100 Couples Share Their Secrets to a Successful Relationship
“Love is not just an emotion; it is a skill. It has to be worked on; sharpened regularly.”
I’ve been a newlywed for exactly one week, and I have learned exactly one thing: The idea that marriage changes everything is kind of a myth.
Sure, you’re now legally bound to each other, but your partnership remains largely unchanged. Your conflict-resolution strategies are the same. Your communication patterns are the same. Your general outlook on life is the same.
To optimize for a great partnership, though, all of those things need to evolve in the long-term.
After asking Profile readers to share their best marriage advice, I’ve learned another very important thing: If you stop investing in yourself, your bad habits and poor communication will chip away at your relationship — whether you’re married or not.
“If you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time,” psychologist John Gottman says. “To maintain a balanced emotional ecology, you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.”
Thanks to the 100+ people who weighed in, I have crowdsourced the ultimate guide to successful relationships below.
(Photo credit: Eloise Photography)
1. Start by choosing the right partner
Many of us are taught to believe that we should choose our significant other based solely on whether we think they’ll be a loving and caring spouse. But let’s explore why that might not be the best route to take when you’re selecting a life partner.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me that her dad has been an amazing parent to her, but a terrible husband to her mom. This nuance matters — and it should matter before it’s too late.
A reader named B.K. wrote in with the following advice:
“You can get married and divorced countless times. Without having kids, the impact is limited to you. The impact grows significantly with kids involved. Make sure (or believe) the person you pick to be your partner will be a great parent. If you have any doubts about that, move on.”
If the relationship doesn’t work out after you had children together, you’ll still have to co-exist and co-parent. That means planning for college, helping with expenses, and attending birthdays, graduations, and weddings.
In other words, try to look at a prospective partner through a lens in which you’re not the center of the universe. Try to imagine them as the person who will fulfill all the different roles in your life together. Will they be a dedicated parent? A supportive spouse? A reliable friend? A respectful brother-in-law?
No matter what — make sure you see the person for who they actually are, not who you wish they would be. As my great-grandmother told me, “When you’re young and beautiful like we were, falling in love is easy. But you have to fall in love with someone’s soul — because you will get old, but the soul will never change.”
2. Remember that trust and respect go hand-in-hand
When he was seeking marriage advice, reader D.K. consulted with the wisest source of all — a matrimonial attorney. Matrimonial attorneys handle everything from negotiating prenuptial agreements to divorce proceedings to child custody battles.
“I was told by one of New Jersey’s best that the No. 1 thing that breaks up a marriage is not money — it's mutual respect,” D.K. writes.
And he’s right. In researching this article, I found that the top three reasons for divorce in the United States are infidelity, financial troubles, and poor communication.
In our society, infidelity is often used to represent the ultimate breach of trust and lack of respect in a relationship. But what people don’t realize is that there are hundreds of other things couples do to chip away at their foundation.
“People cheat on each other in a hundred different ways: indifference, emotional neglect, contempt, lack of respect, years of refusal of intimacy,” says couples therapist Esther Perel. “Cheating doesn’t begin to describe the ways that people let each other down.”
Based on the responses I received, here are some other forms of disrespect you want to avoid:
Disparaging your partner in public or behind their back. “Don't badmouth each other ever — not even to close friends and family,” A.J. says. “It can become like a wedge in your relationship. Once it gets in, it can make the gap wider and wider.”
Thinking you can control your partner. You don’t own the other person. You don’t get to control how they feel, who they choose to spend time with, or where their interests lie. “Control is insidious in relationships, often hiding a desire to be cared for and loved,” Perel says.
A constant need to prove the other person wrong. Sometimes you just need to “put your ego aside and apologize promptly,” P.R. says.
3. Follow the 80/20 rule
Pause and consider this for a second. Do you treat your partner how they want to be treated or do you treat them how you want to be treated? Few of us actually understand the needs of the other human being in the partnership.
After eight years of marriage, R.M. realized that he and his wife had drastically different ways of showing their love for each other, and those ways never quite clicked. He says:
“Take the ‘5 Love Languages’ test and read the book. It wasn't until I recognized that gifts were great, but it was really quality time that filled my wife's love tank that things changed dramatically after parenthood had worn us down a bit.
