Let’s face it: Relationships are strange. People get together because they’re attracted to one another and share a few interests. They fall in love. Flash forward a few years and they’re having kids and signing legally binding documents about home ownership and funeral between, couples must figure out how they’re going to live a shared life together. They need to understand the relationship values that matter most to them, yes, but also what relationship values tend to lead towards the happiest, most content couples.
It may sound like a silly exercise, but understanding the core relationship values that makes a couple work — like really, truly work — is a smart move. Comparison may be the thief of joy, but ignoring the work of those who’ve succeeded before you can be a happiness-killler, too.
Is there simple roadmap for navigating long-term relationships? God, no. But relationship experts know the key values — and what they look like in real-time scenarios. So we asked a variety for their input. Turns out trust, friendship, and faith are key. So are work ethic, the ability to take responsibility, and loyalty. Good timing when criticizing or side-taking comes in handy, too. Here’s what they said.
Take it from Elvis: people with suspicious minds can’t build dreams together. If you’re constantly worried about your partner’s commitment, you’re never at ease with them. You inevitably drive yourself crazy and drive them away.
Trust is a bedrock relationship value. But trust in relationships isn’t one-dimensional, a fact that’s overlooked. As life coach and author expert Nicole LaBeach notes, without trust, neither you or your partner can be comfortable being vulnerable with each other.
“That safety, that vulnerability and the ability to share who we are without judgment, gives us the opportunity to connect in a way that we often don’t get in other aspects of our lives,” she says. ”So that brings about a level of contentment because it’s a safe place to fully be who you are.”
Establishing trust brings along consistency and reliability and, at best, fosters a sense of safety. San Diego marriage and family therapist Dana McNeil notes we should aim to trust in someone’s character not their behavior. “Trust for me is trust that this person is going to show up for me the way I hope when I need them the most,” McNeil says.
2. Keeping Faith in Each Other
When you know someone well for a long time, it’s natural to become less likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt. You learn their tricks and shortcuts. A health conscious partner sneaks an odd chocolate bar. An always-late partner tells friends they’re caught in traffic when they really haven’t left the house. On the whole, the discoveries are humanizing and charming — especially considering that they’re learning the truth about you, too.
But couples can know each other too well. It becomes easy to push one another’s buttons — and assume that those buttons are getting pushed deliberately.
Happy couples make an effort to assume the best about each other — a value McNeil calls “being curious rather than furious.”
“Couples who are able to continuously find a way to hold each other in a positive perspective do better in a relationship,” she says. “We’re not in conflict because we don’t love each other. we’re in conflict because you have your own expectations, your own value systems, your own families of origin and your own prior relationships that may have disappointed you or set the tone for what you’re looking for. That bumps up against mine.”
3. Good Work Ethic
It’s a bit of a paradox, but the more you’re willing to work on your relationship, the easier it becomes.
“At home or with your significant other in your relationship, it is a different kind of work, but it’s work,” LaBeach says. “It’s energy, it’s focus. It’s being able to say hmmm, I’m noticing that whenever the house gets to a certain level of untidiness, things start to break down and being able to adjust to that.” She adds that contented couples pay attention to the things that matter to their partners. “It’s not tightrope work,” she says. “It’s energy in — good stuff, yummy stuf —, effective stuff out.”
4. A Base of Friendship
Not all relationship values feel like homework. One can still hold a lot of value if it makes you happy. You need to enjoy your partner’s company and choose to spend time with them. Contented couples know that and keep playfulness and laughter in the spotlight.
There are practical, nuts-and-bolts benefits to putting a premium on friendship as well. LaBeach notes that a base of friendship makes for better communication and less stress.
“If you value friendship, then there are certain things that come in that package, like accepting the other person’s perspective,” she says. “Usually if you’re in a good friendship, one of the things that makes it such is that you can really see each other and accept the other person’s perspective. You enjoy spending time together. You like being in each others’ company.”
Amber Lee, CEO of Virginia matchmaking service Select Date Society, notes that many of the happiest couples she sees are the ones who share a sense of humor. “When individuals don’t take themselves too seriously and know how to appropriately use humor, they make better partners,” Lee says. “Couples who can laugh together are often the most content.”
As a relationship value, loyalty involves more than commitment to your partner. It means displaying loyalty to your partner in times of stress, which can be difficult and counterintuitive. In long term relationships, we get uncomfortable when we see our partners have a strong emotion. We seek to end that discomfort by criticizing our partner’s response. McNeil says those responses put a wedge between couples.
“What I’m really looking for in those moments is for you not to side with the enemy,’” McNeil says. “I want you to feel like it’s you and me against the world.”
Of course, your partner is not always going to be right and you don’t do any favors telling them that they are. But content couples know how to time their criticism. Nobody on earth is receptive to criticism in the heat of road rage, for example.
“In those moments, that’s how you show me you’re a good teammate. Maybe later when I’m calm I’ll be able to say ‘I don’t know why that person cut me off’ and my partner can say ‘no you were texting and you didn’t notice.’”
In those moments when you let your partner have their emotions, don’t try to minimize or talk them out of it. Validation is important in the moment, even if that requires you to remember to mention your side at a different time. “You show you’re loyal and not siding with the enemy,” says McNeil. “I’m looking for that in my relationship with you.”
It’s easy to be defensive when things go south. When we undergo any sort of duress, our brains can spit out dozens of reasons for why we’re not at fault for whatever went wrong almost effortlessly. That cover-your-ass instinct can come in handy when things go wrong at work but it’s no help during stressful moments at home.
“The antidote for when I’m becoming defensive is to find something I can take responsibility for,” McNeil says. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to fall on your sword and act like everything’s your fault all the time. But taking responsibility for the things you are responsible for can contain possibly volatile situations. “That’s first going to diffuse the situation so that we don’t get escalated and get into a conflict, but it’s also showing that I accept that we both participated in this disagreement,” McNeil says.
So there you have it. None of these values are shocking and they look differently across each relationship. But if you focus on them and make incremental changes to see that they’re prioritized, good things will come.