9 Markers Of A Happy Relationship, From Experts Who Study Couples For 20+ Years
If you're at all familiar with research on relationships, chances are you've heard of the Gottmans. Psychologists John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D., founders of the Gottman Institute, are arguably the world's leading relationship experts—they can even predict the success of a relationship (with uncanny accuracy!) within 15 minutes of observing the couple's behavior. It's safe to say they know a thing or two about the science of love.
So when we had the opportunity to speak with the Gottmans on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, we just had to ask: How can you make sure your relationship lasts? "We have a theory that all of our studies have confirmed over and over again," Julie says.
That theory lists nine very specific markers—we've shared them all below.
Trust and commitment.
Technically two separate tenets, but the Gottmans couple them into one overarching group. In fact, they say if you think of a successful relationship as a house, trust and commitment are the walls (aka, the bones). The other seven are the levels of the house—still important, but they cannot exist without the foundation.
Commitment is pretty straightforward: According to the Gottmans, it's the simple fact of knowing you're on a lifetime path with your partner, without deviating from that path. (Plus, it turns out, a sense of commitment has some very real physical health benefits.)
In terms of trust, it's about knowing that your partner is really there for you. "Are you there for me when I'm sick?" offers Julie. "When I'm moody, when I'm depressed, when I'm happy, when I want to celebrate, when I feel defeated—will you be there for me?"
Of course, we are all human beings, and we can make mistakes. "But for the most part, trust is there."
Onto the levels of the relationship "house": The ground floor is what the Gottmans call "love maps."
Meaning, truly understand (and map out) your partner's internal world. Says Julie, "What are their feelings, their values, their needs, their priorities, their most embarrassing moment in childhood, their favorite flower? It really is asking questions to keep [yourself] updated on who your partner is and how they're evolving over time, and your partner is doing the same with you so that you feel known."
Fondness and admiration.
Moving up one floor, we have fondness and admiration. Although, "Fondness and admiration doesn't just mean feeling," says Julie. "It means expressing it on a daily basis, either with words or with touch."
Yes, trust and commitment may be the bedrock of your relationship, but it's never a bad idea to reiterate how much you love and respect each other. "You can't just think it and assume your partner knows because you said it a few times during the early phase of the relationship—they need to keep hearing it," Julie adds.
This next level refers to how you respond to your partner. Do you ignore them (turn away), or do you engage (turn toward)? According to the Gottmans, how you react to your partner's bids for connection can shed light on this level.
Let's say your partner expresses how beautiful the sunset looks that night—it's not a direct question to you but a direct line (or bid) for communication and connection. Do you keep doing your own thing, or do you verbally respond?
It's an important marker for a successful relationship, backed up by the Gottmans' research: They created an apartment lab and studied couples who stayed there for 24 hours. "[Couples who] would respond to each other's bids for connection 85% of the time were successful down the road; the ones who were not successful only [responded] 33% of the time," says Julie. "That's a big difference."
Now, that 85% is important to note—it's not that you have to engage 100% of the time (Sometimes you're just tired! We get it!), but the general sense of connection is what's important here.
Positive or negative perspective.
"The fourth level we call either the positive or the negative perspective," Julie continues, and it refers to how you deal with conflict. Meaning: If your partner is acting grumpy, do you give them the benefit of the doubt (perhaps they had a bad night's sleep)? Or do you frequently respond to them negatively, as everything that they say feels like a personal attack on you?
The former highlights a positive perspective in a relationship, while the latter demonstrates a negative perspective. "And this isn't one that you shape just by itself. It's influenced by the quality of those first three levels—love maps, fondness and admiration, and turning toward," Julie says. In other words: These levels can build upon each other, either in a positive or negative way.
Here's a big one: How do you talk to each other when you're angry or upset? As Julie explains, the healthiest way to deal with conflict is to replace criticism and contempt with descriptions of your feelings and a positive need. Example: Let's say you're annoyed that the kitchen is dirty.
Rather than criticizing them, describe what you feel: I feel upset, or I feel angry. Then, says Julie, "follow that feeling description with a positive need—what you need in order for your partner to shine for you." So if the kitchen is dirty, you could say, "Would you please clean it up?"
The next level? Honor each other's dreams. Sounds simple, but Julie notes that it can sometimes relate to conflict: "Sometimes what we're in conflict about is related to a deeply held dream that we have about a particular issue," she says. Meaning, those dreams can help you deeply understand where your partner is coming from during arguments. And if you do honor each other's dreams, "the compromise is much easier because there's compassion between you," Julie adds.
Let us explain: You do not have to have the same purpose in life as your partner—that's not what the Gottmans are saying at all. "What it means is that you talk about your own individual sense of purpose and meaning with your partner," says Julie. "You share it, you talk, and then you try to support your partner to really live out that life purpose."
While this list of tenets is pretty specific, don't use it as a checklist of hard-and-fast rules—every relationship may have a different set of needs, after all. Rather, feel free to refer to these markers as a guide, without getting too granular, to determine whether your relationship is veering toward the right path. The Gottmans have studied relationships for over 20 years—and these criteria, time and again, have been shown to work.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.