“The same was true for me in reverse. She'd give me gifts when what I really needed was the occasional kudos. As Mark Twain once said: ‘I can live for two months on a good compliment.’ I've shared this book with others, even couples that had been together for over a decade. And time and time again, they would learn something about each other that wasn't obvious. We tend to love others as we want to be loved, but don't always get the memo that they hear/see/experience it from a different lens.”
Reader E.R. offers a simple rule he and his spouse follow. The 80/20 rule goes like this: In your marriage, you should each recognize that your relationship is 80% about the other person and 20% about yourself. “For him, it needs to be 80% about you, and 20% about him,” E.R. tells me. “For you, it needs to be 80% about him, and 20% about you.”
It’s about putting your ego aside and being curious about the other person’s needs. A.W., whose marriage ended after 26 years, shares this learning: “Find out what makes your spouse feel loved, and do that every day.”
4. Answer your partner’s bids
Throughout the day, you and your partner make requests for connection, which Gottman calls “bids.” Say that your partner is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to you, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” Your partner is requesting a response, or “a bid for emotional connection.” Happy couples acknowledge and respond to each other’s bids even if it’s just for a quick moment.
Most relationships don’t collapse because of one blow-out fight. They often fall apart because the partners have eroded the foundation of trust by consistently turning away from each other.
Here’s what reader L.M. says:
“Not sure you want to take marriage advice from someone who's done it twice now, but here we go. Honest, open, thoughtful, and compassionate communication is the #1 most important thing, in my opinion.
“When you hear your husband sigh, turn towards him and ask him about it. When you sense he's struggling, be there to listen or to give him a hug. When he's excited, be excited with him, even if you're struggling with something in that moment yourself.
“It's hard, but withhold judgment and know that you both committed to each other for a reason. There are going to be crappy days and arguments, more than you can count, but that's all part of the beautiful mess of marriage. In the end, no matter what you go through, it's comforting to know you have a partner who will be there for you through all of it.”
5. Listening is an underrated skill
C.W. was only five years into his marriage when his wife began experiencing unexplained vertigo attacks, loss of balance, brain fog, and other neurological issues.
She was misdiagnosed with everything from anxiety to perilymph fistula (an issue with the inner ear that requires surgery to fix and usually results in hearing loss). It took six months to reach the proper diagnosis, which was vestibular migraines.
“Those six months were very stressful for us,” C.W. says. “She lost her job and career because of this illness. I was trying to do everything I could to help but in the end, there was little I could do to help her.”
She was dealing with the terrifying prospect that this pain would haunt her for the rest of her life, while C.W. was grappling to gain a basic understanding of what was going on both physically and emotionally with his partner.
“This is all a long-winded way of saying, learn to listen to your partner,” C.W. says. “To do this, you have to remove all biases and preconceived ideas about what he or she is going through.”
Sometimes we won’t be able to instantaneously find a solution or even a way to ease the pain, but the most important thing we can do is to listen intently with empathy and grace.
6. Keep each other intellectually stimulated
Spanx CEO Sara Blakely has been married to entrepreneur Jesse Itzler for 11 years, and the couple has four kids together. They both have busy and hectic schedules, so they’ve developed strategies to ensure their relationship doesn’t fall to the wayside. “Eighty to 90% of our conversations in this marriage are about ideas,” Blakely says.
One of the keys to a quality partnership is to stay curious and keep each other intellectually stimulated. Tell your partner one new thing you learned today. Have them teach you something new. Experience something new together. The most successful couples keep learning and growing side by side.
“I think at the end of the day, my best advice is make sure you enjoy talking to the person you marry,” says D.N, who just celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary. “We still have great conversations, laugh together, and enjoy each other’s company.”
7. Stop being petty
You’re going to want to do it. You’ll be itching to do it. The perfect comeback will be on the tip of your tongue. But readers who have been happily married for decades all agree — you’ve got to restrain yourself from being petty.
Reader E.J.L. had this problem. He had a need to prove he was right in every situation — no matter how small or insignificant. Over eight years of marriage, however, he’s learned that there are just some things not worth the energy of an argument. “It makes things tit-for-tat, and you miss out on enjoying the journey because you’re too busy trying to be right,” he says.
