yourself or any of your interests to fit a desired “mold” your partner has for you. Feeling that you have to be anyone other than exactly who you are to maintain your relationship isn’t healthy. You do you, boo, and let your partner do it, too!
Healthy couples have sex regularly…
While all forms of physical intimacy are important to a romantic relationship, sex is particularly crucial. Barring asexuality or other factors, most humans have varying levels of sexual needs; that is, they need to have sex regularly enough to fulfil their most basic sex drive and natural urges just to feel a base level of OK, physically and emotionally. Everyone has different libidos and that desired frequency of sex varies from person to person, but the healthiest couples have a fairly evenly matched level of sexual desire. They enjoy having sex equally as often, or are willing to compromise and meet their partner somewhere in the middle if they have very mismatched needs. Remembering to keep up your sex routine can prevent healthy couples from falling into the ‘old married couple that never has sex’ cliché. It’s a trap!
Beyond the physiological need and desire for sex, and the health benefits of having sex regularly, the emotional aspect of sex is important for couples as well. Sex is an opportunity to bond with your partner, physically and emotionally. The hormones produced in the brain before, during, and after sex are some of the most important ones for encouraging feelings of love toward your partner, feelings of safety, happiness, and contentment
…and they also talk openly about sex.
Studies have shown that those in truly happy long-term relationships can and do talk about sex regularly and openly. You should feel comfortable talking about your sexual needs and theirs – freely, receptively, and without judgement. This means that if you and your partner or spouse are NOT having sex regularly, you at least need to be able to talk about why, and discuss how you may be able to make it better if that’s something you’d like to accomplish together.
Folks in healthy relationships can talk to their lover about sex whenever they need to. They can articulate their needs and desires, and give feedback on exactly what they like or don’t like; what turns them on or what turns them off. If you’ve been wanting to try some sexy role play scenarios in the bedroom, you should feel comfortable introducing the idea to your partner. If your partner has been curious about adding toys to your sex, they should feel comfortable talking to you about that. And you should both be comfortable enough to enforce your boundaries of consent when necessary, but willing to compromise and stay open-minded when possible. If you and your partner aren’t comfortable talking about sex this fluently, it may be worth it to discuss why that is, and work on fixing it together.
Healthy couples turn toward each other instead of away…
While it’s important for coupled folks to maintain a level of independence and autonomy within the relationship, it’s also important (and perfectly normal and healthy) for folks to have emotional needs that only their partner can fulfil. State what your emotional needs are and how they can be met by your partner, and listen and respond when your partner does the same. For example, let’s say you have plans with friends on a Thursday night, and your partner calls mid-day and says, “I know we were supposed to go out with Jen & Max tonight, but I’ve had a shit day at work and really just need to stay in and watch stupid movies with you. Is that okay?” As long as these things don’t happen all the time, respect their wishes and let them cancel the plans.
That should mean they respect your needs, as well, the next time a similar situation comes up. These emotional needs, expressed through words and actions, are all bids for connection that you should honor as much as possible. Turn towards your partner, spend that time they need with them, and hold space for them when they need you most. You are together because you’ve both agreed that you’re better together, and sometimes you need to both lean in to prop each other up.
…but it’s also OK to occasionally go to bed mad.
The old adage that couples should never go to bed mad at each other kind of needs to go away. Sometimes, when things get really heated, it’s best for both of you to take a step back and some time out. If that means going to bed mad, even if it means sleeping separately or whatever works for you, sometimes it may be best to do that, and tackle the tough stuff when you’ve both literally slept on it. Sometimes people are unable to express their feelings properly in a tense moment. It’s important to give them the wait time they need to process what happened and think about how to discuss it calmly and accurately. This can prevent both of you from saying something you might regret or don’t really mean.
Don’t let an argument drag on unresolved for days, and don’t give the silent treatment, either…that only breeds more anger and resentment. You need to communicate; just wait until you can do so from a place of peace and desiring a resolution. Just like aftercare is important in the kink world, so is aftercare after an argument or disagreement. Taking the time to sit down and talk things out leaves zero room for uncertainty, and it also nurtures feelings that may have been hurt during the argument. Whether this looks like just talking it out over a cup of tea, holding each other and crying until they turn into happy tears for both of you, or even make-up sex, it’s important to have this aftercare session to reassure each other of your love after tempers have flared.
Healthy couples spend time together and make their own “little rituals”…
If you’re with the person you consider to be your “life partner”, that means it’s important for them to be part of your life. You chose them and they chose you, and you both want to share your life with the other, which means doing things together in order to actually share in their life. In addition to the everyday quality time you spend together, and even tiny but consistent routines you share at home, it’s nice to have some regular “little rituals” that becomes part of who you are as a couple.
