What exactly makes for a happy marriage? Is there some secret only a handful of people know? Of course not. In most cases, there’s a wide variety of factors that contribute to the success or failure of any relationship. And quite honestly, there aren’t any no-fail guarantees for a happy ending; divorce is a very real threat in today’s society. In fact, the National Survey of Family Growth says divorce rates in the U.S. are reaching 40 to 50 percent. With successful marriages becoming an increasingly rare commodity, the formula to a happy marriage must be equally unattainable, right? Not necessarily.
Take the Cornell Marriage Advice Project, for example. In 2015, Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer conducted a thorough study with couples who’d had long marriages in hopes of discovering the path to a happy union. Over the course of his research, Pillemer conducted interviews with more than 700 subjects who had been married for 40,000 years collectively.
Intrigued by the findings, The Cheat Sheet polled an additional handful of relationship therapists and marriage counselors to weigh in on the subject. So, just what goes into the secret sauce of a long-term relationship? Like we said, it’s a combination of things. But for starters, here’s what the experts had to say.
Let’s kick things off with one of Pillemer’s points. As a result of his research, he uncovered five keys to a successful marriage, one of which is communication. According to Pillemer, his subjects couldn’t stress this enough. Not only is conversing with your partner the best way to build a deeper connection, but it’s also crucial for solving any obstacles you encounter. Pillemer notes that the subjects in successful marriages believed all problems could be remedied with open communication, while individuals with failed marriages believed poor communication was the downfall.
Being a good listener is a vital communication skill. Not everyone is able to truly hear what someone else is saying. But if you and your spouse can listen to one another, and then reflect back on both words and feelings, you’re setting yourselves up for success.
According to Lynn R. Zakeri, a licensed clinical social worker, the secret to a happy marriage is reflective listening. “Making your spouse feel heard and understood more often than not makes them feel cared for and loved,” Zakeri told The Cheat Sheet via email. “The problem is that this is hard for us to do because if we disagree with what our partner is saying, acknowledging and validating their words can feel very difficult.” And that brings us to the next point.
You don’t always have to agree with your partner, but it is important you acknowledge their feelings are real. In letting your spouse know this, you’re helping to validate their true emotions in that moment. This recognition, in turn, will help you get through the rough patches as a team.
Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, psychotherapist and owner of Polaris Counseling & Consulting, told The Cheat Sheet via email, “You don’t need [your spouse] to understand why or even agree with you, you just need [your spouse] to be responsive to your emotions.”
From the moment you said “I Do,” you became one of two people in a partnership. “This viewpoint involves seeing problems as collective to the couple, rather than the domain of one partner. Any difficulty, illness, or setback experienced by one member of the couple is the other partner’s responsibility,” Pillemer said. By combating any and all obstacles as a collective unit, not only will you be helping your partner, but you’ll be strengthening your relationship, too.
“It’s important for both partners to first understand that friendship, connection, and appreciation are the foundation to a successful marriage,” Susan Block, licensed marriage and family therapist, told The Cheat Sheet. Without friendship serving as the base of any romantic relationship, there’s not much hope in getting through the rough times that come your way.
You may be grateful for your partner, but unless you actually express those feelings, he or she may not have any idea. Everyone has their own preferred love language; a way they best show and receive love. And while you may think your partner inherently knows just how much you appreciate them, that’s not necessarily the case.
In fact, Dr. Steve McGough, director of research and development at Women and Couples Wellness, told The Cheat Sheet via email that telling your partner how much you appreciate them is key to a happy marriage. “Each week on a Saturday or Sunday morning, etc., create a list of things you really genuinely appreciate and love about [your partner],” McGough suggests. He goes on to say that over time, this daily practice of being grateful will eventually cause you to act more appreciative on a subconscious level.
Relationships go through a lot of ups and downs, and no matter who’s in the wrong during a particular argument, learning to forgive is a crucial part of keeping a marriage on the right path. Getting derailed once in a while is to be expected, but being able to get back on track is what’s really going to keep your marriage going strong.
“Forgiveness is a key factor here because without it, it would be difficult to move on from mistakes,” Ana Aluisy, a couples therapist and author, said in an email to The Cheat Sheet. “We all make mistakes and hurt our loved ones unintentionally at times. Without forgiveness we collect a pile of hurt inside of us that fosters resented and constant hurt. It also works against our ability to trust our partner.”
No relationship can succeed without these two essential components. “Happiness in marriage comes from two people feeling safe with each other emotionally and physically,” Gordon Brewer, a licensed marital and family therapist, told us. “I like to tell clients that a healthy marriage is when each person can hand to the other their inner world and know for sure that it will always be treated with kindness and compassion.”
In any relationship, it’s important to bring recurring issues into the light. If you and your spouse are more prone to sweeping things under the rug, there’s no way to overcome problems, and it will only lead to holding grudges.
Melissa Divaris Thompson, licensed marriage and family therapist, told The Cheat Sheet the secret to a happy marriage is cleaning out what’s been shoved underneath the carpet. “So many times an argument happens and a couple tries to move on and not bring it up again,” Thompson said. “This is so problematic because then hurt feelings go underground and surface whenever the next argument happens. It becomes toxic and can lead to feeling unhappy in your marriage.”
Psychical desire can fade, so remembering to touch your spouse frequently can sometimes feel like hard work. But it will help keep your marriage alive for decades to come. Kimberly Hershenson, a licensed master social worker, told us in an email that physical touch is of the upmost importance. “Whether it’s a kiss hello or goodbye, snuggling on the couch or holding hands. Even non-sexual touching builds connection between partners.”
Kristine Thomason also contributed to this story
[Editor’s note: This story was updated April 19, 2017]