how DO they do it? three secrets to long-lasting relationships

Last week, Hus, the kids, and I went to a community festival. As we sat down to eat some local grub, we both began to people-watch. It's one of our favorite things to do. Hus pointed out a man's huge muscle car tattoo (Hus loves cars) and then I directed our attention to the teenage couple fighting uncontrollably. We ate, we talked, we laughed. Good times.

After a few more minutes, we began to notice that the majority of the people eating around us were couples. They were all sitting two-by-two and eating their midwestern snacks, but few were actually talking to each other. At the table next to us, there was an older couple eating. They were adorable. As they ate, they were staring into each other's eyes, holding each other's hands, and talking up a storm. They were in love. It was clear. When they saw our twins, they turned their attention in our direction. "Twins? Hold old are they?" the woman asked. Hus replied, "Yep. One boy and one girl. They're nine weeks today." She and her husband were enthralled with them. We talked for a few minutes and then I couldn't help myself any longer. I had to ask, "how long have you two been married?" "Fifty-three years," the woman answered.

I began to wonder what their secret was. How was their love still so strong after all these years? Did they say "I love you" everyday? Did they go out dancing twice a month? Did they never go to bed angry? It had to be something. What is the key to a long-lasting relationship?

Relationship researchers have been fascinated with this topic for decades. In fact, researchers have studied individuals who have been married for over fifty years and have discovered that there are three characteristics that these long-lasting relationships share (Dickson, 1995).

First, individuals who have been together for fifty plus years tend to have a comfortable level of closeness with each other. You can achieve this level of comfort by spending time with one another. But, you want to be sure that you don't spend too much time together because that can become overwhelming. You must spend enough time together that you continue to know each other. Too many couples become nothing more than roommates over time. Continue to do things together. Talk about what's going on in your lives. Share your current interests (you may think you know these things about your partner, but people change their focus in life all of the time; your partner may not like the same things that he or she liked when you first met). Maintaining a comfortable level of closeness is key to satisfying long-term relationships.

The second characteristic is that the couple shares a mutual plan or life vision. This could be as elaborate as sitting down together and planning out your life (e.g. when you want to have kids, when you want to retire, etc.) or as simple as using "we" instead of "I" when you talk about your future. Including your mate in your life plans is a great way to express your commitment to him or her. And, it makes your partner feel like a vital part of your life.

Lastly, individuals in these long-term relationships have respect for each other. You need to value your partner and your partner needs to value you. You must treat each other with dignity and never demean one another, especially for personal gain or amusement. Love your partner for who he or she is.

While these may not be the only keys to successful coupling, these are three very important components of any long-lasting relationship. So the next time you see an adorably affectionate older couple and you wonder to yourself "how do they do it?," you'll have a few ideas.

For more information about long-lasting relationships, see the following resources:

  • Dickson, F. C. (1995). The best is yet to be: Research on long-lasting marriages. In J. T. Wood & S. Duck (Eds.). Under-studied relationships: Off the beaten track. (pp. 22-50). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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