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How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship

A couple in a healthy relationship about to kiss in the sun.

Of all the people who get married, only 3 in 10 remain in happy, healthy marriages. The rest of the relationships end either in divorce or dysfunction. So what does it take to maintain a healthy relationship and a lasting, loving marriage?

Psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples over 40 years to answer that question. In 1986, he and a partner set up “The Love Lab,” where they brought in newlyweds and watched them interact. Researchers in the Love Lab hooked up the couples to electrodes and measured their heart rate, blood flow, and how much sweat they produced as they asked them questions about their relationships.

After compiling data over several years, Gottman found that there were two types of couples: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still together and happy after six years of marriage or more. The disasters had either split up or were unhappy in their relationships.

What set these two groups apart? The disaster couples had strong physiological reactions while discussing their relationships, despite the appearance of calm on the outside. The higher their heart rates and the more sweat and blood flow they produced, the quicker their relationships fell apart.

What caused these physiological responses was the environment that the couples had created for each other. Even when talking about minor details of their relationship, the disaster couples were prepared to attack or be attacked. Their interactions were hostile and aggressive. Meanwhile, the masters had low physiological responses during their tests. Their environment was one of trust and intimacy, and this allowed them to feel calm and connected in each other’s presence.

Gottman found that the way that couples react to each other’s bids for attention can determine what kind of environment they create. For example, a wife who is a video game enthusiast might be looking for attention or support from her husband by remarking on a game that excites her. The husband has two choices: He can either dismiss her or engage her. Dismissal can be as minor as a distracted “that’s great, babe” or as aggressive as a disparaging comment about how video games are waste of time. But if he engages her by showing interest—”Oh, I remember you telling me about this game. Is that the one where you fight evil trolls?”—he is meeting her emotional needs.

Partners who stayed together engaged in their significant other’s bids for attention far more often than those who fell apart—the masters clocked in at 87 percent while the disasters only did so 33 percent of the time. Essentially, couples who showed more kindness and support towards one another—in the good times and the bad—ended up in happier, longer-lasting relationships.

For example, if a husband receives a promotion at work, an active, constructive response would be to enthusiastically congratulate him and then ask questions to show interest. “A partner who says, ‘Congratulations! That’s amazing! How did it happen?” is demonstrating kindness that helps to build the backbone of a lasting relationship. A partner who grumbles, “Great, now you’ll be away from home even MORE,” is having the opposite effect—deflating her husband’s good news and criticizing his behavior for good measure.

As you choose from potential partners, look out for these signs. Does he respond positively to your interests, even if he doesn’t share them, or does he tend to brush you off? Does she make negative assumptions about your intentions (for example, does she assume you were getting a text from another date when your phone went off during dinner), or does she view most of your actions as well-meaning? People who demonstrate kindness and support in a relationship will not only put you at ease in the present, they might also be the key to a long and happy future.

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