In an interview years ago, Jane Pauley asked family and relationship researcher John DeFrain, Ph.D., what he thought was the major cause of divorce in America. “Marriage” was his response. He wasn’t trying to be flippant (well, maybe a little), but rather, he was acknowledging the many obstacles to happy, long-term unions.
Marriage is “putting two people together under the same roof and dumping all the problems of the world on top of their heads,” says DeFrain, professor emeritus of family studies at the University of Nebraska and the author of more than 20 books, including a study of strength and resilience of more than 30 families around the world that he co-authored with Sylvia Asay, Ph.D.
“Society is set up to satisfy business interests, not family interests,” DeFrain, now in his 70s, continues. “There are all these forces against couples and families and they don’t have any organization to protect them. They don’t have allies like a union or party; they have to figure it all out themselves.”
So how do happy marriages stay happy? What qualities help a marriage endure? Researchers like DeFrain have spent decades publishing studies dissecting marriages to figure out what works to keep couples happy for the long haul. Here’s what DeFrain and couples therapists say is truly essential for happy, long-term marriages.
1. They are friends — and have friends
Marriage researcher John Gottman developed an infographic of a “sound relationship house” containing the elements of successful relationships, says certified Gottman therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Dana McNeil. Three things on the lower level — caring, fondness and admiration — are essential for building the friendship important for the house’s foundation, McNeil says.
“Like a real house, if something is going on with the slab or in the crawl space and you try to put the enormous weight of a house on it, you’re asking too much of the foundation and will have problems,” McNeil says. “Those three things go into the basis of friendship, which gives us the foundation to build upon.”
The increased life satisfaction researchers have associated with married people was twice as great when participants felt their spouses were their best friends, according to a study published in 2014. DeFrain has made similar observations in his work.
“Having studied great marriages for eight years, it boils down to simply that best friends don’t do bad things to each other.,” he says. “They wouldn’t think of it.”
It’s important to remember, however, that best friend shouldn’t mean only friend. Couples need to have space from each other, DeFrain says, and notes, “Oak trees won’t grow in each other’s shadow.”
In addition to alone time, having reliable friends and family help buffer people through storms, adds Justin Lavner, Ph.D., family researcher and associate professor at the University of Georgia.
2. They think like a team
Teamwork really does make the marital dream work. People in successful relationships feel supported and assured that their partner will always be on their side, McNeil says. In a true partnership, you hurt when your partner hurts, and a problem for one of you is a problem for both of you.
“It’s not codependent but interdependent,” she says. “It’s thinking, ‘My life wouldn’t be the same without you’ and ‘I know what to expect with you even though the entire world is chaotic right now.’”
Consistency and empathy are essential in true partnerships, McNeil says. If your partner asks for a hug after a rough day and half the time you’re happy to do it but sometimes you snap at her that you’re busy, for example, she’ll learn she can’t count on you 100 percent of the time. Attachment injuries, she notes, occur in children when caregivers are inconsistent or sporadic.
“‘Partnership’ is a great word for what two people of any gender would want to have,” says Pellham, New York, social worker and therapist Richard Heller. “Resilience in relationships to a large extent are based on agreement, understanding your network of support, and a basic sense of well-being.”
Couples who don’t feel quite there in their own relationships can learn to model healthy partnerships, Heller says. But what can stand in the way is an antiquated idea that the husband is “the boss” in the relationship, DeFrain says. The boss-employee relationship has little in common with the kind of partnership necessary for happy marriages.
“You don’t communicate positively with your boss, and you’re not really committed to your boss,” he says. “You just do what you have to do to make them happy.”
3. They accentuate the positive
Natural optimism is an extremely valuable asset in marriages. Married optimists engaged in more positive problem-solving strategies when there was conflict and showed less decline in marital well-being one year into the marriage, the authors of a 2013 study found. Another study concluded that reacting positively to positive news their partners shared was more predictive of relationship satisfaction than men’s responses to bad news, according to research published in 2006.
If you’re not a born optimist, some research suggests you might grow a little sunnier later in life: In a study of long-term marriages, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that positive emotions increase and negative emotions decrease with age.
Practicing gratitude is a good way to learn the ways of the optimist. Gratitude appears to function as a “booster shot” for romantic relationships, according to a study published in Personal Relationships in 2010. When partners felt more gratitude toward their partners, they felt better about their relationships and more connected to their partners, not only on that day but the following day as well, the authors noted.
Another simple way to think about it is to practice what many people are taught in grade school: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, McNeil says.
Part of having a positive perspective, per McNeil, is asking, ‘Do I give you the benefit of doubt? Can I be ‘curious instead of furious’ when conflicts arise?’