Creating “little rituals” – events you always put on or go to together, ways you celebrate holidays, gifts you give each other, or weird traditions you’ve made up – is a way of creating shared meaning as a partnership. As one example that came to mind, on their anniversary, my dad would always give my mom the number of roses for the number of years they’d been married…every year. 32 years, 32 roses. That was one of their sweet little rituals. Things like throwing an annual party, always hosting a certain holiday at your place, renting a beach house every summer, or going to shows or sporting events together periodically gives you something to plan, something to look forward to, and something to connect over and talk about for years to come.
…and they are also able to spend time apart without worry, fear, or jealousy.
There is some truth to the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and yes, even in the healthiest relationship, too much togetherness can be draining and lead to more problems. There IS such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. Healthy couples understand this and are easily willing and able to make plans separately and spend time apart from one another. Members of a partnership still need to maintain their own autonomy and independence, enough to where they can actually relish some alone, time out with friends, or even the time and freedom to travel without their partner. Everyone has different needs for time spent together and time spent apart, so it’s important to communicate about this with your partner and make a plan that works for both of you.
You also have the right to have boundaries in your relationship, and some of those boundaries may be centered around making sure you maintain your own life to a point. Boundaries also come into play frequently around issues of trust, communication, and honesty. In healthy couples, you should be able to say “hey, I’m going to see a movie with my friends”, and they should trust that that’s the truth and that they have nothing to worry about, and vice versa. Discuss how detailed you need to be when you’re sharing your outside activities with your partner, but that level should be the same for both partners, and that should be enough. Keeping that line of communication open is necessary if any concerns arise, but worry, fear, or jealousy should not come to mind just because your partner is spending time without you. A base level of trust is key to a healthy relationship, and if that’s lacking in yours, you need to get to the root of it before it causes deeper issues.
Healthy couples show empathy and support for one another during difficult times…
Life is messy. No long-term relationship exists where one partner will never have to support the other partner through difficult, life-changing events, or where they won’t go through traumatic changes or challenges together. Different people experience trauma, loss, grief, or hardship differently, and everyone also has different coping mechanisms or tools they use to get through the tough stuff. How your partner handles trouble may be drastically different from how you do. This is okay, but you both need to communicate well enough to have that understanding. If they prefer to get through a tough time by withdrawing from everyone and just sleeping, that’s fine, but they need to tell you that’s what’s going on so you don’t feel like you’re getting ghosted when you’re just trying to be there for them.
Healthy couples learn over time and come to understand how their partner ticks, including how they cope in times of sadness or pain. Being empathetic means being able to put yourself in their shoes to understand how they are feeling. Empathy in action in a relationship means accepting and understanding your partner’s feelings and needs for support, and supporting them just like that whether it matches your own or not. If they prefer alone time in a quiet, dark room to recover, give them that. If you prefer to spend lots of time with them cuddling & talking when you’re going through something, they should be able to reciprocate and give you that as well.
…but they also don’t try to act as their partner’s teacher, therapist, or parent.
Remember when supporting a partner through trying times that it is not your job to make it all better for them or “fix them”; you just can’t do it. You also can’t and shouldn’t “parent” a partner by doing everything for them or talking down to them; this implies that you don’t trust them or don’t think they know how to do things “the right way”, and it instills an unhealthy level of control over a partner. Most importantly, you should never try and “teach” your partner as a way to get them to change anything about themselves, even if it’s something you don’t like. True, conscious love for a partner or spouse means you love them for exactly who they are and how they are. Even when things get rocky, turn the narrative to “I see you” rather than “I’ll change you”. Don’t try and force them to cheer up; they’re not required to be cheery for you. Don’t tell them what to do; they already know what they need to do or may be already doing it, even if it doesn’t look like it to you.
Be there for them exactly how they need you to be. Give advice or guidance only if they ask for it. Otherwise, just listen and show you’re there for them. Trying to “fix” a partner implies that they’re broken, lost, or have no idea what they’re doing. A person who is struggling isn’t “broken”, they just need the time, space, and tools to work towards healing. Trying to change a partner implies that they’re not enough, or not good enough for you exactly as they are. That’s never the message you want to send. Like so many things in a relationship, it’s about compromise, and about loving your partner unconditionally. That’s what’s most important between you, and trying to change the person you love can easily backfire and build resentment. The only person in your relationship you can control is yourself, so think about how you can model the change you want to see and have them meet you there, if and when they are ready to make that change all on their own.
All of these suggestions are loosely based on the findings and recommendations of The Gottman Institute, a science- & research-based clinical psychology institution specializing in relationships. Their information and methods focus on helping all couples create happy, healthy, conscious relationships. If you and your partner need more advice on working together to improve any aspect of your relationship, I strongly recommend you check out their website for couples. Just like maintaining your physical health requires work, maintaining the health of your relationship requires work as well, ideally at equal levels from both partners. All relationships take work, but when you truly love someone, doing the work is worth it!