Another reader advised: “When you get married, there is really only one decision you need to make: ‘Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be right?’”
Remember, you might “win” the argument, but you could lose the marriage.
8. Treat your arguments like a negotiation
Esther Perel has a secret about relationships: The form often precedes the content. In other words, we tend to follow a pretty strict formula regardless of what we’re arguing about.
“Every conversation will look alike,” she says. “One of you starts to raise your voice; the other rolls their eyes. One goes up a notch; the other walks away. It’s a dance, and often organized by the vulnerability cycle.”
M.M. says he and his wife have figured out a template that works. They treat their arguments as a negotiation in which they both stay logical, rational, and calm. “Compromising is usually a way for both parties to be unhappy,” he says, “but negotiating in a marriage over a very long period has been very helpful for us.”
He adds, “We've noticed in 99% of arguments, we agree and are on the same page, but we're just communicating differently. Communication, especially emotional communication, has been crucial, and we're still very much figuring it out.”
There’s something to this. Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss says a good negotiation hinges on emotional intelligence. “Genuine curiosity is a hack for emotional control,” he says. “If you talk out loud in a smooth, calming voice, you can actually calm yourself down.” In turn, it creates an involuntary response of clearheadedness in both parties.
Another thing that helps? Humor.
C.D. says most couples’ fights are over stupid things — the dishes, how you drive or how he parks the car, and who takes out the garbage. “It’s very important to have a sense of humor about these stupid little fights,” she says. “Humor goes a long way.”
In good marriages, couples actively de-escalate conflicts by doing things like injecting well-timed humor into tense and difficult situations. Humor can lower the tension level of an argument, destroy the division between you and your partner, and remind you that you’re human.
9. Repair, repair, repair.
OK, what if you just had a big blow-out fight? Don’t worry, Gottman says. Even happy couples have ugly screaming matches and stonewall each other.
They do many of the same things unhealthy couples do, but at some point they have a conversation where they recover from it. The difference is that healthy couples have effective strategies to repair the conflict quickly rather than letting it fester.
Gottman describes a repair attempt as “any statement or action — silly or otherwise — that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.” It could be anything from a smile to taking a break to asking for clarity.
B.B., a divorced dad who recently remarried, offers this advice:
“As someone who didn’t get it right the first time, my advice is to be able to resolve problems between you. There will be good days and bad days, but a key difference between my first marriage and the one I intend to have forever forward is that we resolve problems. Things don’t linger or get swept under the rug.
“Our tactic: We don’t argue before going to bed. If it wasn’t resolved the previous day, we have a cup of coffee (outside the bedroom) [in the morning], and put it all on the table. Then, we move on.”
10. Have a ‘no-censorship’ relationship
When relationships break down, it’s often due to a fear of vulnerability, tough conversations, or transparency with your partner. It’s what happens when things get “swept under the rug” time and time again.
I was surprised at how many people expressed regret that their marriages fell apart due to poor communication or continuous misunderstandings.
My college professor Keith Herndon and his wife Avonne had the following advice to share:
"We don't want it to sound too simple, but we believe the secret to our successful life together is this: we talk to each other. And by that, I mean we really talk. You will go through a lot in life and sometimes it is easy to assume you know what each other is thinking, but that is not always the case.
“Talk to each other about what life events mean to you, and when someone does something the other person doesn't like, that person must speak up. If you don't speak up and be honest in the moment, it can lead to resentment.
“Always understand there is no such thing as a perfect marriage — it takes work and commitment and a willingness from each of you to compromise (but not on your morals, ethics and values). Life is a journey and the path is much sweeter when you do it together out of love, not obligation.”
As someone who talks a lot and asks entirely too many questions, I was stunned that there are people who don’t communicate all the damn time.
But K.L. put it in perspective. She said many people aren’t upfront out of fear that it will cause the other person to break up with them. “Don't hesitate to clear the air, and talk about the hard stuff, and keep talking about it until it's no longer hard,” she says.
11. Make sure your relationship follows the 5-to-1 ratio
Here’s the crazy thing about any relationship in life: It’s the mundane moments that determine its health and longevity.
