What Your Marriage Needs to Survive

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

Even stellar relationships lose their spark over time. Here are the ingredients of a lasting, fruitful partnership, and techniques for weathering the stormy periods.

Joy, passion, great sex: when a couple heads into marriage, this is what they have in mind. Of course they want their relationship to last—but without losing a shred of that initial high from when they first met, began courting, and fell in love. But people change. Relationships change. Some couples’ bonds deepen and relationships flourish over time; other partnerships don’t fare as well. When our relationships lose intimacy—as many of us fear they will—is the love lost forever or just temporarily misplaced?

As a marriage and family therapist in practice for 40 years (and married for nearly 35), one thing I’ve learned is that even stellar relationships lose their spark over time. I help people understand how to weatherproof their relationships for the long run.

Research shows that modern couples are looking for a partnership that’s “interesting.” They want partners who enhance their lives and with whom they can grow over time. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. at Monmouth University in New Jersey talks about “self-expansion”: how people learn about themselves from their relationships. His research demonstrates that as self-expansion increases, so do commitment and relationship satisfaction. In expansive partnerships, he argues, couples don’t lose themselves in the marriage—they grow in it. Behaviors and character traits that had previously not been a part of their identity become essential to how they experience life.

UCLA’s Family Studies Center researched 1,500 couples who had been together for five or more years and who acknowledged having a strong, close, deeply committed bond. The couples revealed six common characteristics:

  1. There was a physical attraction between them.
  2. They were in the relationship out of clear choice rather than out of obligation or fear of being alone.
  3. They shared fundamental values, beliefs, interests, and goals.
  4. They were able to express anger clearly and directly and they resolved differences through communication and compromise.
  5. They experienced laughter, fun, pleasure, and play with each other.
  6. They were able to express support for each other and support each other’s activities, interests, and careers.

In relationships with potential for durable longevity, each individual is willing to make the relationship a priority, giving it time, energy, and sustenance. As couples age together, the traits inherent in true friendship and close companionship take on greater significance. The partners constantly re-choose each other and feed positive energy to the relationship. They have each other’s back. They look out for each other.

In healthy relationships, both partners feel appreciated. He knows she respects and admires him; she feels nurtured and desired by him. Men tell me that their partner’s sweetness helps them to keep their hearts open. Women tell me that a man’s self-confidence is sexy. Conversely, men fear and resent it when their partners lose the sweetness and become brittle, bitter, and “bitchy.” Women fear and resent it when their partners become disengaged and either passive or controlling.

For a woman to remain vulnerable and open to her partner, and to exude that attractive energy so that a man stays turned on, she needs to feel secure and special. If she gets any messages that she’s not the number-one person in his life, she will start to close up, and then after a while the mutual attraction will wane. Understanding is the bridge to compassion, and compassion can be the spark that reignites the passion.

For a man to remain available to his partner and to emit that attractive energy so that she stays turned on, he needs to feel honored. A man’s sense of self is to a large degree determined by his feeling productive and useful. A man’s character counts tremendously. Integrity is central to his feeling like the good man his partner needs and deserves.

Generally speaking, the truth works—so tell it as currently, clearly, completely, and compassionately as possible.

Many marriages end in divorce because one or both partners can no longer communicate honestly. When there are too many withheld feelings and thoughts, the life of the relationship gets snuffed out. The personal safety that one feels in the presence of the other is key to promoting open and vulnerable communication. True intimacy is determined by the degree to which partners can communicate safely and vulnerably.

Candid communication can be very invigorating, leading to mutual respect and appreciation, rekindled passion, and dynamic sex. His communication might be: “Honey, I know we’ve both been working long hours and have been quite tired lately. I want you to know how much the kids and I appreciate all your efforts on our behalf. I also want you to know that I’m missing the intimate time that we used to have just for us. I’d like to find a way to put it back into our relationship.” Her response might be: “Do you think we can come home for lunch one day during the week?” And then, “How about a ‘nooner’ this Friday?”

Loving communication creates arousal, passion, and intimacy. Maintaining a sense of humor can go a long way toward easing tension and smoothing ruffled edges. Remember the importance of courting each other throughout the full length of the relationship. Avoid taking each other for granted. Recall how it felt when you were first discovering each other and were falling deeply and madly in love—it’s possible to fall all over again.