My years of counseling couples taken together with my personal experience with marriage (my wife and I have been married for over 40 years), has taught me that for a relationship to survive and thrive, both individuals in the relationship must understand and apply the following principles. With this in mind, my purpose here is to summarize these principles in a way that will help you identify what you can do, more or less of, to adopt and apply these principles in a way that will increase your relationship satisfaction and the likelihood that it will endure the inevitable challenges of life.
The principles I outline here apply to what I refer to as a Romantic Relationship. By this, I mean that a relationship that includes friendship, physical intimacy, and a sense of exclusivity that requires loyalty and commitment to the relationship above other romantic relationships. Specifically, the principles I am referring to are as follows:
1. Take responsibility for your own happiness
Until you do this you will find yourself demanding that your partner change in ways that make you happier. This creates what is often called a “power struggle.” This struggle tends to persist until both individuals in the relationship realize that no one can make them happy except themselves. This is because, assuming that you have a healthy brain, the emotional state called happiness is a consequence of consistently deciding to think and do things that create positive emotions even when things in your life are “not ok!” In other words, deciding that it’s not what my partner says or does that makes me happy or sad, it’s how I think about and reacts to what they say and do.
2. Accept responsibility
Accept responsibility for the problems in the relationship that you have some control over — This does not include infidelity, abuse, or addiction. When you blame your partner for the problems in your relationship you give away all of your power to improve the situation. This makes you a victim who is at the mercy of your partner’s willingness to do what you want them to do to solve your problems. With this mindset, nothing can get better until your partner changes. Because you can’t force your partner to change, you live in a chronic state of frustration. To overcome this, you must take your power back and focus on changing yourself by making yourself the kind of person you want your partner to be.
3. Make conscious efforts to bring peace into your relationship
Consistently ask yourself the following questions (adopting the “What’s in it for my partner?” attitude): “What can I do today that will help my partner feel loved?” This requires an understanding of your partner’s “Love Language” (a construct popularized by Gary Chapman) and speaking it/them (your partner’s Love Languages) often. For example, if your partner’s primary Love Language is “Acts of Service,” to show your partner love you can consistently plan (preferably every day), to do things that your partner perceives to be an act(s) of service. An important point here is that when someone says “I don’t love my partner anymore” they mean they have decided not to plan to say or do things that make their partner feel loved. A second important question that relates to the principle here is, “What can I say or do today to bring greater peace to my relationship?” This question reminds you that you have the power to bring peace or conflict to your relationship. Communicating to win an argument brings conflict. Whereas, communicating in a way that is most effective (listening and validating even though you don’t agree) tends to bring peace.
4. Never be unkind
It’s ok to disagree but it’s never ok to be unkind! When you disagree you remember that you can either argue to be right, or to be effective. Again, this requires careful listening and validating your partner’s opinion and perspective even if you disagree with it. An effective technique for listening is called Active Listening. In short, Active Listening requires tuning into what your partner is saying until you communicate to your partner that you actually understand what they mean before you attempt to communicate your perspective.
5. Think positively about your relationship
Discipline your thinking in ways that make you feel better about your relationship. Because your thoughts and beliefs tend to be the antecedents of your behaviors, this principle relates to and has bearing on all of the other principles. This is because all of us can learn to think in ways that make us either more or less satisfied with our lives and our relationships. This is not to say you should practice thinking in ways that make you happy about the bad things that happen in your life. It is, however, saying that you can learn to think in ways that make you feel peaceful no matter how difficult your life is. This idea is based on the fact that you cannot change many of the things that happen to you but, you can change the way you respond to whatever is happening in or around you. With this in mind, the goal here is to learn to think in ways that help you feel good about your partner instead of ways that make you feel disappointed or upset all the time. For example, if your partner does not do something you ask them to do you can either think of things that make you feel peaceful like “Oh well, I don’t always remember to do everything I say I will do (the absolute truth across all humans),” or, you can think “Wow, my spouse does not respect me and never does what s/he says s/ he will do!” Both thoughts are a choice. One way of thinking will likely lead you to become upset while the other leads you to a state of empathy that, even though you may not be excited that your partner forgot to do something, will help you feel better about your partner and the situation. The thinking that leads you to a more empathic feeling will typically lead to a better, more rational response. An important principle here is that we are all choosing over and over again to think thoughts that are making our relationship and how we feel about it either better or worse.
