The secret ingredients of long-term loving relationships
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
Many of the questions we get here on Mining Family Matters are about relationships, and pretty much all of the work in my private practice is about relationships.
Basically, we’re happy when our relationships are going well, and distressed when they’re not. Love, connection, and a sense of belonging are important to us all, no matter our gender, age, skin colour or bank balance.
Once upon a time we would have got the love, connection and belonging we needed from a wide community of friends and family. Now most of us look to our partner to give us all of this, plus we’ve attached the idea of romantic and sexual love to marriage, which is new. It’s only in recent times that the marital relationship has become the central emotional relationship in most people’s lives (when I talk about marriage I’m referring to any committed love relationship between two people).
Love tops the list
One study showed that in 1939, women ranked love fifth as a factor in choosing a mate. By the 1990s, love topped the list for both men and women*. The result of all of this is a lot of pressure on modern marriage, and very high expectations of our partners. It’s a wonder any relationships make it past the first couple of years! But we know they do, so what are the secrets of long term happy couples?
I recently saw an interview with a couple who had been together a long time. When they were asked how they had lasted so long (and so happily) the woman answered “we’ve never been out of love with each other at the same time”.
I love the matter-of-fact nature of this statement, and the simple truth of it. Psychologists once thought that couples have a ‘honeymoon period’ and, once that was over, it was just down to getting on with life ‘for better or worse’. Thankfully, we now know that most couples can have more than one lovely period in their relationship, if they remain committed to each other through the rough times.
Falling out of love is normal
Studies of couples in healthy long-term relationships show that it’s quite normal to fall in and out of love over the course of a lifetime together. Falling out of love is usually just a temporary phase that will pass with some work and committed action. I don’t think many people really understand this, and so can become disheartened, disappointed or panicked to find themselves out of love with their partner (or vice versa). Depending on history and coping styles, it’s at this point that people can give up on their relationship, blame their partner, pick fights or look for another relationship to get their love needs met. If only we were taught more about relationships, we would know that falling out of love for a period of time is normal, and it’s during these periods that we need to keep calm and work at being loving towards our partner, even if we’re not feeling loving. In time, the loving feelings will come back around again, sometimes even deeper than they were before.
The best ways to keep on acting loving while you wait for the good feeling to return is to commit to behaving in ways that contribute to the overall health of the relationship. One important way of doing that is to keep up the affection. Interestingly, it’s not usually increasing conflict that results in marriage breakdown, it's decreasing affection.
Here are some key tips:
- Make sure that you remain emotionally available and supportive to your partner.
- Keep on spending time with your partner. If you work away, or your partner works away, make sure that you keep up your usual Skype and phone calls. Text messages can be easier if you’re really not feeling the love for a few days.
- Make sure you regularly schedule in some fun activities to do together. Adding some excitement to your time together (think rock climbing, sky diving, snow or water skiing) now and then is a great way to foster a positive connection.
- Have regular sex. I know this is a tricky one - it’s hard to have sex if you’re not feeling the love! But it’s worth a try - study after study shows that regular sex helps keep a relationship happy and healthy.
- Following on from the previous tip, don’t expect fireworks every time you have sex. All couples have average sex most of the time, with great sex once in a while. This is particularly true in the busy years of having children and work commitments.
- Still on sex, keep it interesting by being honest with your partner about what you want, and consider adding in some novelty. Massage oil, sex toys, lingerie and whatever else interests you both can all help. Part of this is showing your partner that you’re still interested in them.
- Focus on the things about your partner you like and appreciate. Make a point of noticing these things daily (out loud to your partner sometimes but mostly just in your own thoughts).
- Know your partner’s love language, and demonstrate your commitment to them by showing them you care in a language they can understand. Gary Chapman’s book Five Love Languages identifies and describes five different ways that people express their love. These are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and quality time. We tend to express our love to others in the way we want to receive it, but this isn’t always received as loving. For example, I might cook my husband delicious meals every night (acts of service) to show him I love him, but if his love language is quality time he’s probably wishing I’d get out of the kitchen and spend some time with him!
- Two of the very best things you can do for all of your relationships are: 1) to know yourself; and 2) to take responsibility for your own emotional and physical health.
- Following on from the last point, learn your own coping skills and how to manage your own emotions, so you can keep calm and carry on when things get rough in your relationship.
- Don’t buy into the rubbish that men and women are different and have different needs in relationships. We all need to feel safe, loved, and connected. We are not from different planets!
And finally, remember that the skills needed to have a healthy relationship don’t come naturally to most of us, even though we’re driven to want and need close connection. Reading books about relationships can help, as can counselling if you need a little help with making sense of things or coping with a tough time.
Here are some recommendations for good relationship books:
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman and Nan Silver
- Act with Love, by Russ Harris
- Hold me Tight, by Sue Johnson
*from the survey Hold Me Tight.
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.