Sunday, July 2, 2017

What Makes a Relationship a Long-term Success?

My parents recently celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary. (Clap, clap, clap! That’s a long time!)

Not surprisingly, my daughter was amazed at the idea that a relationship could last that long. Let’s face it, she and her teenaged friends think three months is a long relationship. 

We’ve had discussions about marriage and relationships over the years—how they work, why they last. She has asked about my marriage specifically. (She’s usually asking me how my husband has managed not to divorce me. She thinks I’m a lot to deal with!) 

My husband and I dated for year, were engaged for a year, and will celebrate 21 years of marriage this fall. People and relationships are so different that when I look at my friends who have been married for more than 15 years, it’s hard to know what it is about their marriage that's made it successful.

But for me, here are some things I believe have contributed to success of my own relationship:

Simple good luck. First and foremost, I think I got lucky. I don’t believe in love at first sight. (I believe in attraction—even obsession—at first sight.) And I don’t believe there is only one person in the world who matches any other person. I think any of us could have a long-lasting relationship with a variety of people. It depends on circumstance and timing, and sometimes we just get lucky. 

I was only 19 when I met my future husband. I had not had any serious relationships prior to dating him, and honestly, there was no way for me to know that our relationship would last decades. But I knew I connected with him. I knew that I was willing to commit to a relationship with him, and I felt as certain as I could that he was committed to me. I believed in love (still do) and 23 years after we met, we are still best friends. I think I won the relationship lottery! A million things could have happened that could have divided us since, but here were are—together. 

Compromise. It may sound like a cliché to say that you have to compromise in a relationship, but it’s true. Everyone is different, which means everyone has different opinions. This means that any given conflict between two people will likely result in two different opinions about how it should get resolved. So, successful relationships are about compromise. 

Sometimes you get your way. Sometimes the other person gets their way. You have to be willing to accept that your way isn’t always best. Does that mean your way is wrong? No. Does it mean that another way is just as good? Sometimes. Does it mean that sometimes the other way is better? Yes. A healthy relationship involves a lot of give and take...and compromise.

Realistic expectations about the future. Long-term relationships are complex. You don’t get married and never have to think about your relationship again. As my mom and I have discussed in previous blog posts, there is constant change in life and none of us knows the future. Changes are happening for both people in the relationship, and everyone reacts differently to those changes. 

If your partner doesn’t react the way you want them to, that’s not “wrong”; it’s simply another factor you need to consider. Hopefully the two of you can communicate well enough to openly discuss any differences of opinion. 

You have to be flexible about the fact that things might not happen the way you’d hoped. Maybe your spouse will go through periods of stress because of a job. Or perhaps one of you will suffer from an illness. There’s no way to predict and plan for what might happen in the future, but you can make a commitment that, whatever happens, both of you will work it out together. 

Honesty. Closely tied to having realistic expectations is the ability to be honest—both with yourself and your partner. And let’s face it, it’s hard to be honest sometimes. It’s hard to accept that someone might not like something you do—especially when it’s someone you love. And it’s hard to tell someone you love that there’s something about them that is causing you trouble. But the more honest you can be, the less complicated the relationship will be. 

It’s hard to spend a whole life with someone, but it’s even harder if you’re constantly trying to guess how that person is feeling or if you're not honest about some aspect of your partner's behavior that you can’t tolerate. So, don’t tell a potential life partner that you love camping if you don’t. Even if you wish you loved camping and feel like you'd be a more interesting person if you loved camping, if you don’t like it, pretending to like it won’t make anyone happy. It’s a trivial example, but there are bigger issues, such as having kids or saving money, that can become major obstacles in marriages if you're not honest with each other.

Speak up. Sometimes you want people to know how you feel without your having to express it. But people don't often know how you feel, especially because they aren't paying as much attention to you as you're paying to yourself. So, don't make people guess. If there's something that's important to you, speak up. If you want bed in breakfast on your birthday, tell your partner that you want bed in breakfast on your birthday! Then there's no confusion. Just because people can't read your mind doesn't mean they don't love you. It simply means they're not psychic.

