“Love has a kind of magic. It’s able to do amazing things.” That’s what researcher Dr. John Gottman said about great friendships and love relationships, in a TEDx talk.
Social science tells us, those who enjoy healthy friendships and love also enjoy:
- Greater physical health
- Greater mental health
- Greater wealth
- Longer life (10-15 years longer)
- More successful children
Despite these benefits, we know about half of US marriages end in divorce. Knowing so many relationships die before partners can enjoy the gifts of long-term love is sad. What don’t we know? What we can learn?
Falling in love is terrific. You feel fireworks without even trying. You’re so happy together. You feel excited, desired, and thrilled to give and receive attention. That’s not the problem.
The challenge is learning how to make love grow after it starts.
Why Lasting Love Takes Different Work than First Love
Lasting love is different, because now you’ve had a chance to annoy each other. Can you still let the good times roll? Can you still feel positive right and happy together most of the time? Once you know what bothers you or what you don’t like about your partner, is it all downhill?
Once you know each other better, you can learn how to make love stronger between you. Your long-term love can be even more beautiful and amazing than before.
Building this safe, strengthening love is the kind of love we need to know more about. We need to know what makes a love relationship great, after the smoke and glitter has blown away, and the air is clear.
Here’s what we know about how love grows in long-term relationships. We see these as marriage counselors and psychotherapists (and in Gottman’s work):
Trust, Calm and Commitment (Magic Trio)
- Both partners build trust to help each other feel safe, accepted and valued, no matter what. You learn to live with your set of unsolvable problems. And you learn how to enjoy life together anyway.
- Partners keep learning about each other and turning it into shared strength – especially how to comfort and share in each other’s joy. You find out what calms or makes each other happy. And you do more of it. On purpose.
- Partners commit themselves to knowing – and doing – what matters to each other. You know that what’s good for your partner is also good for you. So you work to become expert on taking good care of each other. Your shared goal is to make your relationship the best place to be in life.
Lasting, feel-good love comes from the work each partner does to be there for each other.
What Does it Mean to “Be There” for Each Other?
What does “being there” really mean? For couples, it’s about living in a way that puts the health of your relationship above your personal self-interest.
Tatkin calls this kind of commitment a couple bubble. It’s an agreement to make your relationship as healthy as it can be, first. It’s like putting a protective force field around your relationship. You share a vision that what’s good for your relationship is good for your own happiness too.
Being there for each other “doesn’t mean you can never make a decision that puts you before the relationship, nor that you absolutely never should,” Tatkin writes. It means that if you mess up, you depend on each other to speak up. You work together to fix the hurt as quickly as possible.
Being there for each other means you prioritize (among other things):
- Responding to each other’s distress
- Helping each other feel safe, supported and cared about
- Showing each other kindness and respect
How to Make Love Stronger: A 4 Step Process
Here’s the kind of work Tatkin describes to maintain a couple bubble.
- Check in with yourself emotionally. Ask whether your relationship is making you feel safe and secure as intended. Is it working the way it needs to? How often should you do this? If something is bothering you enough to brood about it, it could be time to be more open with your partner.
- Think about the level of closeness or understanding in your relationship. Is it what you want? What does your partner want? Intimacy will ebb and flow. Different people want different amounts of connection at different times. Are you missing it to a point that triggers alarm?
- In a recent moment of relationship trouble, what happened? Did you clash and say things that made it worse? Did you withdraw or increase the distance between you? Is that distance still there?
- Gently talk it out. Share what you noticed with your partner. Ask how all this landed on your partner, just to understand. Talk about how you can strengthen your relationship to make it feel safer and work better when stress comes again.
— Adapted from Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin
Fixing Relationship Problems: An Example from Real Life
Here’s a story of the repair work one couple did in a long-term relationship:
A woman had become lonely in her marriage. Her husband’s work and weekend activities seemed to take most of his time and focus. She talked with him about it. She said she needed to see he cared about her.
Some days later, he called from work, just to ask how she was doing.
Delighted, she asked him why he called her out of the blue.
She wanted to hear something like “Because I was thinking about you,” or “Because I care.”
But he grew flustered, and quickly hung up. In spite of wanting to grow closer, her question just seemed to push him away.
She felt as unimportant as ever.
That night, he brought up the issue of the phone call. He told her what happened, and how her words landed on him. He asked her why she questioned his reason for calling. He said he thought she doubted his motives. He didn’t like it.
She affirmed how happy she was that he called. She also reminded him how lonely she had been feeling. She told him the words she still longed to hear: “I care about you.” She had hoped her question would make that easier for him to say.
After they talked it out, they both felt better understood.
You Know How To Make Love Grow When…
How will you know if your work to build stronger love is successful? Your results may include:
- You feel better (more calm) after you talk
- You understand something about your partner you didn’t before
- You can make better sense of each other’s actions or behavior
- You feel accepted
- You can trust your partner not to hurt you when you’re vulnerable
- You feel safer opening your heart to your partner
- You can trust your partner to respect your feelings
- You know better what matters to each other
What you get is a relationship that inspires confidence, safety and security being in each other’s care. You’re both all in on working together and trusting each other.
This cements your relationship as a good place that feels right to spend the rest of your life together.
We have marriage counseling in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Call us to work with our couples counselors in Alexandria Virginia, near Mount Vernon: