Happy couples argue about housework. And money. And the "incident" at last summer's family reunion. They keep secrets, they hold grudges, and they mistakenly believe that their partner can stand to hear one more word about the injustices unfolding on American Idol.
Here's the real secret of happy couples: They aren't always happy. They're just able to keep the negative in check by balancing it with a healthy dose of positive.
"I believe you could have a successful relationship with just about anybody if you're both willing to work at it," says Keith Sanford, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
The good fight
Sanford has devoted his career to finding out what makes couples last. He watches them in laboratories and asks them hard questions in interviews. He has also developed an online questionnaire to help couples everywhere gauge the strength of their relationship. (You can try it yourself at http://www.pairbuilder.com.)
He has yet to find that "perfect couple" that spends their entire day cuddling, cooing, and agreeing with each other. (Maybe those couples don't have time to fill out questionnaires or visit laboratories.) In fact, some happy couples manage to fight practically every day. "The number of fights doesn't really say much about a relationship," Sanford says. Instead, it's the way partners fight that separates successful couples from nervous wrecks.
For the most part, successful couples avoid letting fights get too heated, Sanford says. Specifically, they go easy on the four classic negative fighting tactics: criticism, stonewalling, contempt, and defensiveness. The famed marriage researcher John Gottman calls them the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," because they can spell doom for a marriage when used too frequently.
Happy couples resort to negative tactics too, Sanford says, but only sparingly. When they do bring up hurt, anger, and other negative emotions, they often balance them out with a constructive approach. In the best-case scenarios, couples use conflicts as a time to express concerns and share emotions. Instead of telling his partner "you make me sick," a man could try saying something like "It hurt me when you called me lazy" or "I was really surprised by your choice of words."
Shifting the conversation away from the partner's faults and towards one's own feelings is a tried-and-true way to defuse even the most intense conflicts, Sanford says. In his experience, this approach tends to be especially effective and calming when tried by a man. Women should try this approach, too, even though there's a chance that their partner will ignore the overture and keep ranting. (The jerk!)
Commitment, intimacy, and fun
Happy couples show their true stripes even when they aren't fighting. They hug and touch each other affectionately -- in public and elsewhere. They have fun together: sometimes planned, sometimes spontaneous. Positive experiences are a powerful buffer against conflict down the road, Sanford says.
Couples who find themselves bickering or getting enraged even when they try to have a romantic date may benefit from some ground rules. According to researchers from the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, these might include setting aside a time to have fun and refusing to get into conflicts during that time. (The same rule can apply to friendship and sex.) If conflicts do arise, they add, it's best to call a time out and talk about it at another time. Other experts second this advice, with some adding that it's important to never go to bed angry or resentful with your spouse.
All couples go through rough patches, but successful couples also have strong moorings that keep them from drifting apart. According to The National Healthy Marriage Research Center, happy couples are committed to each other. As the center puts it, "spouses have a long-term perspective and are willing to sacrifice personal needs for each other." The need for commitment may seem obvious, but it's the sort of thing that many couples still manage to overlook.
Although it's not an absolute prerequisite, most happy couples are also committed to a rich, satisfying sex life. The American Psychological Association urges couples to make sex a high priority and to protect it from "intrusions" of work or family commitments. In other words, hire a sitter, take a long lunch break, get a hotel room --whatever it takes.
Sometimes this may have to wait, particularly if affection, tenderness, and respect have already fallen by the wayside. Couples that feel too alienated from each other to make love may need outside help. Fortunately, many health providers offer free to low-cost classes in anger management, parenting skills, and couples communication. Many other marriages have benefited from couples therapy.
When you consider the fact that even good sex takes planning, scheduling, and commitment, it becomes clear that even the best relationships require plenty of work. Happiness isn't something that couples fall into by luck or accident. It's something they make.
Interview with Keith Sanford, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas
Sanford, Keith. Resources for married couples: What makes a marriage work?
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. How to have a healthy marriage. 2005.
American Psychological Association. Nine psychological tasks for a good marriage.
Howard J Markman, et al. 12 Hours to a Great Marriage. 2004. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco