Andrew P. Smiler, PhD, says you can have a satisfying long term relationship by discussing these 7 areas of coupled life with your partner.
Staying with someone for the long term – married, cohabiting, or some other status – is complicated. Anyone can tell you that. Disagreements are inevitable. The key to happiness is talking it out; sucking it up and never complaining is not a viable long term plan.
I’ve compiled this after years working as a therapist, as well as reading academic articles on “(marital) relationship satisfaction.” Most of my clients say they’ve never really thought about these pieces individually, nor have they really talked to their partners about what they want their relationship to look like in all these ways. The list is reasonably comprehensive, but it’s not perfect.
These are the 7 areas, in no particular order:
Emotional Intimacy: Most men are more emotionally open and connected to their life partner than any other person in their life. Their partner is the one who knows their hopes and dreams, their fears and regrets, etc. This is the person who they expect to “get” them and understand them. Couples need to make sure they continue to do this in ways that work for both partners. Some people can talk about their feelings any time, while others might need to schedule a specific time and place to have that conversation. It’s important that you’re both on the same wavelength and know (and do) what makes the other person comfortable.
Sexuality & Romance: Sexuality and romance is probably the most challenging topic for my clients, in part because Americans are so poorly educated about the topic and rather squeamish about discussing it. In therapy, key questions focus on what constitutes “good” for each member of the couple, as well as how often. Who starts, who can say no, and how to respond to hearing “no” are also important, as is the idea of a regular “date night” or “sex night.” Romantic behaviors like giving gifts and “simple” sexual behaviors like holding hands and kissing are important topics of discussion, especially for couples that have been together for several years.
Finances & Work: This area includes career paths for each member, including the career of being a stay at home parent. It also includes managing the monthly bills and household budget. We talk about what constitutes “fair” or “equal” financial contributions and how much individual spending money each person should get. Discussions about who manages the books and whether or not there needs to be an annual “financial state of the family” discussion are also important here. The number of hours spent working and work-related travel get included here too.
Caring for Family Members: Questions about how many kids to have, if any, are important. As are questions about how to raise those kids once you have them. Also important here are questions about managing any health care concerns for members of the couple, whether related to physical or mental health. Caring for a parent, or even a sibling, falls into this category too. There are a lot of people the couple might be caring for. This conversation includes topics like who is the primary contact and who has the ability to leave work.
Social Life (as a couple): Couples are expected to appear together in public settings, at least for the occasional wedding, birthday party, or other life event. But you may have very different feelings about going to parties (or clubs or whatever), having dinner with a few other couples, and hosting social events at your place. One “obvious” mismatch is when an introvert and an extrovert get together, but two introverts–or two extroverts–may still disagree on how much social time is enough.
Me Time & We Time: Whether you’re living together or not, you’ll probably want to spend some time just hanging out with your partner not doing anything special. This might be screen time or sitting quietly and reading in the same room or whatever. But it’s important to work out and respect how much me time each of you wants and needs, how much we time the two of you can have, and what you’ll do during those times. If your partner needs a lot of me time, try not to take it personally; that’s just how they recharge.
Household Management & Chores: Chores may be the most mundane of all arguments, yet they can be incredibly frustrating. Two decades ago, researcher Arlie Hochschild found that middle-class heterosexual couples who strove for equality in their marriages achieved it: both husbands and wives said they did 70% of the housework. It doesn’t get any more equal than that! But if they’re each doing 70% of the work, then they’re definitely not sharing equally. (Hochschild also asked how much time they spent doing chores. Women put in more time.) Needless to say, there are many ways to divide chores, chores vary in frequency from daily to weekly to monthly, and there are different levels of “clean.” Making a list that includes frequency and total time per month can be a big help.
In addition to the subtopics and questions listed for each of the 7 areas, there’s one more thing that needs to be discussed: who’s in charge and how will decisions be made. Equality may–or may not–be your goal, but your odds of being exactly equal in all of these areas are about as good as your odds of winning the next multi-million dollar lotto drawing. Besides, one of you may have a particular skill or preference that makes it easier for everyone if that person takes the lead, whether that’s 60-40, 90-10, or some other ratio.
You should know that you’ll need to have these conversations again every few years. That’s pretty obvious when there’s a major illness, a change in job, a residential move, and as the kids get older, but even without those things, you might find yourself wanting to renegotiate the rules. Your willingness to be responsible for changing the kitty litter right now should not be taken as a commitment to do it for the next 40 years.
The conversations might be a little stormy, but if you and your partner can agree about these 7 areas of your shared life, and if you can live out those agreements, then your relationship will be more satisfying.