With Valentine's day just around the corner, whether you engage in such celebrations or not, it is difficult to escape coming face to face with the notion of romance and relationships this month. Apparently though we should be turning to science and not to cupid to discover the secrets of long lasting, and most importantly, happy relationships.
Despite the current statistic of approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, there are plenty of reasons to remain hopeful. A recent study of married couples showed that a surprising number of couples remain very much in love with their partners even 20 years after they first got married. Brain scans of these happy couples showed activation in areas associated with reward, motivation and “wanting” in the same way as those experiencing new love. Even more exciting was the finding that areas associated with calming and pain reduction were also activated in the happy long term couples, which did not show up in the scans of the couple's newly in love. So the bottom line is, if done right, long term love can offer a unique combination of happiness and calmness.
Now that we know that long lasting love comes with a great many fringe benefits the question is how to achieve it. Here are the headlines when it comes to the science of living happily ever after...
Mr and Mrs Nice
Happy couples have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Whilst this so called golden ratio allows couples to argue (because they do) it also calls for significantly more happy encounters than negative ones in order to nourish that loving feeling. It is important to cultivate positive interactions in your relationship each day. Simply giving a compliment, showing your appreciations for something big (or small), or reliving a happy memory together can go a long way to improving your relationship satisfaction. In fact, one study showed that couples who were asked to recall a moment of “shared laughter” reported greater levels of relationship satisfaction than if they were asked to individually recall positive moments in their relationship.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Doing your share of the house work is surprisingly important for relationship success. Even in households that do make an effort to split the tasks typically one partner takes on more than the other. So if you know yourself to be a bit shy when it comes to the dishes, laundry and vacuuming, making that extra effort can help to cultivate happiness within your relationship. But if you can't find the energy or motivation to help out more expressing your gratitude to your partner can go a long way to quelling any resentment and ensuring your partner's relationship satisfaction.
When it comes to strengthening your relationship science tells us that it is how you celebrate your partner's good news, not their difficult news, that is important. Couples who are encouraging, enthusiastic and positive about their partner's achievements are amongst the happiest. So how do you celebrate success? Simply ask questions about their achievements, relive what happened together and match their level of positively and happiness.
Take off the Boxing Gloves
Most of us are aware that communication is key to a successful relationship, even if we are not very good at actually doing it. Research suggests that how we communicate with each other when we are arguing has a lot to say about our levels of relationship satisfaction. When happy couples argue they tend to try to diffuse any tension using humour, continue to express affection during the argument, and are willing to concede to some of the points that their partners make. Unhappy couples on the other hand have a tendency to criticise, eye roll, take the defensive, name call and tune out altogether during arguments. One trick that you can try the next time you find yourself mid fight, try using more "couple-focused" pronouns, like "we," "our" and "us". One study published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that these words helped partners get through disagreements with more affection, less anger and lower stress, while pronouns like "I," "you" and "me" increased marital dissatisfaction.
Adventure Is Out There
Sometimes even the happiest of relationships can get stuck in a rut. We can find ourselves simply doing the same familiar things we always do in the way we have always done them. But the research is clear, those couples who participate in new experiences together are happier and more satisfied. Our ability to grow and experience “self expansion” alongside our partner helps to stave off the boredom and staleness that can be a significant contributor to so many breakups. So the next time you find yourself planning a date with your partner, why not try a restaurant you've never been to before or go for a walk in a new part of the city.
Here's to being happier, together.