9 characteristics of successful couples

20 April 2022

The last few years have put many of our relationships through testing times – and with today’s continuing intensity, many couples are struggling under the pressure.

How can couples manage to not only survive but thrive through stressful seasons?

We’ve been considering the top 9 characteristics of successful couples. These were chosen by Relate counsellors based on their experience of helping couples improve their relationships. Read on to spot your strengths – and discover your weaknesses and what to do about them!

 

#1 Communication

We all know how important communication is in a relationship, whether we’re married or in a long-term partnership. Yet with increasingly busy lives, it’s very easy to communicate badly, or not at all. And when we don’t communicate, we find our expectations, diaries and finances don’t align. We hurt one another and then find no time to communicate our pain. Disappointment, resentment and anger can fester until it all blows up and we have no idea where it all started!

Thankfully, there are some very simple things we can do to improve our communication.

Here are 3 ideas

  • Make time for it. Have a couple of times a week where you sit down with each other and chat, about nothing and everything! It doesn’t have to be planning or tasks or writing that dreaded Christmas list. Focus instead on asking questions and listening. Find out what’s happening for your partner, even in the small events of the day.
  • Set aside time for specific conversations. If you need to discuss something together, agree a specific time to do it. Rather than trying to squeeze it in around the washing up, you will come together ready for that conversation, paying full attention.
  • Don’t let anger fester. It’s easy to try and squash hurt or pain or frustration because we don’t want a confrontation. But when we do, we quickly begin to feel negative towards our partner. So often, upsets in relationships are down to miscommunication, thoughtlessness or mismatched expectations – whether that’s who does the housework, how you’re spending the weekend, or simply not listening to one another. When you feel hurt by something your partner has said or done, it helps if you talk about your feelings not their fault – instead of ‘you did x’ say ‘I feel upset because…’. This gives your partner time to apologise but also explain their own viewpoint: ‘I’m sorry – I had no idea that meant so much to you.’ And if you’re the one who upset your partner? Say sorry – an apology goes a long way! Follow up your apology by discussing together how you can communicate better in the future.

Communication breakdown is the biggest issue our clients experience in their relationships. Years of poor communication can take a long time to untangle. Our expert counsellors are trained to help you untangle where it all went wrong and rebuild your relationship the way you want it to be.

#2 Trust

Trust is an absolute essential in any healthy relationship. I trust that you’re not seeing anyone else. I trust that you mean it when you say you love me. I trust that you value and respect me. I trust that you and I are on the same page. I trust that you’re not faking it!

But it’s not as simple as it looks. If we’ve been hurt in other relationships, whether romantic or family or friendships, trust may not come that easily. And it certainly doesn’t come easily if our partner is the one who has hurt us. Though we may have forgiven them, trust has to be rebuilt. It takes time and patience to grow.

The problem is, any relationship without trust will lack the intimacy and unity that marks out successful couples. If we don’t trust our partner to remain faithful to us, we will always be on guard against usurpers – and our jealousy may corrupt our relationship. If we think our partner will ridicule our thoughts or emotions, we won’t share them – and they will never truly know us. If we don’t trust that our partner loves us, we become reluctant to be sexually intimate and constantly seek verbal affirmation of their affection – and our relationship is stifled.

So how do we build trust?

  • Start with acknowledging a lack of trust. Without being judgemental or accusatory, talk about where it might come from. It may be from past experience, or from recent events. Allow space to express the struggle to trust as well as how it feels to not be trusted.
  • Trust is a choice which becomes a habit with practice. If your lack of trust is mostly about previous hurt, practice trust! Where you catch yourself acting on a lack of trust, stop and reconsider your actions.
  • As well as building trust, work on building trustworthiness. By acknowledging our own past failures to be trustworthy, we can seek to change habits of behaviour, language and action that damage or undermine trust.

It is important that trust and trustworthiness are developed in both partners – as a journey you are on together to strengthen your relationship.

But these issues can be very complex and emotional to unpack, particularly if there has been a pattern of broken trust for either or both partners. This is where our expert counsellors at Relate can help. We can assist you in exploring together how to build trust and trustworthiness. And by investing in this foundation, you can strengthen your relationship for the long term. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can work for you.

 

#3 Commitment

Commitment: it’s the butt of all the jokes at stag do’s. “The ball and chain” that drags you away from fun, laughter and youth. And among the millennials and beyond, commitment is carefully avoided in many relationships. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) means they say ‘maybe’ rather than ‘yes’ to an invitation – or even delay responding at all. What if something better comes up?!

So does commitment deserve the bad reputation it has?

