Communication Currents

How to Create Lasting Love

February 1, 2011
Interpersonal Communication

People seek lasting and loving relationships.  For many, the result is committing to another through marriage. However, with divorce rates exceeding 40%; with marital counselors busy with dissatisfied spouses; and with people stating that they stay married "for the children," "for their parents," or for financial reasons, it is clear that creating and maintaining a loving relationship over time is challenging. What lessons can we learn from couples who have experienced satisfying long-term loving relationships? Several years ago, I conducted in-depth interviews with 34 couples who had experienced success in marriages lasting 40 to over 70 years. Not surprisingly, the importance of communication was threaded through their comments. Too, their counsel seems generalizable to couples regardless of the length of their marriage.

One lesson learned from these contented couples was the importance of realistic expectations about their partners and about the relationship itself. If people enter into committed relationships with the expectation that their partner will fulfill every need and that the relationship will be perfect in every way, the relationship is doomed. Real life is often stressful and replete with disappointment. The partners I interviewed expected difficulties, but they supported each other through the tough times. These satisfied couples had reasonable expectations about their lives and about their relationships, expressing joy in the fulfillment of more attainable goals.

A second characteristic of the marriages was that the couple accepted each other unconditionally. Just as they had realistic expectations for their marriage, they also had realistic expectations for each other.  They loved, respected and empathized with each other as they were, without reservation. Although the manner in which they communicated unconditional love varied from couple to couple, they communicated acceptance frequently.

Another quality of the successful long-term loving relationships was positive distortion. These couples did not view the world objectively, but rather chose to interpret their experiences and each other in an often inexplicably positive way. They did not see an aging partner when they gazed at their spouse, but rather  the attractive young person of their first meeting. All long-term relationships experience conflict, but members of contented couples did not interpret their disagreements and arguments as destructive conflict, but rather, took the inevitable disagreements in stride, confident of their ability to resolve them successfully. Another characteristic of satisfied partners was strategic forgetfulness. That is, they “forgot” stressful or negative aspects of their experiences together, choosing instead to focus on the positive. These couples were relentlessly optimistic about their lives and about each other.  

Generally speaking, harmonious couples reported less need for autonomy than researchers suggest. In many of these long-term relationships, the partners spent nearly all of their waking hours together and expressed great satisfaction in doing so. Alternately, some partners felt that in order for their relationship to be successful, they needed to maintain a separate, yet complementary, identity with each other. They retained some measure of independence from each other. Autonomy was expressed in multiple ways. For example, for some it was in their choice of hobbies or friends, while for others, it was in their political or civic beliefs and activities. They did not believe their differences were sources of conflict, but were acknowledgements of respect for each other’s need for  independence.

Balancing the need for some degree of autonomy expressed by some couples was the more widely stated need for a shared identity. Frequently, this was accomplished through self-disclosure, or the sharing of information with the partner that would not otherwise be available to them. While they acknowledged the need for sharing, some areas were identified as off-limits. For example, some couples avoided sharing negative, worrisome, critical or hurtful information with each other. Not all negative self-disclosures were avoided, but when such information was shared, the partner’s response was supportive. Because compatible couples frequently develop their own special way of communicating with each other, they frequently do not need to disclose their emotions to each other. For example, some couples used pet names for each other that held special meaning. Selective self-disclosure helped these couples create a shared identity that contributed to their successful relationships.

Many of the couples continued to enjoy an active sex life, even after 40+ years of life together. Some even reported an increase in their level of sexual activity in their retirement years, as time was finally available to explore and enjoy their sexuality. Others reported no decrease in their level of sexual activity. However, the majority of couples revealed a decrease in the frequency of sexual activity over time, whether as a consequence of decreased energy levels, physical discomfort, illness or the effects of medication. These couples tended to compensate for the decrease in sexual activity with an increase in other behaviors, such as physical closeness, non-sexual touching, holding hands, hugging and kissing. Over time, satisfied couples used open communication to negotiate their changing expectations. Happy couples were distinguished from unhappy couples not by the frequency or duration of their sexual activity, but by their satisfaction with their particular level of activity.

Experiencing satisfaction in a long-term relationship does not imply the relationship is conflict-free. On the contrary, every normal relationship is characterized by some degree of conflict. These couples coped with relational conflict in diverse ways. For some couples, relational tranquility was so important that conflicts were avoided altogether.  For other partners, vigorous conflict was a common occurrence in the relationship. Frequency of conflict did not distinguish happy from unhappy couples. Rather, the way the partners perceived the conflict determined if the relationship was satisfying or not. Conflict was perceived as destructive when it resulted in emotional injury, blame, or it was left unresolved. However, when couples viewed conflict as inevitable, stayed issue-focused rather than person-focused, and shared responsibility for the resolution of conflict, conflict was viewed as constructive and even energizing. These couples used many techniques to resolve their conflict constructively, including avoidance, compromise and collaboration. The key for these happy couples was that over time, they had identified what worked best for them.

Finally, the happy couples were persistent; they persevered. They were committed to relational success, no matter what. Many of them spoke of their absolute determination to stay together, their positive can-do attitude, and their unswerving belief in long-term relational success.  While the nature of the relationship changed with the passage of time and with changing family circumstances (changing jobs, birth of children, health issues, retirement), successful couples consistently put the success of their relationship ahead of any other consideration in their lives.

What is clear from this study of contented couples is that there is no secret formula for long-term relational success. Some couples spent nearly every waking hour together, while others pursued independent interests. Some couples enjoyed an active sex life, while others expressed emotional closeness in alternative ways. Some couples rarely argued, while others fought openly and on a regular basis. What distinguished happy couples from unhappy ones were their realistic expectations for each other and their relationship, their unconditional love and acceptance of each other, and their ability to communicate in a positive, empathic and supportive way as they successfully negotiated the storms and bright days of their marriages and their lives.

About the author (s)

Judy C. Pearson

North Dakota State University

Associate Dean