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Health & Sex

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Happy Couples: What It Takes to Be One

Love alone won’t see you through, say the experts
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD

The sight of a couple sharing a joke and walking hand in hand, their faces lined with wrinkles, and their hair gray, begs the question: How did they remain a happy couple for so many years? Given that about half of all first marriages for men and women under 45 end in divorce, it's a legitimate question. So at WebMD, we asked the experts to reveal the secrets of happy couples. Their revelations may surprise you.

"It's not about how much you love each other, or how much money you have, or even if your personalities mesh," says Howard Markman, PhD, leading marriage researcher, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, and author of Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love.

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Far more significant than these factors -- yes, even more important than heart-pounding lust, which, let's face it, often fades over time -- is communication, says Markman. How well you and your spouse communicate with another? The second most significant factor that happy couples share, he says, is a strong friendship.

While you can't necessarily teach a couple how to be friends, you can teach good friends how to communicate better. Markman regularly tackles this task, using a research-based method derived from data that he and his colleagues at the University of Denver have collected over decades of systematically observing unhappy and happy couples.

Happy Couples: Developing Healthy Habits

Markman offers three important ingredients of happy couples:

  • Avoid blowouts.

"The first is to learn to talk without fighting about inevitable conflicts," Markman says. Making a concerted effort to see the other person's perspective, and avoiding the blame game of "she said" or "he did," goes a long way.

When things appear to be hedging toward a blowout, Markman urges couples to do what parents often tell young children: Take a "time out." It's a tactic he calls "exiting out of destructive fighting."

  • Recall the positive.

As parents often ask a child stewing in the time-out corner what she could have done differently, Markman suggests that couples in conflict take time to consider what brought them together in the first place. Then, he says, make room for those factors in your life again. "You've got to protect and preserve those positive connections -- the friendship, the fun," Markman tells WebMD. These are aspects of marriage that happy couples keep intact.

  • Look to the future.

While turning the clock back can help couples rekindle lost connections, Markman urges couples to simultaneously look forward. "You've got to have a long-term vision of the future, shared dreams, and plans that represent a commitment to one another and your family," he says.

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