All you need is love. Love is all you need.
Like the message of many other songs, movies, and popular media, this famous Beatles song reinforces a common myth—that love truly is all you need for a relationship to thrive. Pop songs glorify the process of falling in love and getting married—but they almost always give short shrift to what comes after.
Of course, all of us in loving relationships would like to “live happily ever after.” But can we? Is it realistic to expect love to last?
Luckily our relationship happiness is more under our control than we may think. In our new book, Happy Together, we outline research about healthy habits that lead to lasting love and how you can cultivate them for the benefit of your own relationship.
Here are four key habits to help build love that lasts.
1. Harmonious passion
Healthy relationships involve interdependence in which we can be secure, mature, and whole in ourselves while at the same time being vulnerable and open to our partner and appreciating his or her unique strengths and gifts. To have this kind of relationship, we must continue to engage in our individual interests while also taking up new and exciting activities together as a couple to help foster a healthy passion that can sustain us over time.
The opposite of harmonious passion is obsessive passion, in which we may have a hard time developing as full human beings because we are leaning on our partner to fulfill or complete us. This kind of passion has a dark side that researcher Robert Vallerand argues is as damaging to a relationship as having no passion at all. He and colleagues have found that obsessive passion can lead to unhappy relationships and less gratifying sex.
Harmonious passion, on the other hand, leads to cognitive and emotional advantages, such as better concentration, a more positive outlook, and more flow. Research has found that it is associated with less destructive behavior during relationship conflicts, too.
How to create more harmonious passion? First, it’s important to build trust. The relationship researcher John Gottman suggests we ATTUNE to each other—meaning, we pay Attention to one another, Turn toward each another, practice Tolerance, show Understanding, be Non-defensive in our responses, and show Empathy. You may not get it right every time; but ongoing practice increases your chance for success and pays off in the long run.
2. Cultivating positive emotions
As Barbara Fredrickson reports, positive emotions are important to our well-being, helping us build specific and enduring physical, psychological, and social resources that can prepare us for more difficult times. But what are positive emotions, exactly? Does she mean the pleasure we feel eating a good piece of chocolate?
There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, of course—we need it in our lives to be happy. But, when Fredrickson is talking about positive emotions, she’s referring to a broader repertoire of emotions—such as interest, hope, gratitude, and awe, in addition to joy or happiness. These are not a substitute for “negative” emotions like anger, sadness, or fear—which perhaps shouldn’t be labeled “negative” at all, since they can have positive impacts on our behavior, helping us to stand up to injustice, gather support for ourselves, or avoid dangerous situations.
However, not all negative emotions are beneficial, especially excess negativity in relationships.
While we need to be open to learning from negative emotions as they arise, it’s positive emotions that we want to actively cultivate. Research has found that people with more positive emotions have better cardiovascular profiles and recover better from strokes. Positive emotions can buffer one against emotionally difficult times. And positive emotions seem to lead to success in many areas of life, including marriages.
Positive emotions are important for relationships, helping us to feel buoyed as we go through the inevitable ups and downs of life. They can become contagious for our partner (and vice versa), too; so it behooves us to try to cultivate more positive emotion in ourselves so our spouse can “catch” our positivity.
How can we cultivate more positive emotions? It doesn’t work to simply tell yourself you’ve got to be happier. In fact, research has found that valuing happiness too much and fixating on it can backfire and make us less happy.
Instead, you can “prioritize positivity” by making decisions and organizing your life in ways that help foster positive emotions. Notice which activities in your life bring you positive feelings and remember to schedule more of them into your life. So, if you find dancing to be fun, you may want to add it to your repertoire of things you do with your partner. Or, if you’re inspired by a heroic figure, make sure you go to hear her speak when she’s next in town. You can also take long walks together, make dinner together, or look at wedding pictures together.
The point is not to force positive emotions but rather to put yourself in those contexts where positivity naturally tends to arise for you and your partner.
3. Savoring the good times
Savoring is related to positive emotions; but it’s more about strengthening their impact. It helps us to appreciate our partner over time if we remember to attend to his or her good qualities and the good times we had together, rather than to fixate on problems or to take one another for granted.
Savoring requires something close to mindfulness or meta-awareness that goes beyond an initial experience. Appreciating what’s happening in the moment, as well as reminiscing about the past or imagining a fun future experience, can have a positive impact on our happiness. When done with a partner, we suggest it has relationship benefits, as well.
Communicating positive qualities that we see in our significant other—something Bryant and Veroff call “affective affirmation”—has been tied to marital satisfaction and successfully navigating difficult transitions, like having a child. Also, gratitude for our partner’s finer qualities can strengthen our connection in the moment and build up resources to improve our relationship down the road, as well as enhance individual happiness.
Telling your partner about positive experiences in your life also increases relational well-being—as long as your partner is an enthusiastic supporter and doesn’t try to undermine your joy. In fact, couples that share in their good fortune with each other in positive ways tend to report more relationship satisfaction, which may play a role in their staying together longer.
4. Knowing and building on your character strengths
Though it may feel romantic to tell someone else, “You complete me” or “I can’t live without you,” these are not sentiments that ultimately lead to lasting love. Instead, you can be rewarded with a longer lasting love if you understand the importance of building and supporting the unique character strengths in yourself and your partner.
Character strengths are qualities we all possess in varying degrees that are associated with wisdom, temperance, courage, humanity, justice, and transcendence—keys to a meaningful, fulfilling life. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson developed an inventory that you can take to help identify your character strengths and to share them with your partner. Doing so may help you become more aware of your similarities and your uniqueness, which can help you better support each other in growing as individuals.
Research has shown that building on character strengths can make you happier, particularly if you try out new ways of using them. And recognizing and appreciating the character strengths of your partner can increase your relationship satisfaction.
How can you support each other’s strengths? One way is to share stories with your loved one about how you have used your character strengths successfully in your life. Partners can listen carefully, show curiosity (rather than judgment), and encourage savoring of the memory, which can lead to new and greater appreciation for each other and a closer bond.
One fun thing you might want to do is go on a “strengths date” where you take turns planning an outing using one of each of your strengths. For example, if you have a top strength of zest and your partner has one of love of learning, perhaps you rent scooters and go on a guided historical tour of the city. Or if kindness is a top strength of yours and humor a strength of your partner, perhaps you engage in an activity together that helps people while making them laugh as well.
Positive psychology gives us a wealth of evidence-based approaches for helping us find and feed the good in our partners and work to become better ourselves. By fostering more harmonious passion, positive emotion, savoring, and mutual growth, we can support our marriages and partnerships in ways that can have a real impact down the road.
We just have to remind ourselves, that except in fairytales, happily ever after doesn’t just happen. In real life, it’s healthy habits that help us become happy together over the long haul.