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How to Make a Relationship Last: 5 Secrets Backed by Research

16 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Love is wonderful, love is joy, love is the greatest thing in the world… Love is also an enormous pain in the ass. Marriage is hard work.

(Older people are nodding right now while young people are probably sticking their fingers in their ears and reciting their favorite lines from “The Notebook.”)

So how do you make love last? What myths about love are leading us astray and what do you have to do to have a loving relationship that stands the test of time?

I called somebody who looked at the research and has some answers…

Jonah Lehrer is the author of Imagine and How We Decide. His newest work is A Book About Love.

A lot of what you’re about to read is very unsexy and very unromantic. Sorry about that. But this isn’t fairy tale time. We’re going to see what the research says makes real relationships last so you can get as close to the fairy tale as possible.

Everyone asks how you got married. Nobody asks how you stayed married. Time to find out the answer to that often-ignored second question…

Why Online Dating Doesn’t Work

You want to find the perfect person. You ask, “Do they like the music I like? Do they enjoy the same movies I do?” Um, let’s stop right there…

Because the research shows similarity doesn’t matter.

From A Book About Love:

Another recent paper summarized the results of 313 separate studies, concluding that the similarity of personality and preferences—such as, the scientists say, “matching people who prefer Judd Apatow’s movies to Woody Allen’s with people who feel the same way”— had no effect on relationship well-being. Meanwhile, a 2010 study of twenty-three thousand married couples found that the similarity of spouses accounted for less than 0.5 percent of spousal satisfaction. In short, what we think we want in a spouse—someone who is just like us and likes all the same things—and what we want in real life are fundamentally mismatched.

Ruling someone out because they love Coldplay and don’t appreciate the subtle genius of Radiohead is a bad idea.

And all the online dating websites with their fancy algorithms fail because they’re based on the idea that similarity rules. Here’s Jonah:

Most online dating websites are focused on finding you a similar partner. But when you look at meta-analyses of thousands and thousands of couples you find that similarity is insignificant. It’s less than 1% of the variation in overall marital satisfaction. Researcher Eli Finkel argues that the algorithms they use are really no better than random chance because the idea that the person we should be seeking out is our doppelganger ends up leading us astray.

Looking for similarity is founded on the belief that if you share things in common, you won’t have problems. But over the course of a lifetime, every couple has problems.

So the only type of similarity that matters for relationships that last is in an area that researchers call “meta-emotions.”

What’s that mean? Thank you for asking. It means how you feel about feelings. You want someone who handles emotions the same way you do. Here’s Jonah:

John Gottman at the University of Washington has amassed a persuasive body of evidence that meta-emotions are the real signal variable in terms of predicting whether or not a marriage will last. Do you believe you should express anger? Or do you believe in holding it in and waiting for it to fizzle out? Do you think happiness should be shared but anger should be suppressed? Sharing your meta-emotional style gives you a common emotional template, a common language.

With long-term relationships you should be less concerned with characteristics that reduce the likelihood of conflict and pay more attention to finding someone who has a similar style of dealing with conflict. Because there is always going to be some.

It’s like aging. You can’t avoid it. So smart people don’t ask, “How can I live forever?” They ask, “What’s the best way to handle it?” Here’s Jonah:

Daniel Wilde said, “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.” There is no partner with whom we’re not going to fight and get annoyed and complain about. The question is how you deal with those problems. What Gottman has found is that people who have clashing meta-emotional styles, they have a really tough time dealing with conflict. Even minor annoyances tend to become huge fights, because one partner wants to express and the other partner thinks you should hold it in and then all of a sudden it explodes. In contrast, when you have compatible meta-emotional styles — when people agree on how feelings should be expressed — they’re able to diffuse these tensions before they get too big and dangerous.

(To learn the 4 most common relationship problems — and how to fix them — click here.)

So there’s going to be conflict but you want to find someone that you can communicate with using a common emotional language. So communication is good. Which leads us to another counterintuitive finding…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert


Arguing Is Good, Too

Yup, fighting is okay. Even about little things. Yes, really.

From A Book About Love:

According to the scientists, spouses who complain to each other the most, and complain about the least important things, end up having more lasting relationships. In contrast, couples with high negativity thresholds—they only complain about serious problems—are much more likely to get divorced.

Arguing on the first date? Okay, probably not a good idea.

