A successful relationship: how do couples do it?


When that initial passion starts to fade, it slowly transforms into love over time. You love each other, but it’s not effortless anymore. Your partner could do no wrong in your eyes for the first couple of months, but now there are small things that start to irritate you. How do you deal with that? In other words: how do you make your relationship a success?

Surrounded by successful relationships

If you’re on social media, you’re continuously confronted with partners who put each other on pedestals online. And in the comments, this is what you always see: #couplegoals. But do these people that publicly praise each other actually have a successful relationship or do they want other people to believe that they do? Not everyone feels the need to declare their love for their partner online and you definitely don’t have to, because it doesn’t say anything about your relationship. So don’t feel disappointed if your children don’t send you an extensive online declarion of love on Mother’s Day or your partner doesn’t post a message on your social media wall on your birthday.

How to have a ‘successful’ relationship

If you want to strengthen your emotional connection, it’s important to understand and support each other, according to John en Julie Gottman. This couple, both of them clinical psychologists, have studied thousands of couples in their 40-year career. “We noticed that if you want couples to grow stronger together, you have to do that in all seven emotional command systems in the brain, as described by neuroscientist dr. Jaak Panksepp.” These seven systems are present in every person’s brain. They control our emotions and behaviour, but also our physical reactions, so we can get enough rest, can defend ourselves, and can procreate.

Seven emotional conditions to nurture each other

These seven different conditions are:

  • The Sentry. This is all about anxiety. If one partner is afraid to do something, how will the other partner respond to that? Will you propose to do it together (so you can grow together), offer to do it yourself (ditto), or tell your partner to get it together? The latter won’t create a connection, but is a rejection of the anxious partner.
  • The Nest Builder. This is all about cherishing each other. If one partner needs more warmth and connection, how does the other partner respond? Do you reject it or do you give your partner that important hug?
  • The Explorer is about adventure and exploration. Try to listen to each other, even though your idea of adventure is completely different than how your partner sees it. Keep listening to each other, even though you’re not that interested in what your partner has to say. Don’t dismiss it, because you also want to be able to say things that your lover isn’t necessarily interested in.
  • The Jester is the fun in your life. Games, sports, creative projects, and the need for entertainment come from The Jester. You can both have very different ideas about this as well. The point is to deal with this together. So sometimes your partner will play a game with you that they don’t like or you will accompany your partner to a sports match that you don’t care about.
  • The Sensualist is about passion, romance, physical intimacy, and sexuality. This is an important part of your relationship, so we will get back to this later.
  • The Commander in Chief: who decides what is going to to happen, or, in other words, who’s in charge in your relationship? Do you both have equal say in every matter? Does one partner make most of the decisions when it comes to a certain area? It’s important that you both feel good about the way ‘power’ is distributed in your relationship.
  • The Energy Czar is about your own metabolism, sleep, exercise, and diet. It’s about both partners supporting each other, so that the one who works nightshifts gets the sleep they need during the day and that the one who is vegetarian can decide what they do and don’t want to eat without having to defend themselves and that their partner takes this into account when they are in charge of cooking dinner.

Also read: More about emotional command systems 

A successful relationship is built on these pillars

Do you want to develop and maintain a successful relationship? There are a couple of essential elements. John Gottman discovered them in his ‘Love Lab’, as he called his research space at the University of Washington.

Know what is going on in your partner’s life

Knowing each other well, and acting on it, contributes to your relationship. An example: you buy your partner concert tickets for the band they really want to see play live. And your partner wishes you luck, because you have to have a difficult conversation at work. You know each other, you know how your lover reacts in certain situations, you know their dreams, and you know their worries as well. By being interested in your partner and talking about situations, you get to know each other even better.

Respect and admire each other

Affection, friendship, and respect: partners in good relationships enjoy spending time together. You see your partner’s good qualities, which makes him or her see them in themselves as well. If you admire your partner, they will feel more confident. And in turn, that will positively influence their mood.

Keep supporting each other

By staying focussed on each other, your relationship will flourish. So don’t just get a drink for yourself, but offer to get your partner something as well. Support and affection is important, because it’s easy to feel alone in difficult situations. Gottman’s research shows that couples feel that daily attention and support is more important than deep conversations or romantic dinners.

Do it together

It’s completely normal not to agree on everything and fight about things every now and then. Gottman’s advice: talk about it toegther. Even if you have to make an important decision that is personal, it’s still good to ask your partner’s opinion. They can offer you new insights, but it also contributes to your overall feeling of connection.

Accept the differences

It’s possible that you have such a difference of opinion that it seems you will never see eye to eye. Example: a political opinion that differs very much from your own or a religious viewpoint that you just can’t agree with. Still, it’s possible to learn to live with it. You will have to find a way to deal with the difference of opinion. Fun fact: most couples still argue about the same topics that they did at the start of their relationship.

What does your future bring?

Living with someone is different than living on your own. It means that you’ll have to put your dreams together. It’s great if you have the same plan for your future, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. If you really want children, but your partner doesn’t, you’ll have to make a tough decision. Are you willing to put away your dream for your partner? Do you expect to convince them or hope that they will change their mind at some point? These are issues that you will have to talk about in order to make the relationship work.

Don’t forget: your sex life

We mentioned it before in one of the seven emotional conditions: your sex life. The book The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship talks about how important your sex life is. No less than 70,000 people in 24 countries from all social backgrounds were asked the same question as part of the research. The question was: what do couples need to have a good sex life? The people who were satisfied with their sex life said that they make time for their partner, talk about sex, make sex a priority, go on romantic trips, go on dates regularly, hug a lot, and also show affection in public.

Also read: Why going on holiday together is good for your relationship

On the other hand, Sloan Center from the University of California (UCLA) discovered that couples who have a bad sex life don’t spend much time together. They focus more on work and their children and only talk to each other for about 35 minutes per week. These people often feel extremely lonely in their relationship. There can be many reasons why your sex life is (temporarily) on hold. Sometimes it’s worth trying to find ways to improve your sex life and give your relationship a boost.

Also read: This is how to boost your relationship

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