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I love walking into bookstores. There’s something about how quiet they are, the smell of ink and paper, and being surrounded by stories that make me feel at ease.

I’m also a sucker for the self-help section. At a quick glance, the self-help section can provide a wide range of advice on almost anything. It seems like everyone has an opinion on just about every topic and what captures my interest the most is the relationship advice. Who do you trust? Comedians, models, divorce lawyers, advice columnists. Even the latest social media influencer has an opinion on this topic.

These people may have excellent advice, or they might not. Even if their advice produces excellent results (because their wildly successful relationship is the demonstration of that), how do you know if it also applies to your relationship? What do you do when the advice columnist and your best friend (or mother) have conflicting advice?

“Out of sight, out of mind” sounds logical but “absence makes the heart grow fonder” also sounds romantic and true. You can go on a “date night” as an attempt to reconnect and get the spark back but even that can go down like a lead balloon leaving you fearing for your relationship’s longevity. Thankfully, rather than relying on opinions I’m here to tell you what we’ve discovered in the world of research. Where direct observations of thousands of real people, in real relationships, over four decades can offer clear distinct instructions of what makes a happy and successful marriage.

holding hands

Couples who are happy or at least satisfied in their relationship can have differences in personalities, hobbies and family values. They can argue over the same things as unhappy couples do, such as money, kids, sex, household chores and the in-laws. While no two marriages are the same, the research conducted at Washington State University by Dr John Gottman discovered that happy couples followed the same set of seven principles – even if they didn’t know it. These principles start with building a deep friendship, then fighting fairly and lastly creating a meaningful relationship with intention. Those who weren’t happy usually fell short of one or more of the principles.

Happy marriages are not perfect by any means, the truth is no relationship is happy all the time. However, the marriages that are happy were able to maintain a deep friendship even during conflict. In other words, they were being nice to each other – even when they were disagreeing.

Those who reported happiness behaved in distinct ways during a fight. They demonstrated positive behaviour five times more than negative:

• They showed interest in their partner
• They asked questions

• There was genuine excitement about their partner’s ideas
• They were affectionate, humorous, empathetic and understanding

The negativity that was sometimes displayed in case you were wondering was:

• Being hostile
• Feeling disappointed

• Hurting each other’s feelings
• Feeling sad, anxious, tense and depressed

What’s even more interesting is that this ratio (5 positive to every 1 negative interaction) was just during a fight or regrettable incident. During everyday interactions, these happy couples demonstrated these positive behaviours twenty times more than the negative ones. Couples who weren’t happy displayed the exact same low ratio of positive to negative behaviour both in conflict and during peaceful times. In a nutshell, to have a happy marriage you need to do what satisfied couples do and avoid what unhappy and distressed couples do. Every couple goes through times of tension or feeling hopeless. If you make changes, you can have a good outcome, that’s why we have the research-based tools for improving your relationship.

couple talking

So, what does this look like out of the lab and into the everyday life of the couple?

Happy couples are two people who are kind to each other, know each other well and express their fondness through small gestures as part of their day to day lives. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. They know what their partner likes and wants and try to provide it or help their partner achieve it as much as they can. They look out for each other in small and big ways. They still have conflict and can get angry, the key with happy couples is that they are constructive in their conflict. They work to maintain positive behaviours such as asking questions or remaining empathetic during a disagreement.

In contrast, relationships that tend to deteriorate follow a pattern where irritations stack up, resentment builds, distance follows and they end up in a state where everything their partner does is negative. Even neutral comments are received as an attack “I was just asking what’s for dinner?!”. Friendship fuels the flame of fun, spontaneity, passion, and variety. It also protects against developing a combative position towards each other and the relationship. The truth about happy marriages isn’t anything earth-shattering or hard to develop; it’s just friendship. The couples who were the happiest over the span of twenty years were the ones who were also great friends. They had strong, satisfying, and meaningful relationships and this friendship allowed them to negotiate through the maze of differences, disagreements and conflicts that still arose.

For more on this topic with Julia and Bree, tune into Episode 94 of the PakMag Parents Podcast at www.pakmag.com.au/podcast