7 Secrets to a Long-Lasting Relationship

Whether you’re just starting a committed relationship or you’ve got 50 years under your belt, whether your song is "Thinking Out Loud or "Love Me Tender," whether your next anniversary is paper or diamond, we all need to tend to our relationships. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 science-backed secrets to making a relationship last.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #229

...examining the entire 15 minutes of the argument amplified the ability to predict divorce. Over the course of the argument, husbands in stable marriages got a little more negative, but they simultaneously stayed positive: making jokes, listening, and being affectionate. 

Husbands in marriages that would eventually end in divorce, however, got increasingly negative and less positive over the course of the 15 minutes. By the end, calling their spouse by a cute nickname or validating her viewpoint went out the window.

For every negative interaction...you need five positive interactions.

Later, the same research lab developed the magic ratio for a healthy relationship--for every negative interaction, they advise, you need five positive interactions. In other words, stable couples argue, of course, but that arguing is filled with joking and teasing and listening and love.

Secret #4: Be equal. 

A study in the American Journal of Sociology found that couples in egalitarian relationships are less likely to divorce than couples where one brings home the bacon and the other cooks it up.

How to make things more egalitarian? It’s not as simple as splitting up the chores along gender lines. 

A study in the journal Marriage and Family Review differentiated between “low control” and “high control” tasks. Low control tasks are named as such because there is little control or choice in the matter—they have to be done more or less continuously, like loading and unloading the dishwasher, or at specific times, like making dinner, or on demand, like changing a diaper. High control tasks, by contrast, can be done when it’s convenient and have a specific beginning and end, like mowing the lawn or doing a home repair. Traditionally, low-control tasks have been designated as women’s, while high-control tasks have been labeled as men’s.

Therefore, take a page from many same-sex relationships and divvy up tasks by interest and value rather than by gender roles. For example, the social butterfly takes responsibility for playdates and social events. The foodie makes dinner or does the grocery shopping. And the tasks no one wants? You have three options: outsource, workaround (no one has to water plants if you don’t have any!), or divvy them up. Even if the divvying ends up falling along gender lines, as long as you decided on those assignments together, you’ll go a long way towards shrinking resentment.

Next, in families with kids, there’s an avalanche of kid-related invisible labor—scheduling playdates, researching pediatricians, ordering soccer uniforms, and returning them when they don’t fit. In heterosexual relationships, this keeping track of a thousand and one things usually falls to the woman.

How does this get started? It’s been argued that it starts with maternity leave. It takes time and practice to gain expertise in a task. So when moms are given a leave of absence but dads are not, moms gain singular expertise during those hundreds of hours with baby, and that gap never gets closed. The solution? Paternal leave. Indeed, a Pew Research survey found that 69% of Americans believe fathers should receive paid parental leave, which would help level the playing field.

Secret #5: Expect a lot of your partner, but not everything.

While fairytale expectations are bound to be disappointing, a study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that marriages stay happy with a magic combination of high expectations and partners’ ability to reach them. 

In the study, couples were asked about their expectations of their relationship. Next, they were asked to come into the lab, identify a point of conflict in their relationship, and work towards a resolution. Researchers watched each partner argue, and they noted when partners avoided the topic, criticized or faulted the other, shirked responsibility, made presumptions, or were hostile. By contrast, researchers also noted when partners stayed on topic and furthered the resolution. 

When individuals had high expectations of the relationship and their partners could deliver, that match of expectations and ability made for a happier relationship. 


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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.