9 characteristics of successful couples

Christmas is fast approaching – a time of family, fun and laughter.

Or it should be.

Christmas can also be a time of intense pressure and stress, leading to arguments and upsets between couples – the exact opposite of what everyone is looking forward to! So how do some couples manage to not only survive but thrive through the festive season?

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the top 9 characteristics of successful couples. These were chosen by Relate counsellors based on their experience of helping couples improve their relationships. Follow along 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.

Are you having doubts?

Doubts about getting married are fairly common.

You may be worrying that you and your partner aren’t compatible enough.

Perhaps there are parts of your relationship that don’t work so well – and you think they could become more of a problem further down the line.

Maybe you’ve got the feeling there could be someone else out there for you.

So, what are your expectations? What does marriage mean to you?

Does it mean spending your life in eternal harmony with the one person who completes you? Or is it a commitment made while appreciating all the challenges that it might bring?

Marriage often comes with all kinds of pre-conceived ideas. Many of these may put pressure on you, both individually and as a couple. But it can be useful to think of marriage as the beginning of a journey.

Every marriage comes with its challenges. Even the most well-suited couples are likely to face difficulties. Even if the way they feel about each other doesn’t change, the circumstances around them may well do so. People get new jobs. Children may be born. You may face unexpected financial pressures…

Going into marriage expecting some hardship – ok, it’s a less idealistic and romantic way of looking at marriage – can help you be more realistic about what might happen.

That doesn’t mean feeling any less excited about getting married – but it does mean thinking about how you might adapt to change when it comes along; how you and your partner might, as a team, learn to negotiate around difficulty and work towards agreed solutions.

What do you expect of your partner?

Likewise, the same mindset may help when you think about compatibility.

Getting on well with your partner is, of course, really important. But no one is perfect for someone else. Even if this doesn’t become apparent right away, it’s quite likely there will be things about your partner you’ll find challenging or confusing.

As long as you feel you can be yourself around your partner, and there’s opportunity to negotiate around these differences, they don’t have to be a big problem. It’s about learning to work together – discussing together what you both find troublesome.

Besides, a bit of difference in a relationship can be a really good thing! It can allow you to challenge each other and to help one another see things from a different viewpoint.

Learn to deal with difference. It can be much better to develop this ability early in your relationship. Developing open and empathetic communication can be a big advantage.

So… talk together about the future. Have some idea of each other’s expectations – an understanding about each other’s thoughts on children, jobs, where you’d like to live… Explore your life goals together.

And if you still feel apprehensive about marriage…

… but you’re tempted to give it a try, cohabiting may help.

Living together enables you to get to know each other more closely. It can show you what it would be like to see your partner every day – and may allow you to build a shared space together.

However, be mindful that sometimes couples have different ideas about where such an arrangement may lead. It’s not unusual for one person to have assumed that getting married would be the automatic outcome of cohabiting. It’s important to keep communication open so you remain on the same page.

Ultimately, there are limits to how certain you can be. In the end, we can only act on what we know now. We can make preparations, but we can never fully control what will happen in the future.

Sometimes, we need to make a decision based on what we already know – not on what we wish we could know.

If you’d like to talk about all this with one of our counsellors, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01604 634400.

Gone off sex?

It’s common for a relationship to go through phases where one or both partners lose interest in sex.

Sexual interest tends to ebb and flow over time – and partners may have different sex drives at different stages in a relationship.

Losing interest can also be related to specific issues in the relationship, or external pressures from outside it.

Why might you or your partner have gone off sex? (more…)

Dating: the pleasures and pitfalls

Dating can be a great way of meeting and getting to know a potential partner.

Online dating has made it possible to meet more new people than ever – and more easily too.

And while that’s allowed us to have more control over the types of people we meet, and to think in more detail about the sort of partner who might work for us, it has also come with a few challenges and pitfalls. (more…)

Alternatives to ‘ghosting’

Social media has brought a whole new range of opportunities and insecurities to relationships.

On the ‘down side’, those who date and have grown up with social media face the likes of ‘ghosting’.

For those lucky enough to not have experienced it, ‘ghosting’ is when someone you’ve been seeing suddenly cuts off all contact, seemingly vanishing off the face of the earth without explanation.

Has the other person stopped replying because you just said something weird? Have they met someone new? Do they not actually like you?

It’s enough to make you feel paranoid. (more…)

Breaking up is hard to do

You’ve decided to put an end to all the arguing, all the tension, all the indecision – and tell your partner: ‘It’s over.’

All you’ve got to do is actually do it!

It sounds straightforward enough. But it’s not always easy.

Maybe you’re worried about hurting your partner. Perhaps you know they don’t want to break up, and that doing so will leave them in a bad state. (more…)

Effects of your arguments on children

Many of us will remember what it was like to listen to our parents arguing. The feelings of helplessness, panic and sadness. A desire to block it out or run away.

Yet it can be easy to forget this as a parent later in life. We can get so mixed up in arguments with our partner that we don’t see things from the perspective of our children – who may be going through something very similar to what we once felt.

It’s no secret that parental arguments can have a negative effect on children. The different ways in which this can occur, though, aren’t always as obvious. And it can be easy to fail to appreciate how long-lasting these effects can be – sometimes carrying on for years as children become adults themselves. (more…)

Why do my children argue so much?

Arguments between children can be upsetting for a parent. You may worry about your relationship with your children – especially if the arguments have been going on regularly for a while. You may feel a responsibility to stop the arguing, or may be upset that the arguments are causing disharmony in your family.

While some arguing between children is common – and indeed, might be expected – what can make a difference is the regularity and intensity of arguments. If your children are constantly at odds, or arguments are becoming really aggressive, or even physical, this can create real problems. (more…)

When a new baby isn’t entirely that bundle of joy you’d expected

We’re sometimes reluctant to talk about what it’s really like to bring a new baby into a family – apart from the acceptance that we’re likely to get a lot less sleep.

Expectations run high and anything that contradicts them can be difficult to process.

As a new parent, you’re letting go of one life and discovering another. This process can take time.

It’s a period of intense change for you, your partner, and your new baby. You learn together what that new ‘normal’ looks like but, meanwhile, it’s important not to judge yourself, nor your partner, if things feel uncomfortable. Be gentle with each other. (more…)

‘Children learn positive lessons when parents explain how they resolve arguments’

Most parents argue. But the way these disagreements affect children varies greatly, according to research commissioned by the BBC.

It’s not only the relationship between parent and child that affects children’s long-term development.

How parents get on with each other also plays a big role in a child’s wellbeing, with the potential to affect everything from mental health to academic success and future relationships. (more…)