Even stellar relationships lose their spark over time. Here are the ingredients of a lasting, fruitful partnership, and techniques for weathering the stormy periods.
Joy, passion, great sex: when a couple heads into marriage, this is what they have in mind. Of course they want their relationship to last—but without losing a shred of that initial high from when they first met, began courting, and fell in love. But people change. Relationships change. Some couples’ bonds deepen and relationships flourish over time; other partnerships don’t fare as well. When our relationships lose intimacy—as many of us fear they will—is the love lost forever or just temporarily misplaced?
As a marriage and family therapist in practice for 40 years (and married for nearly 35), one thing I’ve learned is that even stellar relationships lose their spark over time. I help people understand how to weatherproof their relationships for the long run.
Research shows that modern couples are looking for a partnership that’s “interesting.” They want partners who enhance their lives and with whom they can grow over time. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. at Monmouth University in New Jersey talks about “self-expansion”: how people learn about themselves from their relationships. His research demonstrates that as self-expansion increases, so do commitment and relationship satisfaction. In expansive partnerships, he argues, couples don’t lose themselves in the marriage—they grow in it. Behaviors and character traits that had previously not been a part of their identity become essential to how they experience life.
UCLA’s Family Studies Center researched 1,500 couples who had been together for five or more years and who acknowledged having a strong, close, deeply committed bond. The couples revealed six common characteristics:
- There was a physical attraction between them.
- They were in the relationship out of clear choice rather than out of obligation or fear of being alone.
- They shared fundamental values, beliefs, interests, and goals.
- They were able to express anger clearly and directly and they resolved differences through communication and compromise.
- They experienced laughter, fun, pleasure, and play with each other.
- They were able to express support for each other and support each other’s activities, interests, and careers.
In relationships with potential for durable longevity, each individual is willing to make the relationship a priority, giving it time, energy, and sustenance. As couples age together, the traits inherent in true friendship and close companionship take on greater significance. The partners constantly re-choose each other and feed positive energy to the relationship. They have each other’s back. They look out for each other.
In healthy relationships, both partners feel appreciated. He knows she respects and admires him; she feels nurtured and desired by him. Men tell me that their partner’s sweetness helps them to keep their hearts open. Women tell me that a man’s self-confidence is sexy. Conversely, men fear and resent it when their partners lose the sweetness and become brittle, bitter, and “bitchy.” Women fear and resent it when their partners become disengaged and either passive or controlling.
For a woman to remain vulnerable and open to her partner, and to exude that attractive energy so that a man stays turned on, she needs to feel secure and special. If she gets any messages that she’s not the number-one person in his life, she will start to close up, and then after a while the mutual attraction will wane. Understanding is the bridge to compassion, and compassion can be the spark that reignites the passion.
For a man to remain available to his partner and to emit that attractive energy so that she stays turned on, he needs to feel honored. A man’s sense of self is to a large degree determined by his feeling productive and useful. A man’s character counts tremendously. Integrity is central to his feeling like the good man his partner needs and deserves.
Generally speaking, the truth works—so tell it as currently, clearly, completely, and compassionately as possible.
Many marriages end in divorce because one or both partners can no longer communicate honestly. When there are too many withheld feelings and thoughts, the life of the relationship gets snuffed out. The personal safety that one feels in the presence of the other is key to promoting open and vulnerable communication. True intimacy is determined by the degree to which partners can communicate safely and vulnerably.
Candid communication can be very invigorating, leading to mutual respect and appreciation, rekindled passion, and dynamic sex. His communication might be: “Honey, I know we’ve both been working long hours and have been quite tired lately. I want you to know how much the kids and I appreciate all your efforts on our behalf. I also want you to know that I’m missing the intimate time that we used to have just for us. I’d like to find a way to put it back into our relationship.” Her response might be: “Do you think we can come home for lunch one day during the week?” And then, “How about a ‘nooner’ this Friday?”
Loving communication creates arousal, passion, and intimacy. Maintaining a sense of humor can go a long way toward easing tension and smoothing ruffled edges. Remember the importance of courting each other throughout the full length of the relationship. Avoid taking each other for granted. Recall how it felt when you were first discovering each other and were falling deeply and madly in love—it’s possible to fall all over again.
Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D., MFT, has a psychotherapy practice in Beverly Hills and Woodland Hills, California and is the Founder and Director of The Men’s Center of Los Angeles (since 1988). He is completing a book titled: Man Up! What it takes to be a Good Man Today.