The thing about commitment is that it is counter-cultural to our western society. It is counter-consumerist: no more shopping around for something better. It is counter-individualistic: ‘you’ has become ‘we’. And it’s counter-emotive: it’s a choice that remains true regardless of how you feel.

Is it worth it?

Committed relationships, whether they are marriages, civil partnerships or less formally formed, are not immune to difficulty. They have to survive difficult circumstances for one or both partners, such as unemployment or illness. They have to navigate life stage changes, such as becoming parents or retirement. They have to navigate relational difficulties too, for a whole range of reasons.

But what committed relationships have is a firm foundation. By committing to one another, you have agreed together that your first priority is maintaining and growing the relationship you have.

Because of that certainty, your relationship is deeper, more intimate and more fulfilling. The challenges of walking through bad times together multiply the joy of walking through good times.

What does it mean to commit to someone?

  • Commitment is demonstrated in all areas of life. How you set up your finances. Your approach to decision making. How you view your body – and your partner’s body. How you speak about one another. How you spend your free time. Try this: over the next week, actively consider how your actions and words in all areas of life demonstrate your commitment to your partner.
  • Commitment means preferring the other. Instead of thinking about your own desires and preferences and then considering the impact on those around you, it means thinking as a unit – what do we need? This doesn’t mean doing nothing for yourself. Our individual hobbies, interests and social lives recharge us, making us better at living well together. But if we spend 6 out of 7 nights meeting our own needs, we leave very little time for our partner to do the same – let alone time to spend together as a couple. Preferring the other includes recharging ourselves, but also enabling our partner that same privilege – and giving one another time too.
  • Commitment means being in for the long haul. It may sound obvious but it matters that both partners agree on this. If we’re in for the long haul, it changes how we react to the ups and downs of a relationship. Perhaps the fire has gone out – the feelings and excitement are no longer there. If we’re not committed, we walk away and look somewhere else. But if we are, we find a way to rekindle our emotions. Perhaps our partner is going through a difficult health challenge. If we’re not committed, I choose to get out when it all gets too much for me. But if we are committed, we stick it out – it’s ‘we’, not ‘me’.

Commitment is hard. But like most difficult things, its rewards are huge. If you’re going through a difficult time in your relationship and struggling to maintain your commitment to one another, our expert counsellors can help guide your conversation and keep your relationship intact. Contact us today if you need expert help.

#4 Shared Values

Personal values influence everything we do. They are the foundation for our behaviour, our emotional response to circumstances, even the way we think. They shape our priorities and define our perspective. However, we tend not to be very aware of exactly what our values are. And it isn’t always obvious what is motivating us to behave or think in a certain way.

So why is it important that we share values with our partner?

A clash of values can cause significant arguments in our relationships. For example, Sam values success very highly, and Toni values family. Toni feels frustrated that Sam works long hours, and Sam is fed up of being pestered to come home.

Or, perhaps both partners value money but in different ways. Claire values money for comfort: nice clothes, good food, holidays. But Andy values money relationally: buying gifts for family and friends, giving to charity, throwing parties.

Sharing values does not mean our values have to be exactly the same. However, we do need to understand and respect one another’s values. What we do as couple can then come from a shared value basis.

Understanding how much Sam values his work may means that Toni enables Sam to spend quality time with the children at the weekend. And Sam, free to work long hours in the week, is willing to protect the weekends for quality family time.

Claire and Andy plan more deliberately how they’re going to spend their money together, in a way that respects both their values.

How do we work out what our values are?

Our personal values are often innate – we haven’t formed them purposefully. However, we can be purposeful in discovering what they are. In discussing them with our partner, we can find the reason why some parts of our relationship function very well and other parts cause disagreements.

Here’s a few ideas on how to work out your values:

  • Reflect on your day. What felt good? What didn’t feel good? What went well? What went badly? What situations arose and how did you respond? Why did you respond that way? Over the course of a week or two, you may see the same themes and words arising. These will begin to indicate your values.
  • Talk to your partner about the values you are discovering. You will find shared values between you. Take some time to consider how those shared values might shape your future together.
  • Step back from an argument and consider the root cause. Next time you have a disagreement with your partner, examine it together. What topic were you arguing about? What caused each of you to respond the way you did? Where do those emotions come from? When you discover your differences, talk about what’s good within both of those different values. Think together about how you can accommodate both value sets in your relationship.

Of course, it’s not easy to untangle the complexities of our values and how they influence us. In relationships that are struggling, these issues are often very emotive. This makes it hard to helpfully discuss what is happening personally and as a couple. Our expert counsellors can provide you and your partner a safe place to explore these issues. Discover how we can help you today.

