what makes relationships happy and healthy?We tend to hold the misconception that healthy, happy relationships happen naturally. Organically. Even effortlessly. They move along an assembly line without requiring much, if any, intervention on our part. Because we worry that if we have to work at a marriage, then maybe it simply isn’t meant to be.

This month we asked couples therapists to reveal the biggest lessons they’ve learned about healthy, happy relationships. And their lessons mainly focused on work—the kind you’d do in the garden: nurture, tend, cultivate.

Couples have more positive interactions than negative interactions. Way more.

“What we know from years of research on couples is that for a relationship to be happy and healthy, a couple must spend the vast majority of their time cultivating positive moments and interactions,” said Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationships in Orange County, Calif. In fact, the specific ratio is five positive interactions to one negative interaction. Couples who don’t have this ratio are at greater risk for divorce, she said.

If you’d like to track your own interactions, Nickerson suggested jotting down your impressions after every conversation with your spouse. Did it go well? Was it positive? Was it negative? “Put a check on the positive side. If it didn’t go well, make a mark on the negative side.” You can ask your spouse to do the same. Then compare notes. “It’s often eye-opening!”

Couples know how to heal their hurt.

All couples disagree. All couples fight. All couples inevitably hurt each other. The key is how they heal these ruptures, said Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif., who works with couples and is certified by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. “I have learned that it’s through the repair process that couples can become stronger, closer and deepen intimacy. Each person is the antidote to their partner’s pain.”

For instance, one partner doesn’t punish the other for hurting them. They don’t act in passive-aggressive ways. They don’t shut their partner out. Instead, they turn toward their partner and share how hurt they really are. They reveal their pain, Irwin said. This is not easy to do. But it bolsters the relationship.

The other partner drops their defensiveness and allows themselves to be touched by their partner’s pain, she said. This “promotes healing and bonding. It clearly conveys: You matter to me, your pain matters to me, and you are not alone in that hurt, even when that hurt is something about what I did.”

Couples nurture and tend to their relationship. Regularly.

These couples “treat their bond as they would a living entity,” Irwin said. “They pay attention to it; they feed it with time, energy and intention.” They find ways to strengthen their connection even when challenges arise, such as physical distance, careers and kids. For instance, most evenings one couple enjoys a cup of tea together while sitting on the couch and chatting about their day, she said.

Other couples have regular date nights to reconnect—without mentioning schedules or chores. They are intentional about their physical intimacy, setting time aside for sex. Because “spontaneous desire often is not present when a couple is stressed, or tired or care-taking children.”

Nickerson also underscored the importance of partners paying regular attention to how caring, gentle and kind they’re being to their partner. (“Don’t go into auto-pilot and assume that you’ve been married for 15 years, so you’ll be married forever.”) This might mean taking their partner’s perspective and feelings into account during a fight. It might mean remembering to pick up their favorite food at the grocery store. It might mean slipping a sweet note into their briefcase.

“Look for opportunities to do more for [your partner], take care of them, love them a little extra,” Nickerson said. “Little things done often produce huge results.”

Couples recognize their wounds and use them to become more understanding.  

Every person comes into every relationship with both big and small traumas, said John Harrison, LPCC, a counselor and coach who specializes in working with couples in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We are all wounded to some degree, and we behave through those wounds when we are triggered emotionally.” Couples in healthy, happy relationships recognize these wounds. They recognize their shortcomings, and their partner’s shortcomings.

“When we take time to be mindful and grow our awareness of the inherent nature of being a flawed human being, we can be less reactive to what our partner triggers in us. At the same time, we can open up a strong sense of compassion for our partner as well as ourselves.”

Harrison calls this “moving to a second level of consciousness.” Again, this occurs when we let ourselves see the wounded and irrational sides of ourselves and our partner, he said. “Adopting this greater level of awareness and understanding can go a long way.”

Couples allow themselves to be “perfectly imperfect.”

“The truth is that because we are constantly learning and evolving as individuals within our relationships, there is a never-ending learning and growing process taking place,” Harrison said. After we overcome one obstacle and have things figured out, inevitably, there’s another challenge around the corner.

As Harrison said, “perfection is an illusion. Arriving at a sublime level of marital happiness is an illusion.” Which is why couples in resilient, connected relationships don’t assume that perfect vacations and perfect jobs will be the panacea to their problems. They don’t believe that if only their partner thought like they do, then everything would get resolved.

Rather, these couples love and appreciate the imperfections and challenges in their marriage. They accept them, and they keep working.

Relationships thrive when partners focus on growing themselves and their connection. Because the best relationships don’t just happen. They’re nurtured and fed.

Stay tuned for part 2 with more insights on happy, healthy relationships.

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