But Gottman’s research shows that 3 years into a relationship, if you’re not arguing at all, you’re much more likely to find yourself arguing in divorce court. Here’s Jonah:

Gottman’s research shows that 3 years into the relationship, if you’re not fighting, that’s the indicator of an unhealthy relationship. At that point, you’re not holding in your farts anymore. You’re fully intimate. You’ve seen where they’ve got hair, you’ve smelled their morning breath. You’re not holding anything back. So if you’re not fighting, it’s often a sign of withdrawal. In a sense, you can look at complaining and fighting in an intimate relationship as just ways of showing you care.

Arguing is not a sign of impending doom, it’s normal and natural. No relationship is trouble-free. So, after years together, not fighting means you’re not communicating.

(To learn how to win every argument, click here.)

Some might be thinking, “Romeo and Juliet didn’t argue.” And my response would be…

Forget Romeo And Juliet. Think Arranged Marriage.

Yes, I know, that’s terribly unromantic.

But Shakespeare killed off Romeo and Juliet at the end of the play so he wouldn’t have to write about the contentious divorce settlement or mention the People Magazine cover describing the vicious custody battle over Romeo, Jr.

There’s infatuation and then there’s love. Infatuation is quick, romantic and easy. Researchers call it “limerence.” Here’s Jonah:

If you want the purest example of limerence, it’s Romeo and Juliet. He falls in love with her in seconds. He sees her and he just knows. He walks over and starts talking in iambic pentameter. It’s when you meet someone and your heart starts racing and your palms gets sweaty and your mid-brain is just bursting with dopamine. You just get that high and you’re convinced: they’re your soulmate. It’s a very, very romantic feeling. It’s love at first sight. It’s what the movies are always going on and on about.

Thinking about soulmates and being obsessed with limerence is very romantic. It’s also lazy. It’s the idea that “If I find the perfect person I won’t have to fight, change or do any work.” And that leads to the problem with limerence…

It just doesn’t last. Here’s Jonah:

Dorothy Tennov, who’s done most of the research on limerence, found again and again and again that limerence doesn’t pan out. Her work is filled with all sorts of sad case studies of people who talk about the high and how at a certain point, they realized it was leading them astray. It was a pure fantasy but it was hard to shake it off. Limerence is chemical fiction. Because it’s cinematic, we’ve often confused it for real love. Love is something that can be measured over time and limerence doesn’t pass that test. The purest way to distinguish between limerence and love is: love lasts and limerence doesn’t.

Okay, opposite extreme: what does the research on arranged marriages show? They’re harder in the beginning. But after a few years they’re as successful (and often more successful) than “love” marriages.

Am I saying you should have an arranged marriage? No. Chill out. It’s the underlying lesson here that’s important.

Going into a long-term relationship focused on limerence leads to disappointment. But people in arranged marriages have no such illusions.

They don’t even know the other person. So they’re well-aware it’s going to take effort to make it work. And so they work. And so it works. Here’s Jonah:

Arranged marriages go in with this expectation that love is hard work, that love isn’t going to take care of itself. Because they barely know this person, there is no illusion that they don’t have to put in the work. Instead, they know by necessity that it’s going to require an investment of effort. Not that I want my kids to have arranged marriages, but the attitude that they’re premised on, the idea that love is work, that is the right attitude.

Romeo-and-Juliet-style limerence feels great and easy but doesn’t last. Arranged marriages sound weird but they have the right attitude: it’s gonna take some work. But if you do the work, it pays off over the long haul.

(To learn the science behind how to be a good kisser, click here.)

Okay, lots of talk so far about hard work. Let’s make this simpler. Is there a way to be more successful in your career and more successful in your relationship? Yeah. There’s one quality that leads to good things in both…

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

What Produces Success In Life Also Produces Success In Love

What does a lot of research say produces success in school and career? Grit. Guess what? It works in relationships, too.

Now “grit” may not sound like something you’d praise on Valentine’s Day but that’s just an issue of wording.

Do you want devotion? Loyalty? Someone who won’t give up on you or the relationship? Exactly. (To learn more about grit from leading expert Angela Duckworth, click here.)

Ladies, look for guys with grit. They’re far less likely to get divorced.