#5 Sex

Sex. Our culture views sex as the ultimate expression of human relationship – the height of romantic love. And yet we also use it to sell deodorant, sing about it in most pop songs and expect it to form part of our favourite TV dramas (even Downton Abbey).

How significant is sex?

Sex is a key part of any intimate relationship – our counsellors consider a good sex life as vital for successful couples. But sex can also be had without intimacy. It can be abused and abusive; it can be one-off pleasure with a stranger. A couple having lots of sex doesn’t equal a successful relationship.

In a successful relationship, what is sex like?

Good sex happens within the other characteristics we have talked about already. Trust is vital: trusting your partner means you can give your body over to them without fear and be truly vulnerable both physically and emotionally during sex. Communication really matters: listening to what your partner likes and doesn’t like helps make sex a far more satisfying experience. And being committed to each other frees you to build an intimate, fulfilling sex life over time, knowing that your relationship is stable.

For successful couples, sex is less about the physical act and more about the connection it communicates. Great sex is not necessarily the longest, the most creative or the best orgasm. It’s the moments of the most connection – emotionally and physically.

 How sex changes over time

Life stages and challenges have a huge influence over sex. For example:

  • Having young children means time and energy is taken up in family life. Making time for any sex is difficult – this is the season of the quickie! Energy for creativity is hard find, but good sex is possible.
  • Conversely, once children start sleeping through the night, it can become again a season of greater creativity. It is also a time where both partners will need to adjust to the changes to a woman’s body brought about by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
  • Stress, anxiety and depression can make sex very difficult. Working through seasons of mental ill health as a couple includes discovering ways to maintain sexual intimacy.
  • Aging bodies change our sex life. What was once possible at 20 is no longer possible at 40!
  • Menopause has huge implications for sex, once again changing a woman’s body, hormones and responses. It presents challenges but can also be a journey of discovery for a couple.

When couples value sex for the connection it brings, it is possible to overcome each of these life challenges. The concern is not for my pleasure, but connection with my partner. A partner’s changing body and emotions, whatever the reasons, is an opportunity to discover a new way of connecting sexually rather than a barrier to good sex.

What do I do if my partner and I are struggling with sex?

There are many reasons why you might be struggling with sex. It may be physical dysfunction, self-esteem issues or it may be because other areas of your relationship are struggling, such as trust or communication. It can be very difficult to talk about these challenges, even with your partner!

The good news is that, at Relate Northamptonshire, we have a qualified sex therapist who can help you overcome any sexual difficulties you and your partner are having. Find out more about our sex therapy service or get in touch straight away.

#6 Attraction

We all know that attraction is far more than the physical. It’s the person who makes you laugh; the person who gets you; the person who makes you feel visible and heard; the person who feels like home. It’s someone you want to spend as much time as possible with.

Most relationships start with this natural attraction. But not all relationships end in long-term commitment to one another. So what is it that sustains this initial attraction for years of life?

Growing attraction

We all start by being attracted to who someone is. But people change – we are all works in progress. Entering into a commitment to someone will fail if we expect that they will stay the same forever, or if we think that we can change them to who we want them to be.

Successful couples have that initial attraction to one another but don’t stop there. They grow in attraction to one another. There’s an expectation of change and an enjoyment of the discovery of who that person is becoming. For a successful couple, they will look back on a relationship, and marvel at how far they each have come.

How do we become couples who remain attracted to each other?

Here are three things we can do:

Prioritise uninterrupted time

Life quickly becomes busy. It might be busy and exciting careers. It might be children and family. It might be sport and hobbies. It might be a fulfilling social life.

These things are all good things for individuals and for a couple. But if we’re not careful, they can crowd out time one on one, enjoying each other’s company. Without time, we easily forget what it was that attracted us to the other person. We forget to grow together. Then, when retirement comes, or the children move out or the social life slows down, we no longer know who we are in a relationship with.

Compared to the early intensity of a relationship where you seek out time together, it can feel a bit stale to diarise it! But a different life stage calls for a different approach. Diarise the time to do enjoyable things together. Sometimes, this might mean a couple of nights a week where you go to bed together early to just talk about everything and nothing. Sometimes it means a meal out or a drink at the pub. Sometimes it’s a takeaway and a board game.

Take the time to enjoy each other – to remind yourself why you are attracted to this person you committed to.

Enjoy change

We’ve all heard the old adage, “don’t marry someone thinking you can change them.” The flip side of the coin is “don’t marry someone thinking they won’t change!”

People change in every way over time: physically, mentally, emotionally; even personalities mature over time. We don’t get to determine the direction of that change, even in our partner. Nor can we stop change happening.