More From Our Special Marriage Section:
When Tom Forrister transitioned from female to male, his same-sex marriage became a federally-recognized, “traditional” marriage. The one constant was the bond he shared with his wife: My Exemplary, Everyday Marriage
Guys may think leaving is the right thing to do for the sake of the family, but according to family lawyer David Pisarra, there are a few things they should know before—and after—they walk out that door: A Guy’s Divorce Survival Guide
The nightmare of family court is enough to deter a guy from even thinking about tying the knot. Marriage: Just Don’t
For all the stories written by and for women on this issue—and there are few—men are more likely to be absent from the public dialogue about intentional childlessness. Why aren’t men’s stories also being heard? Two Is Enough
If you’re married and using Internet porn regularly, your sex life—the one with your wife—is probably a lot less satisfying than it could be: How Porn Can Ruin Your Sex Life—and Your Marriage
Men are more promiscuous than women, but that doesn’t mean we should buy the cultural fallacy that men are programmed to cheat; the vast majority of men are happily, naturally monogamous: Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?
As Gabi Coatsworth’s son’s bipolar disorder gave way to full-blown manic episodes, she watched her husband slip deeper into drink and detachment: Reading Between the Silences
Tom Matlack talks to married men to find out when they knew their wife was “the one”: She’s the One
Monogamy sounds like “monotony,” but it doesn’t have to be monotonous. Hugo Schwyzer explores how we can have the security—and the novelty—we desire in our relationships: Red-Hot Monogamy
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—Photo by Lynch/Flickr
I actually laughed out loud when I read this : Candid communication can be very invigorating, leading to mutual respect and appreciation, rekindled passion, and dynamic sex. His communication might be: “Honey, I know we’ve both been working long hours and have been quite tired lately. I want you to know how much the kids and I appreciate all your efforts on our behalf. I also want you to know that I’m missing the intimate time that we used to have just for us. I’d like to find a way to put it back into our relationship.” Her response might… Read more »
#6 is so important…Thank you for writing this!
So much of this smacks of misogyny it’s not even funny. “He knows she respects and admires him; she feels nurtured and desired by him.” Women don’t need to be respected, just taken care of? And we need to look up to our men? “Men tell me that their partner’s sweetness helps them to keep their hearts open.” So if my husband stops loving me it’s because I wasn’t sweet enough?! And my absolute favourite: “For a woman to remain vulnerable and open to her partner, and to exude that attractive energy so that a man stays turned on…” So… Read more »
Krissy, I guess we all read and “hear” what we want to hear. My reaction (as a male) is so different than yours. I thought Mr Johnson placed the responsibility for the health of the relationship on BOTH partners. If my partner loses that “sweetness” , perhaps it’s because I’m “…disengaged, passive or controlling…” As for vulnerability – that also works both ways. Unless I am willing to open myself completely to my spouse with all my attendant strengths, weaknesses, thoughts and feelings there will be no depth to my relationship. How, in your mind, is this a prelude to… Read more »
Vulnerable: capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon; (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend The author not only specifies vulnerability as a singly female trait or position, he also asserts that it is a requirement for her husband’s attraction to her. Meanwhile the man does not, according to this article, need to go so far as to be vulnerable, he only needs to be ‘available’. The wording of that entire section is rooted in misogyny. The author uses the following words to describe the male partner: respected, admired, self-confident, honored. Conversely,… Read more »
Although i dont know if this article is misogynist or not, as a yong guy i dont want to be only the admired and respected husband, i also want to be the sweet husband and i want my wife desire me. I also want to respect my wife. In my opinion respect and desire should go to both. It must be sucks being a respected husband but her wife doesn’t desire him, and its must be suck being a desiring wife but her husband doesnt respect her.