Don’t expect your partner's fundamental personality to change. People people grow and mature, but their instincts and general approach to life doesn’t usually radically change. You definitely can’t expect people to become different once you’re married. I didn’t like going to concerts when I met my husband and I still don’t. Being married to my husband didn’t turn me overnight into a different person. If your boyfriend or girlfriend likes to party, don’t assume that within a month of getting married they will suddenly want to stay home every night. People don’t work like that. Accept the person you love for who they are. In the short term, you might be able to make your partner behave in a certain way. But it rarely lasts and only causes resentment for everyone involved. 

Expect change. Maybe you’re about to say, “But hey, you just said don’t expect change.” I still believe that, for the most part, a person’s fundamental way of approaching life doesn't change. It's just that behavior that you might not have seen previously in your partner might suddenly come to the surface because you are dealing with things that haven’t come up before. So pay attention when you’re developing a new relationship. How does your potential partner react to stress? How does he or she respond to disappointment? Can this person handle unexpected changes? 

Don’t isolate expectations. This has been very helpful for me to realize over the years of my relationship with my husband. Don’t be so resentful of one aspect of a person that you can no longer appreciate all the other things about them. I believe everything is connected in the universe—that going back in time and changing one event could mean everything a decade later is different. I have that same attitude with people. Are there things about my husband that irritate me? Yes there are. Do I obsess about those few things to the point where I can no longer love the rest of him? No, I don’t. This is because I believe that changing one aspect of him could potentially change other things that I don’t want changed. 

Is it impossible that isolated change can happen? Sure. But do I know that if I deleted a certain behavior of his, I'd be guaranteed it wouldn’t change other things about him? My point is not to fall into the easy trap of thinking, “Well if that one thing my partner did was different—everything would fine.” We can’t know how the results of that one change would affect the rest of the relationship. 

Don't assume the worst. If your partner does something you find hurtful, take the time to communicate with them about it. Don't assume you know what their motivation was. Or even if you know what their motivation was, don't assume they aren't regretful. Everyone does thoughtless things, and people do things out of anger and frustration. If my husband forgot our anniversary (something I am much more likely to do, by the way), I wouldn't assume it meant he didn't care about me or he didn't care about our marriage. Don't let one isolated event trigger resentment.

Show appreciation. As with everything in life, appreciation is key to sustaining and enjoying a relationship. Be grateful for the aspects of your relationship that are good. Be conscious of how fortunate you are to spend time with someone who wants to spend time with you. Take time to think about why you are happy with that person and how that person makes you happy in ways other people can’t. And I believe that taking the opportunity to outwardly express your appreciation for your partner is a good thing to do. Buy them a treat for no reason. Make a special meal as a surprise. Give them a hug and say thanks for being a great partner in life. Tell them and show them that you appreciate them. 


Those are some of the things I believe have been important to the success of my almost 21 year marriage. Our 23 year relationship hasn't always been easy. Mostly we've done really well, but we’ve had our share of conflicts. Ultimately, though, we both still want to be together more than we want to be apart, and that makes me feel very lucky.

As I said before, my parents have celebrated over 50 years together. So I wondered what my mom thinks the secret to their successful long-term relationship has been.

What do you think is the reason for the success of your marriage?

Mara, I read your essay and I don't think I can add to the nine things you've written about. Honesty, you covered it all. I was so impressed. It was like reading a description of what's made my relationship with your dad work all these years. So thanks...and I guess I'd say: Do you have any other questions? If you do, I'm sure I'll think of something to add to your list!

You were so young when you got married. How confident were you that the marriage would last"forever"?

I was totally confident. Now, having said that, my first thought is, "Don't all newlyweds think their marriage will last forever?" Maybe they don't. Did you think your marriage was going to last forever? [Mara: Yes, but now I look back and just think I was young and didn't know better.]

Looking back, do you think that was just a young person's view?

Yeah, I do. When you get older and have observed lots of relationships, you realize that not all are meant to last—or should last. Your dad performs a lot of marriages. He performed the marriage for you and Brad, for your brother and Bridgett—and for a lot of your friends. Some of those marriages have ended in divorce. (Not too many though—he has an excellent track record!)

And yet, at all the ceremonies, the couples seemed to assume that they'd be together the rest of their lives. But people can grow apart—and sometimes they may even fall in love with someone else, sad as it seems. Stuff happens. So yeah, when you get older, you see that the idea that a new relationship will last a lifetime is a young person's perspective. In my view, though, it doesn't take away from the romance of the wedding and the moment.

