The Best Long-Term Relationship Advice for Couples

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the secret to a happy long-term relationship? What’s the most important piece of advice for making a long-term relationship work?

Anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship knows that it’s not all wine and roses—there’s work involved too. If you and your partner are in it for the long haul, the best piece of long-term relationship advice is to get your communication in order.

Here are a few bits of advice for a healthy, happy long-term relationship.

In It for the Long Haul?

If you and your partner are serious about going the distance, the best piece of long-term relationship advice you can take on board is to work on your communication. Fair and conscientious communication keeps negative interactions and resentment in relationships to a minimum, clearing space for positive exchanges. Here are some tips that can help.

Tip 1: Fight With Courtesy 

Conflict is natural in a long-term relationship. It’s important to approach conflict with an argumentative style that’s relatively positive. This is because humans have a negativity bias—that is, we focus much more on negative emotions and experiences than positive. It usually takes five positive interactions in a relationship to offset just one negative interaction. Having arguments in a productive, positive way keeps them from contributing to the negative interaction count. Furthermore, negative arguments can make you feel guilty or irritable which leads to more negative interactions and unhappiness. 

Studies show that there are six key elements of positive and productive arguments.

  1. Approach one problem at a time. Don’t use issues from the past as artillery in the present. 
  2. Start arguments as a calm discussion, instead of exploding suddenly and angrily. 
  3. Avoid absolutes, such as “you never…” or “I always…”
  4. Use words and actions that prevent escalation—you may avoid the phrase, “You’re just like your mother,” or fold your hands to keep from—literally—pointing fingers. 
  5. Recognize that external factors might be affecting your partner. We tend to overlook how others’ circumstances influence their behavior. For example, your wife’s sudden anger about the cost of car repairs may be stemming from a recent announcement about layoffs at work.
  6. Know how to end arguments, instead of letting them drag on—perhaps one of you goes for a run to calm down, or you agree to sleep on it. 

Tip 2: Navigate Differences in Intimacy Needs 

Men and women tend to express intimacy differently. While women associate intimacy with face-to-face interactions, men associate intimacy with working or playing alongside their partner. Both are important shared moments, but they look and feel incredibly different. It’s possible your partner won’t engage in intimacy the same way you want to. 

  • For example, you may feel frustrated that your partner wants to talk while you’re content just doing work next to them—but they’re frustrated that you won’t engage in a heart-to-heart conversation.

Having different intimacy needs than her husband, Rubin discovered the importance of building female support systems outside the relationship. These support systems give you an outlet for conversations about problems and insecurities and reduce the friction that arises when you want support that your partner isn’t able to provide. 

This isn’t to say your partner is completely off the hook—at times, they should put effort into engaging in intimate chats and being the listener you want them to be. But, if your partner is regularly disengaged, take time to think about why

  • For example, your partner may not want to talk about your anxiety because it makes them sad, or they might not engage with your rant about work because they’re completely unfamiliar with the field. 

Besides avoiding touchy subjects, avoid unloading trivial complaints and irritations on them. This is important because moods are contagious in relationships—when you approach your partner with a collection of gripes and negativity, they’ll naturally mirror your emotions. When you’re about to complain to your partner, think about if your complaint could be more positive—or if it needs to be said at all.

  • For example, instead of saying, “My boss always dumps tasks on me while she goes out for long lunches. I can’t stand it,” you might try, “My boss is giving me a lot more responsibility at work. I understand it might give me a boost for next year’s promotions, but I’m finding it challenging.” 

Taking this extra step to reduce the spread of unhappiness can help maintain overall positive feelings in your relationship. 

Tip 3: Show Love

How much love you feel doesn’t matter unless your partner sees it. Focus on actions that clearly show your love and appreciation. Rubin found that over time, small affirmations of affection shift interactions into a consistently loving tone. Some of these small actions might include saying “I love you” more, hugging your partner more, and sending messages just to let your partner know you’re thinking of them.

Of course, the most effective way to show people that you care is to pay attention to how they show their care—these actions are what truly mean “love” to them. For example, you may notice that your spouse loves to throw big parties for any of his friends’ big occasions, always sets a fun theme, and thinks of very personal and thoughtful gifts. For his 30th birthday, you organize a huge party with his friends. Everyone dresses as a character from his favorite film franchise, and you gift him a huge scrapbook of pictures and written memories from the past 30 years that everyone contributed to.

Tip 4: Stop Taking Your Partner for Granted

Many people tend to start taking their partners for granted in long-term relationships. Paying attention to the way your partner tries to engage with you or capture your attention is important to maintaining a happy relationship where everyone feels seen. There are a few ways you can actively work against your tendency to take your partner for granted: 

  • Revisit the sort of deep communication that existed at the beginning of your relationship, before your busy lives took over. For example, you might try the New York Times “36 Questions That Lead to Love” or simply go stargazing with a bottle of wine. 
  • Be as considerate of your partner as you are of others. You might buy them a trinket they’ll love, or remember to take their drink order with everyone else’s at a dinner party. 
  • Have date nights, without your kids in tow. Make sure the date suits both your interests—otherwise, the date can feel like a chore. 
The Best Long-Term Relationship Advice for Couples

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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