What makes a healthy relationship? A fat bank account, well-behaved kids, and a big closet of fun sex-night costumes doesn’t hurt.
But, in all honesty, what makes a happy marriage is a commitment to, well, making a happy marriage.
It sounds obvious, but it’s true: in order to have a healthy, satisfying relationship, husbands and wives have to actively work to keep it happy by interrogating their communication methods, making sure to treat one another with respect, and making sure you both have the ability to grow independently.
So, what are some signs of couples who are doing it right? Here are some ways to know what you’re doing well — and what you might need to focus on a bit more.
1. They treat one another with respect, not contempt.
Every couple fights. And everyone says things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment. But, when there’s legitimate bile behind the berating, it’s a problem.
“Contempt is a genuine devaluing and disrespect for the other person,” Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, a marriage counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, told us. “Respect is essential in a marriage and it can still exist, even in the face of disagreement or anger. But, when you see your spouse as someone unworthy of your respect, your marriage is likely to go downhill from there.”
“In a relationship, mutual respect looks like, speaking to one another in a respectful and considerate fashion, keeping your partner in mind when you’re making decisions, and responding to your partners needs and wants,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder and owner of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “That doesn’t mean necessarily sacrificing yourself in order to make or keep your partner happy, but it means communicating with love, even when it’s difficult.”
2. They tell one another the truth
No, you don’t have to tell your partner everything. But, truthfulness appears to be a major factor in keeping couples happy in the long-term.
In his interviews with older people for the Legacy Project at Cornell, Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., sociologist at Cornell University and the author of 30 Lessons For Loving: Advice From The Wisest Americans On Love, Relationships, And Marriage, says that couples cited honesty and open communication as the two most important elements of a successful, lasting relationship.
When asked what they regretted most, the number one answer was that they weren’t able to be fully honest with their partners. Being honest has its rewards.
3. They don’t ignore one another.
Marriage is built on a foundation of good communication. But, when one partner regularly gets distracted or acts like they have better things to do while their partner is speaking, contempt can easily flourish.
Phubbing, the act of mindlessly scrolling through one’s phone while someone else is speaking, is a common pain point.
Will you tune out the occasional conversation? Sure, you’re only human. But marriage is a game of odds. And couples who often listen to one another no matter how small or large the discussion is are on better footing.
4. They control their body language.
Body language speaks volumes in any relationship.
“Listening to [your spouse] or speaking your mind with crossed arms might send the message you are hiding something or that you have your guard up. This can make your partner feel like you aren’t connecting,” Maria Sullivan, a relationship expert and vice president of dating.com explained to us.
Couples who are mindful of how their body language affects those around them have better conversations and a healthier marriage.
5. They avoid complacency.
The roommate phase is a real phenomenon. If you find yourself falling into familiar patterns, it can breed boredom and disinterest, which can lead to other, more toxic behaviors working their way into the marriage.
“If your partner isn’t receptive to trying something different, like a class or exploring a new location, this can discourage partners from experiencing the joys that married life has to offer,” Robinson says.
Complacency quickly leads to contempt. Couples who try new things and actively work to bring new things into a marriage are often happier for it.
6. They let their partner grow separately.
It’s crucial to grow together. But, it’s also important for partners to let one another grow on their own.
Being needy and clingy all the time can be a drain on your partner’s emotions and ultimately lead to them giving you attention out of obligation as opposed to desire. Eventually, they will start to look at your relationship as a job, one that they might be looking to quit.
“Letting your partner grow separately from you is an important factor is personal fulfillment,” Sullivan told us. “Remember, you are two individuals who are in love, not a packaged couple.”
7. They go to counseling when issues arise.
Marriage counseling is a good thing. It allows you to speak about issues with a knowledgeable third party who can help you gain perspective.
“Whatever the problem is, if you have been unable to solve it on your own, a professional couple’s counselor can help enormously,” Bilek says. “The act of simply going to counseling is an expression of your commitment to each other.”
8. They criticize more than they compliment.
Criticisms are necessary in any relationship. That’s how partners evolve and understand issues. But criticism alone cannot sustain a partnership.
“If you are criticizing each other more than you’re complimenting each other, you’re headed for trouble,” Bilek says. “In fact, research shows that you need five positive statements to counteract every negative one in order to keep a relationship on good terms.”
9. They appreciate one another.
Appreciation is everything in a marriage. And couples who make it a point to validate one another are in a better place.
“Validation is for being seen for what you’re contributing, even if it’s mundane and routine,” Dr. Emily Upshur, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, told us.
Parenting is a never-ending game of “did I just do anything right?” It’s easy to feel doubt, let alone any sense of confidence. Providing validation fights that. The words can vary, but the subtext remains: I saw that and I’m not keeping it to myself.
10. They don’t make assumptions about household chores.
It’s easy for a couple to think that they’ll be great at splitting household duties and internalize their thoughts without every discussing it. This leads to serious problems, because assumptions are made.
The best advice? Talk about who’s doing what.
“The couples who have the conversation [about division of household labor] are the ones who are more aware of it and they actually do the best,” says Darcy Lockman, a mom, psychologist, and author of All The Rage. “It’s when couples imagine, like my husband and I did, that it’ll just work out that way. That’s when people get into some trouble, because things do tend to default to mothers without explicit conversations.”
11. They schedule time to feel like a couple.
Parenting often comes with a large-sized side order of identity crisis. It’s easy to feel like roommates or co-workers, instead of romantic partners. Couples must be sure to take measures to recognize this side.
One couple we spoke to offered this wisdom: “Part of our issue was internal battles that Rebecca was having about parts of her that she felt like she had lost when she became a mom. About every two weeks, she would go through this cycle of feeling like she needed to get away. So, we just started scheduling, every two weeks, even if it’s just overnight, we do something that feeds that side of her. We put things in place to remember that she’s not just a mom.”
Scheduling time to satisfy a partner’s needs goes a long way.