KrissyFair wrote: So much of this smacks of misogyny it’s not even funny. “He knows she respects and admires him; she feels nurtured and desired by him.” Women don’t need to be respected, just taken care of? Women and men need to be respected AND taken care of, but the differences in our genders give one more priority than the other. Of course those levels can vary on an individual basis. KrissyFair wrote: And we need to look up to our men? I would define that as ‘security.’ KrissyFair wrote: “Men tell me that their partner’s sweetness helps them to… Read more »
Many relationships get into this power struggle of who does more and who has the last word. The most important thing in any relationship is for both sexes to feel loved and appreciated in a way that is natural and instinctive for them. Man has two basic instincts. One is to provide and the other is to protect. Men are basically hunters and in more primitive times used to go out and kill an animal and bring it home for his family. We do not need to do this any longer but we do need to make the money so… Read more »
What a load of crap. First of all, you are totally minimizing the role of a growing number of men who contribute to their families by staying home while the woman works, and yet are no less manly or appreciatd by their wives. Second, please spare me from that chivalry crap, which costs you very little to do and gives no real benefit, protective or otherwise. Not to knock a nice gesture and all, but I’m getting pretty sick of men thinking that women should fall down on our knees in gratitude (and be happy, dammit!) simply because of chivalry.… Read more »
Thank you Dr. Johnson for putting in words what I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy during my 17 year second marriage. At 63 years old I’m enjoying the most satisfying intimate period of my life, and my wife at 55 years old feels the same. Having raised a blended family, my wife and I never had the honeymoon time together until we became empty-nesters. We are now making up for lost time. We respect each others’ time alone, don’t take each other for granted and encourage each other. Our intimacy is frosting-on-the-cake. One thing I might pass on that has… Read more »
Thank you Paul for posting this comment. Paul Bowen, considered to be the Dean of Aviation Photography, has been a lifelong friend, actually a true brother, since we were both 9 years old. I can attest to the accuracy of his comments regarding his marriage and wish to underscore the significance of his remark concerning how he and his wife work out at the gym together and have vowed to stay healthy and attractive for each other. The benefits that come from partners exercising their physical bodies can also strengthen the emotional connectivity within the relationship bond. Paul and Gail… Read more »
Sylvia, a man once told me that he reminds his wife that he loves her and then politely asks to be left alone. There is a poem by Rilke titled Across a Wide Sky in which the main theme is central to the importance for partners in relationship to be champions of each others need for solitude. I have come to the belief that the right amount and use of space can be the antidote for distance. The Asian art culture understands the intricate balance between form and nothingness. Scott Peck in his book A Different Drum recognized that the… Read more »
Dr Johnson, I find this especially true. We are planning our wedding after 7 and a half years together (we are slightly laid back when it comes to milestones, some might say) and both of us came from families that were incredibly combative and toxic when growing up (though at least with my parents, the relationship is now far better). We were lucky enough to be each other’s first ever relationship on any level, merely out of statistical luck, and every year things get easier and more pleasant. To wit, the following things have helped when both people are actively… Read more »
There’s a lot of innate wisdom expressed in these suggestions. It has been said that a word to the wise is sufficient. Thank you for this offering.
I much enjoyed Dr. Stephen Johnson’s article on what makes a good marriage over time. I’ve been married 26 years – but both of us had track records going in that didn’t look promising. It was my 3rd marriage; my husband’s 4th! But what can I say — something about this one has worked. Probably we were both just tired. Or we’d finally matured. One thing that works for us is that we’re both really busy doing things we like, so we don’t look to each other for entertainment. My husband once said to me that I’m the only wife… Read more »
I loved the article and wished that I had lived the relationship that you described. I do agree on communication and honesty being so important between a couple. It is a little late for me but I hope to take the wisdom of your words with me if I am ever lucky enough to have a lasting relationship again.
Well done Dr. J.
This is an exceptional and insightful article. So many truths in just a few paragraphs. I could reread this several times and continue to glean the wisdom. Thank you for sharing a mans perspective about relationship and marriage. Your expertise shows. This article is clear, concise and very helpful!
Thank you! Andrea
I first met Dr. Johnson in a somewhat adversarial situation. His understanding of the dynamics of relationships quickly ameliorated all y concerns and allowed me to speak openly and honestly. Now, in this article, he once again quite clearly sets out an approach that has proven to be enormously helpful to me in my relationship with my wife.
Philip, you’re another man that has found the keys to the kingdom. Your relationship with Claudia is exemplary and models the key ingredients listed above. I’ve had first hand experience of your relationship and it is evident that the love that the two of you exude is not only inspirational but invigorates all that come in contact with you. Happy Valentines Day.
Dr. Johnson’s article really struck home to me. I am a 65 year old male who has had a few failed marriages. I am now in a marriage that is going on its 16th year and I could not be happier. If I had only known the information presented in this article when I was younger I could have avoided the marital turmoil in my life. Falling in love is the easy part of a relationship. It is the work and will that goes into a relationship that is hard. Dr. J also mentions the word honesty. That, to me,… Read more »
The things Dr J points to in this article are the same areas I point to in teaching about effective, powerful Parent-Child relationships. I used to be amazed at how many parents have lop-sided relationships with their children, asking for respect but not giving it, for example. Dr J is spot on with his message and it applies in a bigger arena than just our adult to adult intimate relationships. The same sage wisdom applies in business, parenting, friendships, even in our relationships with our own parents.
Thanks Dr J for the powerful reminder.
Dr. Johnson’s article hit home a couple of fronts. My wife Hannah and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary on Monday. This in itself is a wonderful milestone, however, the thing that really makes this special for me is that Hannah is twenty years older than me. I was 29 and she was 49 when first started dating and for what ever reason we found ourselves as life long partners, even after a relatively shore period of time. I can tell you that there have been many challenges with family pressure and generation differences along the way that made… Read more »
Dan, at the beginning of your relationship with Hannah she had read a book by author John Lee about men. In the back of the book he had listed my name and the Men’s Center of Los Angeles. I vividly remember her call to me over 20 years ago indicating that she had married a really good man and that there was a 20-year age difference between the two of you. I thought that was quite remarkable. She felt that it would be helpful for you to be involved in a community of men that could support you and your… Read more »
Dr J. thank you for your support and for recognizing our work over the years. It is very much appreciated. We had a wonderful celebration and are looking forward to many more years together.
