“I love her and that’s the beginning of everything.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
What makes the difference between a healthy love that lasts versus one that fails to stand the test of time? According to Judith S. Wallerstein, PhD, co-author of the book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, research indicates that successful marriages involve completion of nine important psychological tasks.
(1) Separation & Individuation
It is crucial as an adult in a serious romantic relationship to achieve a sense of healthy autonomy and separation from your family of origin. This doesn’t mean estrangement or hostility towards one’s family; it does mean that you have a clear sense of yourself as a mature adult who is not psychologically or emotionally dependent on or enmeshed with your family. Achieving separation and individuation is a natural task of growing up that involves creating a personal identity, values, and “voice.”
(2) Building Togetherness
This involves building a sense of “togetherness” as a couple – shared identity and intimacy – while still setting appropriate boundaries and limits to maintain your own sense of autonomy. Healthy relationships do not involve control, coercion, or invade your privacy. A central idea in Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s couples therapy is to begin to create shared rituals, meaning, and values as a couple. When you have a foundation of friendship and togetherness, you are able to feel connected as a couple, yet still feel free to maintain your own identity separate from the relationship.
(3) Sexual Relationship
Dr. Wallerstein emphasizes the importance of a healthy, open, and loving physical intimacy within a lasting romantic relationship. This type of intimacy should feel safe, open, and loving as well as free from the intrusions of external demands (e.g., work or family obligations). Physical intimacy is different for all couples, and the most important thing is that you feel “on the same page” as your partner and that you are able to feel a foundation of safety and trust within this aspect of your relationship.
(4) Embrace Roles of Parenthood
When a couple has children, the idea is that in a healthy and lasting relationship, both partners are willing to accept the inevitable changes to their relationship. Research by Dr. John Gottman indicates that marital satisfaction declines in 67% of couples after the birth of a child. Expecting and working with the changes the children bring includes actively maintaining friendship, love, intimacy, and open communication as well as accepting the fact that things will change dramatically once children are present. All changes, even positive ones, involve a sense of loss as well as a sense of gain. This is natural and when both partners are willing to stay open about discussing their feelings during this time of change and new roles, the romantic bond can stay strong.
(5) Dealing with Inevitable Crises
Successful relationships are able to effectively handle the inevitable crises that life brings. We cannot control all events that happen in our lives… all we can truly control is our own behaviors. When an unexpected crisis occurs, it is crucial to come together as a couple and as a team, rather than pull apart. While each partner may need time to reflect upon and process events individually, it is important that the underlying foundation that “we’re in this together” stays strong. Choose to put “we” before “me” in times of crisis.
(6) Maintain the Strength of the Bond
This is similar to dealing with crises. The idea is to stay strong as a “united front” during times of adversity (as well as the neutral and joyous times). Realistically, times in your relationship will not always feel like walking on a cloud, nor will they always feel painful or difficult. In safe and secure relationships, both partners feel able to openly express their feelings, thoughts, and opinions without fearing how their partner will react. Recognize the importance of expressing differences and moving towards resolving conflicts, rather than harboring resentment.
(7) Humor & Laughter
Strong and lasting relationships usually have a degree of humor and laughter. When both partners take the time to create shared meaning, rituals, and build their friendship, humor and laughter often follow naturally. When you spend time with your partner, really notice all of his or her little quirks that make him or her special. Start looking for the positive things your partner does, rather than simply expecting the positive. When you cultivate a curious and mindful attitude towards truly noticing what makes your partner so special, it is easy to smile, laugh, and really connect.
(8) Nurture & Comfort
Take the time to provide your partner with genuine nurturance and comfort. Notice times when your partner is feeling down, lost, sick, or in need of support. How can you actively help your partner feel loved, supported, and comforted? Choose to become a safe place of love and support for your partner. When you notice and offer love and nurturance, your partner will come to associate you with safety and love. There is no “weakness” involved in needing the love and support of your partner. Reach out to your partner and start offering support and connection and notice how you receive more of that same support in return.
(9) “Realistic” Love
It is easy to become swept away by idealized and romanticized images, thoughts, and feelings of true love. For many people, those early feelings of romance, fascination, and infatuation last for years and years. No matter what your personal experience of love in your relationship is, it is important to recognize that the experience of love within a relationship naturally evolves, changes, and grows over time. This doesn’t mean that anything is “wrong” or “lost,” but simply that the relationship has reached a new stage. Embrace all stages of your love and actively build on the foundation of love, trust, and shared vision that you have created as couple.
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Nine psychological tasks for a good marriage. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/marriage.aspx
Featured image: Bunny Love by David~O / CC BY 2.0