As a therapist, when sitting with a couple for the first time, I can easily recognize the uniqueness of each individual and the couple as a whole. I strive to understand how they are different from each other and what their uniqueness brings to the relationship. I want to know the intricacies that set them apart so I can build rapport with them to better help them. As my relationship with the couple grows, the same phenomenon happens every time. I move from seeing their differences to seeing them as I would see any other couple. What does that mean? It means relationship dynamics often follow very common themes and patterns. While those themes and patterns manifest in different ways due to the uniqueness of the individuals or couple as a whole, they are common across many relationships.
The beauty of relationships is that they can be unique yet similar, complex yet simple, and full of confusion yet filled with understanding. Yes, these seem like contradictions, but I have witnessed all of that and more in relationships ranging from extremely traditional to extremely modern. When it comes to achieving relationship goals, there are certain themes that successful couples follow no matter the type and style of their relationship. When considering couples who have been together for decades, here are three things I notice about them:
They have healthy communication. Quite simply, they are able and willing to communicate. This communication is not about perfectly navigating a conversation. It does not mean the communication is without ugliness, defensiveness, or even raised voices. No one is perfect. Healthy communication is about being willing to engage even in tough conversations. It is about learning to fight well where the relationship gains something from conflict rather than the conflict driving a wedge between them. It is about lifting each other up rather than tearing each other down. It is about being open with feelings and expectations even if doing so makes them feel vulnerable.
They cherish each other. Cherish is not a word people often use, but it is a behavior many successful couples exhibit. What does it actually look like? When couples cherish one other, they hold their partner’s desires close to their heart and work selflessly to meet their partner’s needs. They have gratitude for their partner and what they bring to the relationship. They desire to deeply know their partner and make time for them. They respect their partner as a person and admire them for who they are. This cherishing of one another creates a tenderness and a depth that continues to strengthen the relationship over time.
They maintain expectations. I heard a former therapist who has been married for over 40 years say, “All negative emotions come from unmet expectations.” While it seems extreme, the concept does hold a great deal of merit. When a couple argues, often the strife can be traced back to an unmet expectation. Couples who maintain expectations are able to express them to each other. Expression allows expectations to be met or adjusted if they are unrealistic. Expectations (especially unmet ones) become a problem when left unspoken. Couples who navigate expectations well make them overt before they become a major issue.
This is not an exhaustive list. I could add many more qualities and behaviors that will have a significant impact, but this is a list that any couple can follow. The beauty of this list is that it can be adapted for all couples when they are willing to work at it. Working on the relationship together is how any couple, no matter how unique they are, can achieve their relationship goals.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.