From A Book About Love:

Duckworth demonstrated the importance of grit in loving relationships by collecting grit scores from 6,362 middle-aged adults. After analyzing the data, and controlling for the influence of other personality traits and demographic factors, she found that gritty men were 17 percent more likely to stay married.

Relationships are challenging over the long term. So you want someone who has stick-to-itiveness. Here’s Jonah:

When I talked to Duckworth about it, her answer was very straightforward. It’s because grit determines how we persist in trying situations. Marriage has plenty of trying situations. People who are particularly low in grit, when love feels like work, they’re more likely to drop out the same way soldiers do at West Point. Love lasts but it doesn’t last by itself. It’s not magic. It lasts because we can make it last, because we keep putting in the work.

(To learn a Navy SEAL’s secrets to grit, click here.)

Alright, so all these fancy studies have a lot to say. But can they predict who will split up? Yes. And the formula is quite simple…


What Really Predicts If A Relationship Will Last

Just ask a couple about their relationship. Yup, that simple. The story they tell predicts with 94% accuracy whether they will divorce in 3 years.

From A Book About Love:

After assessing fifty-two couples based on their oral history interviews, the psychologists Kim Buehlman, John Gottman, and Lynn Katz at the University of Washington found that the way spouses described their history predicted whether they would get divorced within the next three years with 94 percent accuracy. It’s an astonishing statistic: by simply looking at how couples speak about their past, the scientists could foresee their future.

So what differs between the stories told by the happy couples and the not-so-happy couples? It’s not the content. Again, everyone experiences conflict. But couples with a future “glorify the struggle.” To simplify:

BAD: “We fought. It was awful. In fact, my partner is awful.”

GOOD: “We fought. It was awful but we worked it out and now we’re better than ever.”

Here’s Jonah:

Every couple is going to go through hard times and go through points where they wonder if they should still be together. That’s just part of being in a long-term relationship. Then, the question becomes: how do they talk about it? Some couples talk about it almost like a sign from the gods that they shouldn’t be together. Some couples find a way to glorify it. To talk about how it brought them together. How they made it through and how they’re stronger because of what happened.

It’s how you interpret what happened. Nobody is happy on mile 20 of the marathon. And if the story stops there, it’s not a good one.

But if you pass the finish line, the struggle makes the victory that much sweeter. And those are the stories that happy couples tell.

(To learn the recipe for a happy marriage, click here.)

Alright, we’ve learned a lot from Jonah. Let’s round it up and learn why a relationship that lasts is the key to a happy life…

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Sum Up

Here’s what Jonah had to say about how to make a relationship last:

  • Similarity doesn’t matter: Matching music playlists don’t predict happy marriages. Sorry. Focus on emotions.
  • Arguing is good: Negative communication beats no communication every time.
  • Know it’s going to take work: The healthy way to get to “Romeo and Juliet” is to think “arranged marriage.”
  • Have grit: Devotion. Loyalty. That’s grit. And it predicts success at the office and at home.
  • “Glorify the struggle”: It’s all about the story you tell. Did the conflict lead to a happy ending? Hint: it better.
  • Love is a challenge. But life is a greater challenge. We’d like a sure-thing that guarantees happiness and takes away all the pain. But that’s fiction.

    If you’ll excuse a superhero analogy, you need to stop trying to be Superman. He’s invulnerable. But nobody is invulnerable. Bad things happen to all of us. We cannot avoid pain.

    You’d be better off trying to be Wolverine. He isn’t invulnerable. But he can recover from almost any injury. You can’t live a life free from conflict but you can learn to cope with the hard times until the good times return.

    And what helps you cope with the problems of life better than anything? And makes you successful and happy? “Our closest relationships determine how we respond to the toughest times in life.” Here’s Jonah:

    There is no easy life. Then, the question becomes, how do we cope with it? That’s really what George Vaillant and the Grant Study have looked at. How we adapt to life, how we cope. Vaillant has found that what determines how well you adapt is who you love and how you love them. Our closest relationships determine how we respond to the toughest times in life. What you find is that people who have close relationships live longer. They’re far more successful. They make more money. They’re much, much happier. If you go down the list of everything we think we want in life it’s all tied up with the ability to love and be loved.

    And when Jonah asked George Valliant, who led the Grant Study at Harvard, about these results, what did Valliant say?

    “I wrote once that when we are old our lives become the sum of everyone we have loved. That’s still true. I believe it more than ever.”

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    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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