6. Create a “Relationship Vision”
Whether written down or simply discussed and agreed upon in some other informal way, the idea here is that happy couples somehow create a shared and agreed upon vision of what they consider to be a deeply satisfying relationship. In other words, they are “on the same page” when it comes to their mutual aspirations for how they want to relate to each other, the things they want to do together and separately, the things they want to acquire, and those things they want to associate with. Some examples of things you may want are as follows: we live a life of meaning and purpose, we have an enjoyable sex life, we have lots of fun together, we have children and raise them to be secure and happy, we live close to our grown-up children, we attend a variety of activities together, we support each other in everything we do, we are faithful and committed to each other, we are loyal and never speak badly about each other, we resolve our conflicts peacefully, we are best friends, we stay physically fit and healthy, we talk through our disagreements and do not share them with anyone outside our relationship, if we are struggling to get along we will seek help from a relationship counselor, we spend time alone, we go out together (date night, just the two of us) at least one day/night per week, we both have fulfilling careers, one of us stays home to raise our children while the other works, we share household responsibilities, we are good stewards of our finances — and save for retirement, we pray together, we attend church or synagogue or temple or mosque together, we plan fun dates and vacations, we always tell the truth, we trust each other, we make important decisions together, we are there for each other when things are hard, we pay it forward and serve our community, we are close to our family and friends, we always think and do things that make us feel closer, we end each day by asking what we did or said during the day that made us feel closer together (we use this information to improve our relationship), we are good listeners, we make each other a priority, etc. Once you decide on the elements in this vision (the things you want to do, get, become) you can use these as standards against which you determine whether what you are thinking, saying, or doing will help you achieve your goals and realize your vision. If not, you can make course corrections that helps both of you stay on the same page towards a happy, fulfilling relationship.
7. Pay attention to intimacy
What distinguishes a romantic relationship from a friendship is physical intimacy — the whole sexual part of a relationship. If either partner decides, for any reason, to ignore this part of the relationship there is a strong chance that you will fail. To ensure success in this area it’s important that the two of you have open and honest discussions about what your partner wants and does not want. Hopefully you do this before you make any long-term commitment. If you are struggling for any reason I strongly suggest that you get professional help to sort out what you both agree will be your unique recipe for great sex that is satisfying to both of you.
8. Avoid destructive habits
Pay attention to and, do what you can to remain well balanced and both emotionally and physically healthy. Happy relationships are created by happy, healthy, disciplined individuals. If either partner has an addiction or a seriously dysfunctional habit like anger, infidelity, abuse of drugs or alcohol these issues must be addressed head-on before the relationship can become healthy and stable. Some of the habits that are destructive to relationship and that are often overlooked in this context include irrational thinking, complaining, and the habit of talking badly about your partner when they are not around. Although these habits aren’t often considered to be nearly as problematic as addictions to drugs, over time they can be equally damaging to a relationship over time.
Once again, many more things can be said about how to create and sustain a healthy, happy romantic relationship. Based on my experience as a couples therapist and, as a husband who is still with the “love of my life” after four decades of the inevitable challenges that come with raising a large family, the principles outlined here represent what I considered to be the better part of wisdom when it comes to living “happily ever after” with that one special person in your life.
9. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t
I ask all the couples I work with to make a habit of asking one another (at the end of each day) “What did I do or say today that made you feel more connected to me (or better about me and/or our relationship)? The answer to this question is invaluable because it provides each partner with a better understanding of how to effectively connect and improve the positive feelings in the relationship. If this is done consistently, over time, both partners will gain an abundance of good information about “what works” in terms of how to improve their relationship with one another. Once you understand this concept you can begin to intentionally plan to do more of what works and less of what does not work in making the relationship better.
10. Repair the damage caused by conflicts
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman, Ph.D., calls repair attempts a “secret weapon” of emotionally intelligent couples. A repair attempt is anything a person in the relationship says or does in an attempt to diffuse a situation and prevent conflict from escalating out of control. My point here is that in healthy relationships both partners tend to start doing what they can to repair any damage done when there is conflict or upset. In my own marriage, we have agreed that whenever one of us says or does something that is offensive the other person will ask the “offender” to apologize and say or do something to make up for what they have done to offend. Recently my wife and I were at a QT and, from her perspective, I said something in a disrespectful way. When we got in the car to leave my wife would not start the vehicle. I said something like “Come on, let’s go!” My wife said I am not going anywhere until you say what you said differently. I said again, “Come on, I’m going to be late for my client!” She then said, “Now you have two things to repair—what you said inside the store and the way you are talking to me right now.” Realizing she wasn’t going to leave until I made a “repair attempt” I said as nicely as I possibly could (even though I was not ok inside), “I apologize for the way I have spoken to you this morning.” She then said, “Not good enough, I want you to say what you said in a kinder way.” Again, realizing I was stuck I tried much harder to say what I had said earlier in a kinder, more respectful manner. Then she said “Not good enough” and we both busted out laughing. Out of all the things my wife and I have done to protect our 42+ year marriage, I believe our willingness to repair and accept repair attempts has done the more to help us stay close and connected.
11. Celebrate small victories
Building a happy, healthy, satisfying, romantic relationship takes time and patience. In my own marriage, my wife and I have had many challenges, including all stress that comes with raising a large family. Through all of this we have remained loyal and in love by making sure to celebrate our love and time together. This has involved consistent “date nights” and both “Staycations” and “Vacations” where we took time to set aside all of life’s challenges and problems and intentionally focussed on our love and having fun. Had we not done this we may have stayed together while, at the same time, we may have lost the spark and love that is so important to what we cherish — romantic love that we hope and pray will last forever!
Once again, many more things can be said about how to create and sustain a healthy, happy romantic relationship. Based on my experience as a couples therapist and, as a husband who is still with the “love of my life” after four decades of marriage, the 11 principles outlined here represent what I considered to be the better part of wisdom when it comes to living “happily ever after” with that one special person in your life.