Happy Couples: What It Takes to Be One

Love alone won’t see you through, say the experts

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD on February 09, 2007
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

That future, according to most marriage experts, should include a healthy sex life. While sex isn't everything to happy couples, sexual problems can lead to marital discord. That men and women tend to have different ideas about sex doesn't help matters.

"Generally speaking, women tend to see sexuality as part of a larger construct. Men are exactly the opposite," says James E. Sheridan, a judge and founder of Marriages That Work, a nonprofit organization in Michigan that teaches instructional courses on how to strengthen marriages. "Women have to be in the mood. Men have to be in the room."

Many times, misunderstandings over these differences lead to a break down in a healthy sexual relationship within a marriage, even among happy couples. The result, say experts, is a sexless marriage. Patti Britton, president of the American Association for Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, calls sexless marriages an "epidemic." She reports that many of the married clients she sees haven't had sex in 10 years.

  • Adopt a business approach to improve sex.

Seeing things from a business-like perspective helps couples reframe their sexual relationship. "I tell them, 'If this were a business, would you let it flounder like this?'" Britton says.

Presenting sex in this light makes problems, and solutions, more concrete for couples. "By likening it [marriage] to a business mode -- with shared goals and missions; responsibilities, assets, and liabilities; and frequent business meetings -- things shift," Britton tells WebMD.

  • Make honest assertions.

To salvage their sex lives, some couples need to dig deeper. "Often, sex wasn't good in the first place. A big complaint for women is that foreplay is bad or nonexistent," Britton says.

But this isn't easy for anyone to admit. "I do a lot of pushing for the truth," Britton tells WebMD. Some couples simply aren't prepared to tell, or hear, the truth. "A lot of couples fall out of it. It pushes too many buttons," she says.

The topic of family finances is another hot-button topic, even for happy couples.

  • Delegate the task of budget balancer.

Experts observe that most happy couples recognize that handling household finances should remain a singular task. "Only one person can work the checkbook. There can't be two CFOs," Sheridan tells WebMD.

That doesn't mean, however, that the other partner should be kept in the dark about finances. Sheridan espouses making joint financial decisions, with just one person implementing.

  • Start an emergency fund.

He also strongly urges couples to plan for financial emergencies. This helps diffuse any potential blowups, such as who will sacrifice personal spending money when urgent house repairs must be funded.

Every couple faces adversity, from slumps in their sex lives to bickering over the checkbook balance. But Markman believes that most married people can learn to become happy couples. "If both partners are motivated, they can turn things around," Markman tells WebMD.

Published February 2007.