One of Gottman’s most concrete findings is that happier couples have a ratio of five positive interactions to every negative interaction. The interactions don’t have to be grand gestures. “A smile, a head nod, even just grunting to show you’re listening to your partner—those are all positive,” Gottman says. That’s because this magic ratio enhances the positivity in your relationship.
S.S. says that whenever she gets frustrated or tired, she pushes herself to do something thoughtful or nice for her husband. “It’s amazing how doing something nice for him boosts my mood too and becomes a virtuous cycle,” she says. “That 5:1 ratio is a thing.”
12. Remember that you are the only person who can make you happy
The best thing you can do for your relationship is figure out what fulfills you — and do that thing.
The reason is that happy people are secure, supportive, and loving — not insecure, angry, and constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Many readers wrote in to suggest that they felt miserable when they were seeking constant reassurance from their partner and waiting for someone else to make them happy.
“You’re both in charge of your own happiness,” B.R. says. “You can’t make someone else happy. You can help, encourage, and support, but it’s up to all of us to find our own path to being happy people.”
This requires giving yourself what you need rather than making your partner carry that hefty responsibility. “Knowing what makes you happy is essential for harmony and balance in the household,” Y.H. says. “We like to have our own projects, our own growth, and our own sense of fulfillment.”
Two happy individuals make one happy couple.
13. Conduct a relationship audit
The antidote to poor communication is regular, healthy communication. When you discuss hot-button topics in an emotionally sober state, they become less hot-button.
Some readers suggested holding regular “state of the union”-style meetings that allow the partners to have sit-down meetings where they check in with each other on a number of things such as making financial decisions, addressing any issues, and celebrating each other’s accomplishments.
“We audit our work and our suppliers, so why not our relationships,” K.N. says. “Schedule a recurring once a quarter date where you take stock of what is working and what is not. Act on areas that need improvement.”
14. Forget the grand romantic gestures. Opt for the mini everyday gestures, instead.
When C.N. goes on his morning walk, he makes it a point to look for interesting flowers that he can leave one on his partner’s desk when he returns. On the flip side, she leaves him funny Post-It notes and cartoons around the house.
“People think of romance as these huge gestures,” he says, “but we're happier with these mini-gestures that happen much more often."
If I asked you to define love, I guarantee you wouldn’t describe it as a funny Post-It note. That’s just a small act of affection, right? Ironically, that may be the secret to long-lasting love.
R.M. says “cariño” is the Spanish word for “affection or tenderness.” He says:
“Always approach your partner and the couple from a place of affection. Why not from love, you might ask. In my mind, affection is an easy-to-cultivate prerequisite for love, so if you keep affection alive, you keep love alive. It’s an approach that starts at the root and is a great antidote against pride.”
Research supports the notion that successful long-term relationships are often built on small words, small gestures, and small acts. “I am a full believer in the ‘small everyday stuff,’” C.S. says. “For example, dropping everything to listen to your spouse when they just ‘have to’ tell you something exciting is worth 1,000 fancy dinners.”
Ain’t that the truth. I also live by the motto: “Small things often’ is so much more important than ‘big things occasionally.’”
15. Challenge each other to evolve into better people
To me, if you’re in a supportive partnership, one of your main goals should be to help the other person grow into the best version of themselves. And they should aim to do the same for you.
“Challenge each other to be better mentally, physically, and spiritually,” Reader E. says. “If you are slacking in any of those areas, then your other half has a duty to tell you — and you shouldn't defensively shut it down.”
16. Don’t fall victim to the “10-year curse”
My dear friend Lauren Patrick and her husband are approaching 10 years of marriage this fall. Over the years, they’ve learned how to navigate life’s many ups and downs together with patience and grace.
“This email is coming to you from our L-shaped couch where Kevin is already passed out, and I'm cranking through emails,” she says. “He's always been an early bird, and I'm a night owl. He's an introvert, and well, you know me. We continue to find new common ground depending on the circumstances.”
After seeing many of her friends’ marriages dissolve right around the 10-year mark, Lauren’s dubbed it, “The 10-Year Curse.”
Many of the couples she knows failed to evolve from the fun times they had in their 20s to the next level of their relationship. Others split because their marriage was one out of obligation. Either way, they failed to make it work.
Lauren’s 10-year curse theory was legitimized by a researcher named Jennifer Petriglieri, who says there are three different phases a couple must navigate in order to keep their relationship and career intact.