However, successful couples notice and enjoy the changes that take place in one another. Challenges at work build strong character, honing qualities in our partner. A desire to get fit produces muscles that we never knew they had! Bearing children changes a woman’s shape – she may not view it for the better, but her partner can choose to delight in these marks of her motherhood.

You see, successful couples can’t change each other in a particular direction, but they can shape one another’s response to change.

Share your growth together

It’s easy to keep private some of the ways we assess ourselves and the changes we are going through or want to prompt. But, to grow together, we need to share our journeys with one another – and be actively interested in each other’s development.

How does this help attraction? Well, it prevents that blockbuster moment: ‘you’re not the person I married’. If we’re doing the journey of life and personal growth together, we will always know our partner. We don’t expect them to be who they were 10 or 20 years ago. And we appreciate and love all the ways they are changing. It doesn’t take us by surprise!

And if you don’t know where to start?

For you, this might feel too late. Perhaps you and your partner have drifted apart and can no longer work out where that initial attraction has gone. Relate counsellors can help you rediscover one another and rekindle the desire to spend time together, enjoying one another’s company. Contact us today to begin a journey of renewing your relationship.

#7 Fidelity

Our culture isn’t quite sure what to do about fidelity. On one hand, we celebrate sexual licence – we call it “playing the field” or “sowing wild oats”. On the other hand, we romanticise the idea of one soulmate for life and delight in lifelong love.

So how does this actually work for a successful couple?

Firstly, we need to do away with the myth that love is something we fall in and out of. Love is emotional and does surprise us, but we choose to help it grow and develop. Our thoughts, words and actions either contribute to or undermine our love for our partner.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that a relationship is not just a contract between people based on concrete, external facts. It is a heart-led commitment with the whole of yourself. In other words, infidelity isn’t limited to whether or not you have sex with someone outside your marriage – that’s just the end result. Fidelity has as much to do with how you think about people you’re attracted to: do you dwell on that person and fantasise about them? Or do you lay aside any attractions and focus instead on your partner? (Here’s a great article that talks more about micro-cheating.)

Thirdly, successful relationships are about far more than sex – and fidelity is about far more than sex too. How do we talk about our partner with others? Do we talk about them in love, or do we dwell on all the things they get wrong? What we talk about with others shapes what we think of them. How do we act? Do we act as if they are the only person for us, or do we enjoy attracting others, even if we intend to reject any advances?

Reframing fidelity

If we’ve always thought of fidelity as only a sexual act outside of a committed relationship, it is a big shift to think about it as widely as the above suggests.

  • For example, consider and talk about your consumption of sexualised images and pornography – understanding how it impacts on your relationship. For some people, their partner’s consumption of pornography amounts to a betrayal. How do you as a couple need to reshape your sex life to accommodate different levels of desire while respecting the need for fidelity?
  • Be honest with yourselves about your thoughts and how they might betray your partner. This requires tremendous courage and a decision to prioritise the health of our relationship over other friendships.
  • Listen to the way you talk about your partner, and think about how your portrayal of them expresses fidelity to them – or otherwise. This means not airing your dirty laundry in public! Instead, view your partner’s reputation amongst your family, friends and colleagues as being just as important as your own. Speak of them in ways that build them up, not undermine them.

Overcoming infidelity

Infidelity in any form can deeply damage a committed relationship. It destroys trust, breaks that heart-led commitment to one another and undermines a healthy sexual relationship.

However, it does not have to signal the end of a committed relationship. If both partners are willing, there is a journey back to a healthy, happy, life-long relationship with one another. It starts with communication and honesty, and involves a lot of forgiveness.

You don’t have to navigate the journey alone, either! Our expert counsellors at Relate are able to help you find a way through all the emotions and conflict that infidelity causes. Just get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.

 

#8 Shared Interests

Some relationships seem totally incongruous, like living proof that opposites attract. You can find yourself wondering what on earth a couple has in common!

In fact, it is healthy for a couple to have different interests. It gives freedom and capacity to maintain your own sense of self. It gives room for conversation and learning from each other – moving in different spheres for some of the week, and not just work, feeds our conversations and therefore our relationship.

But having no shared interests whatsoever can put a dampener on a relationship. A shared interest gives opportunities to spend quality time together. It helps you grow in intimacy and knowledge of one another. It means that conversations aren’t only about tasks, business, work and the kids, but have another dimension that is fun and enjoyable for both of you.

It’s all about the time

Couples who have shared interests are successful because of the time investment their interest brings. Quality time builds a quality relationship.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to have a shared interest at the beginning for your relationship to succeed. Shared interests can and should be cultivated – developing and growing over time.

How to find and grow a shared interest

Here are our top tips for discovering and growing a shared interest.

