Relationships don’t look like they used to (and that’s a good thing). But what does it honestly take to make a modern romance work? As part of Committed, we’re exploring partnerships ranging from a textbook marriage between high-school sweethearts to a gay couple creating a life together in the conservative deep South.
If binge-watching Gilmore Girls, Scandal, or The Good Wife has taught us anything, it’s that relationships are messy. Personal experience proves it too: From our eighth-grade romance to our most recent breakup drama, “love isn’t easy” is a life lesson we know all too well.
No matter your status—single, dating, engaged, or married—relationships take work. And whether they end with tears and empty Ben & Jerry’s or last until forever may depend upon countless factors, but your own actions, words, and thoughts undoubtedly play a role.
One thing that’ll give you an advantage in the game of love? Soaking up all the wisdom you can from relationship therapists, researchers, matchmakers, and more. Here, we’ve distilled it down to the very best advice 15 experts have learned. Regardless of your personal situation, their words may help you uncover the key to long-lasting happiness.
1. Do or say something daily to show your appreciation.
“Saying and doing small, simple expressions of gratitude every day yields big rewards. When people feel recognized as special and appreciated, they’re happier in that relationship and more motivated to make the relationship better and stronger. And when I say simple, I really mean it. Make small gestures that show you’re paying attention: Hug, kiss, hold hands, buy a small gift, send a card, fix a favorite dessert, put gas in the car, or tell your partner, ‘You’re sexy,’ ‘You’re the best dad,’ or simply say ‘Thank you for being so wonderful.'”
— Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., professor at Oakland University and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great
2. Realize every relationship has value, regardless of how long it lasts.
“There’s no such thing as a failed romance. Relationships simply evolve into what they were always meant to be. It’s best not to try to make something that is meant to be seasonal or temporary into a lifelong relationship. Let go and enjoy the journey.”
— April Beyer, matchmaker and dating and relationship expert
3. Never take your partner for granted.
“This may sound obvious, but you can’t imagine how many people come to couples therapy too late, when their partner is done with a relationship and wants to end it. It is very important to realize that everyone potentially has a breaking point, and if their needs are not met or they don’t feel seen by the other, they will more than likely find it somewhere else. Many people assume that just because they are OK without things they want so is their partner. ‘No relationship is perfect’ shouldn’t be used as a rationalization for complacency.”
— Irina Firstein, LCSW, individual and couples therapist
4. Remember to take breaks.
“A friend taught me that no matter how in love you are or how long you’ve been together, it’s important to take an exhale from your partnership. Hang out with girlfriends until late in the evening, take a weekend trip to visit family, or just spend time ‘doing you’ for a while. Then when you go home to Yours Truly, you’ll both be recharged and ready to come together even stronger.”
— Amy Baglan, CEO of MeetMindful, a dating site for people into healthy living, well-being, and mindfulness
5. It’s not what you fight about—it’s how you fight.
“Researchers have found that four conflict messages are able to predict whether couples remain together or get divorced: contempt, criticism, stonewalling (or withdrawal), and defensiveness. Together, they’re known as the ‘Four Horsemen of Divorce.’ Instead of resorting to these negative tactics, fight fairly: Look for places where each partner’s goal overlaps into a shared common goal and build from that. Also, focus on using ‘I’ vs. ‘you’ language.”
— Sean M. Horan, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication, Texas State University
6. Stop trying to be each other’s “everything.”
“‘You are my everything’ is a lousy pop-song lyric and an even worse relationship plan. No one can be ‘everything’ to anyone. Create relationships outside The Relationship, or The Relationship isn’t going to work anymore.”
— Matt Lundquist, LCSW, couples therapist
7. Don’t just go for the big O.
“Sex isn’t just about orgasms. It’s about sensation, emotional intimacy, stress relief, improved health (improved immune and cardiovascular system), and increased emotional bonding with your partner, thanks to the wonderful release of hormones due to physical touch. There are many more reasons to have sex than just getting off.”
— Kat Van Kirk, Ph.D., licensed marriage and sex therapist, expert at Adam and Eve, and Greatist expert
8. Look for someone with similar values.
“For long-lasting love, the more similarity (e.g., age, education, values, personality, hobbies), the better. Partners should be especially sure that their values match before getting into marriage. Although other differences can be accommodated and tolerated, a difference in values is particularly problematic if the goal is long-lasting love. Another secret for a long marriage: Both partners need to commit to making it work, no matter what. The only thing that can break up a relationship are the partners themselves.”
— Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino
9. Try a nicer approach.
“Research has shown that the way a problem is brought up determines both how the rest of that conversation will go and how the rest of the relationship will go. Many times an issue is brought up by attacking or blaming one’s partner, also known as criticism, and one of the killers of a relationship. So start gently. Instead of saying, ‘You always leave your dishes all over the place! Why can’t you pick anything up?’ try a more gentle approach, focusing on your own emotional reaction and a positive request. For example: ‘I get annoyed when I see dishes in the living room. Would you please put them back in the kitchen when you’re finished?'”
— Carrie Cole, M.Ed., LPC-S, a certified Gottman therapist and master trainer for The Gottman Institute
10. Make sure you’re meeting your partner’s needs.
“The number one thing I have learned about love is that it is a trade and a social exchange, not just a feeling. Loving relationships are a process by which we get our needs met and meet the needs of our partners too. When that exchange is mutually satisfying, then good feelings continue to flow. When it is not, then things turn sour, and the relationship ends. That is why it is important to pay attention to what you and your partner actually do for each other as expressions of love… not just how you feel about each other in the moment.”
— Jeremy Nicholson, Ph.D., psychologist and dating expert
11. Take care of yourself.
“There is one major cause of relationship problems: self-abandonment. We can ‘abandon’ ourselves in many areas: emotional (judging or ignoring our feelings), financial (spending irresponsibly), organizational (being late or messy), physical (eating badly, not exercising), relational (creating conflict in a relationship), or spiritual (depending too much on your partner for love). When you decide to learn to love yourself rather than continue to abandon yourself, you will discover how to create a loving relationship with your partner.”
— Margaret Paul, Ph.D., relationship expert and co-creator of Inner Bonding
12. Don’t forget to keep things hot.
“Many times people become increasingly shy with the person they love the more as time goes by. Partners begin to take their love for granted and forget to keep themselves turned on and to continue to seduce their partner. Keep your ‘sex esteem’ alive by keeping up certain practices on a regular basis. This allows you to remain vibrant, sexy, and engaged in your love life.”
— Sari Cooper, LCSW, licensed individual, couples, and sex therapist
13. Remove the pressure on performance.
“The penis-vagina model of sex comes with pressures, such as having an orgasm at the same time or the idea that an orgasm should happen with penetration. With these strict expectations come a pressure on performance that ultimately leads many to feel a sense of failure and frustration. Instead, try to expand your concept of sex to include anything that involves close, intimate connection with your partner, such as sensual massages, taking a nice shower or bath together, reading an erotic story together, playing with some fun toys… the possibilities are endless. And if orgasm happens, great, and if not, that’s OK too. When you expand your definition of sex and lower the pressure on orgasm and penetration, the anxiety around performance dissipates and your satisfaction can escalate.”
— Chelsea Holland, DHS, MS, sex and relationship therapist at The Intimacy Institute
14. Create a fulfilling life for yourself.
“Like many people, I grew up believing that marriage required self-sacrifice. Lots of it. My wife, Linda, helped me see that I didn’t have to become a martyr and sacrifice my own happiness in order to make our marriage work. She showed me that my responsibility in creating a fulfilling and joyful life for myself was as important as anything else that I could do for her or the kids. Over the years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that my responsibility to provide for my own well-being is as important as my responsibility to others. This is easier said than done, but it is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to ensure that our relationship will be mutually satisfying.”
— Charlie Bloom, MSW, relationship expert and author of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love
15. Identify your “good conflicts,” and work on them together.
“Every couple has what I call a ‘good conflict.’ In long-term relationships, we often feel that the thing you most need from your partner is the very thing he or she is least capable of giving you. This isn’t the end of love—it’s the beginning of deeper love! Don’t run from that conflict. It’s supposed to be there. In fact, it’s your key to happiness as a couple—if you both can name it and commit to working on it together as a couple. If you approach your ‘good conflicts’ with bitterness, blame, and contempt, your relationship will turn toxic.”
— Ken Page, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy.