What makes love last? Different researchers from different academic disciplines have examined the question over the years and now a professor has analyzed more than 1,100 studies on the subject. Brian Ogolsky, an associate professor in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, looked at everything published in the academic realm about “relationship maintenance” since 1950, and then identified the most commonly-used strategies for sticking together.
“Relationship scientists spend a large proportion of their time predicting why people break up and some of the more negative sides of things,” says Ogolsky, “and I really wanted to dedicate my career to understanding the positive sides of relationship as much as possible.”
After two years of sorting through the data, here’s what he and his team noticed. First, you can split the techniques people use to keep their relationships going according to motive: those that stop it from falling apart and those that actually nurture it. And sometimes of course, techniques that attempt to avoid Splitsville — like being more affectionate to your partner when you feel that they’re interested in someone else — translate into techniques that keep the love healthy, like simply being affectionate because you care about your partner.
Ogolsky also found that both individuals and couples have a role to play. That is, sometimes it’s what individuals do and sometimes it’s what the couple does that keeps the flame going.
Here are the 17 most common strategies he identified.
What individuals do to avoid breaking up:
- Belittle or ignore the alternatives: When people are in a relationship, they often discount other possible romantic partners. “Half of it could actually be I think that guy’s ugly,” says Ogolsky, “and another is actually trying to turn that off, and not attending to that guy at all.”
- Idealize their partner and the relationship: Partners often choose to imagine their other half is hotter or more macho than s/he really is, or speculate that their relationship is special in some way. Most couples like to maintain the illusion that their connection is above average. If they don’t, “the writing is on the wall,” says Ogolsky. This makes sense: the belief that you’re better at what you do than others motivates you to keep doing it.
- Interpret their lover’s behavior in a positive way: Lovers often give their partners the benefit of the doubt and attribute the best possible motives to their behavior. “For example if your partner cheats on you, you can make an number of attributions about that,” says Ogolsky. “You could say ‘My partner is a dirtbag and I really hate him. He’ll probably do that again.’” If that’s the case, the relationship likely won’t succeed. But sometimes people try to give their partners more credit than that, he points out: “You could reinterpret it as that he’d made a mistake and it was one-time thing.”
What couples do to avoid breaking up:
- Manage conflict: Couples who want to stay together find a way to settle their differences, whether it be by compromising, accommodating, acceding to their partner’s way of seeing things, agreeing to disagree or apologizing. Those who stonewall or decline to engage have less chance of staying together.
- Forgive: There are a lot of studies, books and romantic comedies that extol the importance of forgiveness for a relationship. But, Ogolsky says, it’s subject to a law of diminishing returns. “If you’re a constant forgiver, there comes a point where it’s not great for your relationship because someone is taking advantage of you,” he says. “That can actually erode mental health.” Doormats don’t get across the threshold.
- Sacrifice: A willingness “to forgo self-interest and desired activities for the good of a partner or relationship is an important aspect of maintaining relationships,” according to the study. But, Ogolsky notes, it has to come from both sides. “We want some balance in sacrifice. People don’t like to over-benefit in relationship, either.”
- Help one another out: The academics call this “facilitation.” It can include helping your significant other make plans, complete tasks, achieve goals or manage their time. And it often leads to interdependence, as partners begin to coordinate their behavior to try to bring their long-term bigger goals to fruition.
- Alleviate each other’s stress: Trouble at work, financial crises or family drama can all push a couple apart. Couples who can respond to each other’s stress in a way that is soothing rather than in a way that exacerbates it tend to be able to weather the tenser times.
What individuals do to improve the partnership:
- Think in terms of the team: Couples who switch over from figuring out what’s best for them as individuals to what’s best for them as a couple last longer. Additionally, says Ogolsky “spending your own time thinking about your relationship,” is a sign that it’s going to last longer. “It can be spending time thinking about partner, it can be reminiscing, it can be thinking about the things you’re going to do.”
- Are generous: An example of this would be “any random act of kindness toward your partner,” says Ogolsky. Such unasked-for gifts might be signs of affection or acts of service, like making the bed or washing up when it’s not your turn.
- Are grateful and show it: Gratitude — for relationship and for your partner — has been shown time and time again to help build a relationship. However, the partner has to recognize the gratitude.
- Pray for their partner: Yep, prayer. Several peer-reviewed studies published in respected journals suggest that praying for your partner makes relationships last. “The guys who are doing this work are pretty well-known in the relationship realm and are not at religious institutions,” says Ogolsky. “If you’ve had asked me what I thought about this five years ago, I would have said ‘ah no.’ This is not one of the things I would have ever thought would have been quite as robust as it is.” Apart from the supernatural explanation, prayer might work like mindfulness, or help the person doing the praying to think compassionately about their partner.
What couples do to improve the partnership:
- Keep lines of communication open: On a day-to-day basis, couples are making sure there are no barriers to each other. This usually means they’re “being positive, being open, providing partners with some assurance you’ll be around, splitting labor in the household and doing it together,” says Ogolsky. That’s right, folks, evenly dividing chores is a communication imperative.
- Talk about their relationship: Couples in it for the long haul periodically reflect on how their union is going. They discuss where they think they are, where they are going and what their issues are.
- Respond to each other: This is different from No. 13, in that couples don’t just make sure they can talk freely, but they actually engage with each other when the time comes. When someone wants to talk about their day, for example, you put down your personal communication device and listen.
- Use humor: People who are funny in the right way can keep their relationship going. “It’s not about a funniness gradient,” says Ogolsky, “but whether or not that’s one of the tools in your tool bag that you pull out typically during stress. Those who demonstrate humor have a way of defusing the situation and making it easier to handle.” However, negative humor like sarcasm and mocking can be detrimental to the relationship.
- Do fun things together: An oldie but a goodie. “Engaging in leisure activities with a partner is theorized to increase communication, define roles, and increase marital satisfaction when leisure satisfaction is high or when partners are positive and have strong social skills,” says the study. A good time with your partner often leads to more togetherness.
Ogolsky stresses that his findings are descriptive, not prescriptive. He sees his paper as a research tool rather than a blueprint for success. That’s at least partly because many of these studies were conducted using college students as the participants — and they are not perhaps the finest avatars of functioning relationships.
On the other hand, since this is what has worked for other people in more than a thousand studies, it might work for you.