When you got married, if you had known you were going to become chronically ill, would you have imagined dad would have stepped up and been as supportive as he has turned out to be?

Yes, I assumed he would. We were so in love that I thought we would do anything for each other. We're fortunate that, after all these years, we still feel that way. 

It turns out that a lot of spouses (or partners—a word I prefer because many people in committed relationships aren't married) are not good at caregiving. So if one partner has ongoing health problems, it can lead to the end of the relationship. One of the tragedies faced by those with chronic pain and illness is that partners often take off, sometimes leaving young children behind. 

With your dad, when I needed care, that became his priority. 

So ultimately, he would rather do nothing with you, than do everything else without you.

Yes, that's true. I do know some couples where the healthy partner goes on trips and does a lot of things independently. And that's fine if it works for that couple. I feel fortunate that your dad prefers to stay home with me because I prefer to have him here. Not that he never travels. In fact he just cancelled a trip to go back east because I'm experiencing a lot of hip pain and he wanted to be here to help me. I'm so fortunate. I realize that—every day.

What advice would you give to couples in newer relationships?

Ah, I love that question because everyone loves giving advice! Maybe this is where I can add to your list of what makes a successful relationship. 

The first thing that comes to mind is: "Don't get on each other's nerves." It's an expression your dad and I use (although we're usually applying it to other people who are getting on our nerves!). But, having said that, I immediately realize that it's inevitable that you're going to get on each other's nerves sometimes. So my first piece of advice is to learn to let go of the little things that bug you about your partner. Obviously, some things you need to work out. But the little things—just let them go.

Secondly, if you're a new couple, you may feel as if you share every single interest in the world. Your dad and I felt that way when we first got together as teenagers. But that doesn't last because people grow and change. You mentioned that in your essay. Eventually, your partner is going to develop interests that you don't care about. So my advice is to allow that to happen. Allow you and your partner to grow, sometimes in different directions. Your dad and I have several different preferences now—from what movies to watch, to what we like to eat, to our opinions about people and things. Allowing that to happen has kept our relationship harmonious.

Here's a third piece of advice that I think is really important. You and your partner don't have to agree on everything. Many couples think that if they disagree, even about something small, they absolutely have to talk and talk about it until they see eye-to-eye on it. One of my favorite expressions is, "Let's agree to disagree." Obviously, some things do need to be discussed and agreed upon, such as child raising practices. In those cases, the result may be a compromise, which you discussed and I agree is an important ingredient in a successful relationship. But there are many things you don't have to agree on.

Fourth, and this is just my view—a few white lies never hurt. "Honesty" was on your list and I agree that it's important. But I'm modifying it a bit. Maybe your partner is wearing something that you don't care for, but it's not a disaster and they love it. Why not just say, "You look good"? It's a harmless white lie. Or maybe your partner has created something—a piece of art or something—and you think it's not that good. I see no harm in saying, "That's nice." Not everyone will agree with me, but I think harmless white lies can be used skillfully to keep harmony in a relationship and to make your partner feel good.  

My last piece of advice is perhaps an odd one: Don't interrupt. I mention it because, after all these years with your dad, I'm still working on this one. I tend to interrupt him because I think I know what he's going to say. But even if I'm right about that (which I'm often not), I should still let him say it the way he wants to. Do you have that issue? [Mara: Yes, but I interrupt everyone. Brad has learned to interrupt me interrupting him to tell me to let him finish what he's saying.] 

Good for Brad! Your dad does the same thing with me. I just think it's funny that, after all these years, I still do it. And that's my final piece of advice to new couples: let your partner finish his or her thoughts without interrupting! 

Toni & Tony on their Wedding Day


  1. As a wife of 49 years to John, I agree with this article wholeheartedly. Give and take and the knowledge that things change constantly are so important. You and your partner have to change with them. After a long relationship neither of you are the starry-eyed teenagers that you were when you first met.

    1. Wow congratulations on 49 years! That's wonderful! Yes, so much compromise and understanding...and if you can find the right balance I think a relationship like that feels so comforting. And gives the space to grow together! Thank you for reading!--M

  2. Wonderful, wise blog post. You both contributed beautifully to the question.