Dr Johnsons article hit it right on the head for me. Honest communication is foundational. I know that when I go into some form of fear and feel like I have to suppress my truth in a relationship I am in for big trouble and dwindling satisfaction. I have often come from the afraid to be alone school of why I enter into a relationship, and this is a recipe for staying in a relationship for he right reasons and with a chance to go really deep into learning and joyful surrender to open and be ones authentic self. I… Read more »
It is good to see such a well crafted summary of six very key characteristics of a fulfilling and potentially long term relationship. I think Dr J’s observations are spot on and have at least given me an opportunity to reflect on what I can do improve my relationship w my wife of 14 years. It has indeed been rocky at times, but communication is the key. Without it there is no safety, no vulnerability and no intimacy. Thanks for the guidance!
Dr. J’s article is a well crafted description of what a good and lasting relationship requires.
Those who object to the ‘different’ need of the sexes have feeling that are the exception rather than than the rule, and his definitions are primarily ‘on the beam’.
This is an incredibly insightful article that holds so true for anyone in a marriage or for anyone who is contemplating marriage. it is candid and sends a powerful message of what a lasting marriage is all about. It really strikes home! Thank you for your insight and inspiration!
thank you dr johnson, for this excellent article.
it makes a lot of sense and resonates for me.
There’s a lot to like and admire about the article. I appreciate Denis’ detail and Stephen & Dan’s clarifications. Taken as a whole, the article’s content is enhanced by the discussion. The thing that concerns me is when one is in a marriage that becomes, or has become, one sided. When two of those 6 characteristics are not there or are a little “off”. Then what? when conventional or traditional gender roles are not applicable to a couple’s lives and livelihoods, how does one renavigate or renegotiate these moments for regeneration? What happens when only one wants to participate in… Read more »
CP, You’ve asked some very good questions. I’ll address them in order: First, 4 out of 6 of the characteristics of a good relationship is better than 50% so you’re on the winning side. Strive to work on adding the other 2 and strengthen the other 4. It’s my experience that there are many modern couples that are experimenting with non-traditional gender roles. They just need to seek agreement, alignment and balance within the paradigm that they’re utilizing as the foundation and structure of their relationship or family. It takes two to tango or tangle for that matter. When one… Read more »
Dr, Johnson, thanks for that article. Sage advice…Very informative. Certainly a great deal of it resonates with my own experience. I remember when I was in college, young and naive I was threatened by my girlfriend’s growth and change. Today, now that I’m older and a bit more evolved, after 12 years of marriage I invite change and love supporting my wife with her growth and wins; just as she does with mine. Perhaps the tricky area has been keeping the intimacy intact and more regular. Admittedly…we get lazy and complacent. Additionally, the economy has me feeling a bit less… Read more »
An excellent, thought provoking and practical article that really gave me things to think about in my own marriage.
Thanks so much for the wonderful thoughts in your article! I have been with my husband for almost 5 years now, and we have gone through difficult times and have worked through a great deal. We have learned to work together in many ways and it is team work. Adding fun and humor is critical. Marriages are a work in progress as we all are, and if you want a good marriage, you have to work on your self and be the best you can be, and give your best self to your partner. Integrity is key. Being faithful is… Read more »
Whether or not some readers fault the expression of gender roles in this article (he/she, him/her, etc.), it is important to realize that the content has strong validity. The six points mentioned by the author that are common to a successful marriage are the same whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual. Furthermore, the expression of truths couched in respectful terms that are of positive service to both members of the relationship is of paramount importance, and the treatment of the bond as an entity that must be nourished and cherished cannot be underemphasized. In my marriage of 25 years,… Read more »
I have been a close associate of Stephen’s for many years and am keenly aware of his great insights into relationship dynamics The qualities he describes in the article are portals into Conscious Relationships and the opportunity to utilize marriage and committed relationships as an integral part of one’s Mindfulness Practice. I’m pleased to see a synergy between the Men’s Center and The Good Men Project. Keep up the good and important work. Dan
Mutual respect, compromise & negotiation.
Communication & good attitude.
Humor & kindness.
These characterics are benificial to creating a safe
& Loving relationship.
Thank you, Dr. J. For nurturing these traits in support
of a long term loving & caring relationship.
You’re welcome Leeann. I’m glad those themes struck a cord.