  • Get to know your partner’s interests – you never know, there might also be one that suits you! Even if not, it gives you a starting point for finding something you could share.
  • Be willing to give lots of things a go. Try that dance class, buy the board game, begin that hobby together. It’s a journey you’re both on! Allow one another the veto on things not enjoyed, but give every idea a go.
  • Interests don’t have to be expensive or elaborate. It might be regularly hosting people for dinner, walks in the countryside, favourite TV show or any other myriad of things. You’re going to want to sustain it, so make sure it’s budget-friendly.
  • Remember it’s supposed to be fun! Hold it lightly and enjoy it.
  • When you find something you both enjoy, commit to giving it time like you would every other hobby. This is the point of the shared interest: enjoying time together.

What happens if we don’t have any shared interests?

The risk of not having any shared interests is that you may become only connected by circumstance. The fact that you live in the same house, are raising children together, or have a joint bank account. As you go through life transitions such as the kids growing up, changes to jobs and careers or retirement, you might reach a point where what holds you together seems weaker than what separates you.

If that seems to describe your relationship, don’t despair! At Relate, our counsellors can help you find again the strength of connection that brought you together – and cultivate the intimacy of time together that a shared interest brings. We’re here to help you! Just get in touch.

#9 Shared Interests

Personality always has a big bearing on relationships. This isn’t just about liking one another or being on the same page. This is about how you function and how you think.

Understanding our personality takes a lifetime. And understanding another’s personality takes just as long. Our knowledge of ourselves and how we function develops over time.

So in what ways does personality figure in our relationships? Here’s three examples of where personality has an impact.

Conflict resolution

When faced with conflict, you may become driven by the desire to defend relationships. You may rather relinquish your point than threaten the stability of a relationship.

Or you may respond to conflict by becoming very fact based, seeking to determine the truth of the situation and steering away from emotional responses.

Alternatively, you might retreat from conflict and drop the topic – or argue it out (loudly) to the end!

It’s easy to see how responses to conflict could cause major clashes between couples.

Introvert/extrovert personalities

We can’t be simplistic about introvert and extrovert. There are (at least) two dynamics to our social character. There’s our social tendency. When in company are we extroverted, in the thick of conversation and people – or introverted, preferring to be on the edges listening and in one-on-one conversation?

But there’s also our recharge tendency. After a hard day at work, do you recharge by downloading your day with your partner? Perhaps you seek company to unwind. An introvert recharger would be the opposite – needing space and people-free time to unwind.

It’s easy to feel resentment when our partner disappears after a stressful day – or won’t stop talking to us when we just want peace and quiet! This resentment can quickly fester and become a barrier in our intimacy together.

Problem solving

It’s natural to bring problems to our partner. But we all tackle problems differently.

Some of us would immediately write a pros and cons list and make a “logical” decision based on the outcome.

Others would want to discuss the in’s and out’s of the issue, paying attention to our emotional responses to each element.

Some of us bring a problem simply for our partner to hear it and sympathise. Others only bring problems they ready to solve. And still others bring a problem when they’ve already decided on a solution!

Becoming personality-aware

It’s clear that, for each of these areas, knowledge of our partner’s personality could transform our relationship. Recognising their tendencies means that their difference to us doesn’t cause friction – and provides an opportunity to meet halfway.

There are many ways to become more personality aware:

  • Become more self-aware. Pay attention to what gives you most energy in your day and what drains you. Think about your responses to different moments in your day. Becoming more self-aware will not only help you understand yourself, but also communicate better with your partner.
  • Become more aware of your partner, in particular their difference to you. In what moments are their responses different to yours? What do you learn about them when you pay attention to who they are?
  • Value one another’s differences. There is no right personality, or any personality hierarchy. Appreciate what your partner brings that is different to you: their fact-based problem solving might be just what you need to get round a financial tangle; or their avoidance of conflict might be great at diffusing a pointless argument.
  • Pay attention to your biggest flashpoints as a couple. Try to work out where your different responses come from. Use your new knowledge to find better ways of managing those moments.
  • Use your growing knowledge about each other to love each other more. Is your partner an introvert-recharge? Love them by giving them space and time alone before discussing their day. Perhaps your partner discusses problems from an emotional standpoint? Listen and sympathise before looking at solutions.

For successful couples, a relationship is a journey. Every day of the relationship is an opportunity to discover more about yourself and your partner, and get better at loving one another well through that knowledge.

Of course, some personality tangles are difficult to overcome. Perhaps you and your partner feel like you’re speaking completely different languages and don’t know where to start. Our expert counsellors are excellent translators! We can help you understand one another and restart your journey of discovery together.

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