“Just like building anything, your marriage is constantly a work-in-progress,” Lauren says. “And the return on investment is entirely based on what you put in.”
Her point is that the person you marry today will likely grow and evolve into a totally different person in a decade’s time. And you’ll have to be able to fall in love with them all over again.
“Most of us will have two or three marriages in our adult life — and some of us are going to do it with the same person,” Perel says. “For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband, and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.”
17. Give life to each other’s dreams
I watched an interview once in which Michelle Obama said, “Marry someone who wants you to win just as much as you want them to win.”
Many readers weighed in with a similar sentiment, but one reader’s response caught my eye.
T.A. wasn’t a fan of country music until his wife “introduced it to him” during a long car ride a few years ago. “What I found was the lyrics are really wonderful,” he says.
He referred me to the song, “The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert. The lyrics tell the story of a husband building a house based on a picture that his wife cut out from Better Homes and Garden magazine. One lyric says, “Nail by nail, and board by board, Daddy gave life to Mama's dream.”
“I love the thought of a husband and wife ‘giving life to each other's dreams,’” T.A. writes.
18. Understand that love is not an emotion — it’s a skill
One thing I noticed after getting responses from couples that were married for 5 years, 15 years, or 30 years is that they never thought they were done learning how to be a better partner. In other words, they understood that a loving partnership is a constant work in progress, and there’s always room for improvement.
J.A. compares marriage to learning to play an instrument — “It takes a lifetime to truly master. Along the way, there will be some beautiful music but also some sour notes. Keep practicing no matter what.”
Similarly, V.P. says he recently came across the idea that love is not just an emotion; it is a skill. “It has to be worked on; sharpened regularly,” he says. “Much like any other craft, the time that goes into keeping it fresh and vibrant must be respected. And like all important skills, it must be used.”
The reason this was revelatory to him is because it’s a complete mindset shift. He had previously thought of love in a relationship as something that was purely organic — it’s either there or it’s not.
“Thinking of love as a skill makes it more tangible, which I find helpful, because I think it provides one with a better sense of control over the direction of where they want to see things go,” V.P. says.
19. Ask your partner to join you for a walk
If there’s one practical thing you can do today to make your relationship better, get up right now and ask your partner to join you on a walk. (Anthony asked me to add: “With your masks on.”)
It’s where you can put all of the above advice into practice — a walk allows you to have the tough conversation, get curious about what your partner’s going through, reignite your connection, and experience gratitude for this person walking right next to you.
P.M. says, “After 26 years of marriage, here's my marriage advice: the couple that walks together stays together. Going on weekly walks together is a good thing!”
Struggling with what to talk about? Print out this researched-backed list of questions titled “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” and start there. It’s literally designed to foster mutual vulnerability and a sense of closeness.
Take it from this dedicated reader who was in the middle of reading The Profile: “When your spouse comes in and says, ‘Let’s go for a post-Sunday dinner walk,’ and you’d rather keep reading The Profile … you walk!”
He’s been happily married for 25 years.
20. Remember what matters
I asked my own partner what he thought made for a successful relationship. He said, “The reason this works so well is because you’re my best friend, and we both feel lucky to be together.” It’s simple, but it’s important.
The most common thread in the responses I received is one of gratitude. “Never, ever take each other for granted,” N.M. writes. “Having a bad day? It is natural to sometimes lash out against the person who loves you unconditionally. Or to take advantage of their commitment to you. Please be on guard against this. The little slights — day after day — are what slowly chip away at a marriage until it's too late to repair.”
When Gottman interviews couples, he always asks them about the history of their relationship. In a happy marriage, the spouses tend to look back on their early days fondly. They remember their first dates, they discuss how excited they were when they met, and they glorify the struggles they’ve been through.
So the big fat secret to a happy marriage is actually really simple. It’s about having a generally positive outlook on life as both an individual and as a couple.
“Marry your best friend,” Gottman says. “The simple truth is that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this, I mean a mutual respect for, and enjoyment of, each other’s company.”
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Echoing others here, but thanks for writing this. Easily the best article on successful relationships and how to cultivate one. Loved it!
Substantial, worthy, and intelligent writing. Thank you.