Creative sex, doing the dishes and watching your words can go a long way towards a lifetime of wedded bliss.
Take heart: A recent study found that a surprising number of people are still very much in love with their partners after 20 years of marriage. In fact, brain scans of people in happy long-term relationships show the same activation in areas associated with reward, motivation and “wanting” as those experiencing new love.
Even better, long-term romantic love (unlike new love) stimulates regions of the brain that quell anxiety and pain. This suggests that well-worn romantic love offers a unique combination of benefits: happiness—plus a sense of calmness.
Here’s what science tells us are the secrets to living happily ever after:
1. Be 5 times nicer than you are nasty
For every unhappy exchange, we need at least five happy ones to nourish love, says relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. According to his research, relationships are stable and happy when the ratio of positive to negative interactions is at least 5:1. Notice that this so-called “Magic Ratio” does allow for negative interactions, which Gottman says are necessary for partners to move past conflict.
Make sure you have 5 happy exchanges for every 1 bad one.
2. Do your share of the dishes
Sharing household chores is surprisingly important for a successful marriage—the only factors that ranked higher in Pew Research Center surveys from both 2007 and 1990 were fidelity and a happy sexual relationship. That said, even among couples that do split the workload, chores tend to fall to one partner more than the other (in heterosexual relationships, usually the woman).
Simply saying “thank you” can help to limit your partner’s resentment and ensure their relationship satisfaction, according to research from Arizona State University.
3. Watch your words
Most of us know that communication is key to a successful relationship—even if we’re not so good at it. One trick: Use more “couple-focused” pronouns, like “we,” “our” and “us” when you’re having a conflict with your significant other. One study published in the journal Psychology and Aging found that these words helped partners get through disagreements with more affection, less anger and lower stress, while pronouns like “I,” “you” and “me” increased marital dissatisfaction.
There is no “I” in team.
4. Go on an adventure
If your routine feels more like a rut—the same old restaurants, the same old TV shows—it’s time to mix things up and have some fun. Couples that play together stay together, according to Stony Brook University researcher Arthur Aron, Ph.D. His studies show that participating in new and exciting activities as a couple increases relationship quality.
That’s because being able to experience what he calls “self-expansion” alongside your partner makes the relationship more fulfilling and helps to stave off the boredom and staleness that contribute to so many breakups.
The next time you’re about to go to the movies for the hundredth time, why not opt for some live music or a stroll around an unfamiliar neighborhood instead?
5. Don’t break up with your friends
Think back to the last time you needed advice about your career or a conflict with someone. How many people did you talk to? Between 1985 and 2004, the number of people relying solely on their spouse to discuss important matters doubled. And while this may seem like a positive trend, too much togetherness can actually be harmful because it puts too much of a burden on the relationship, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.
Pursuing friendships, support and interests outside your twosome will actually help keep you together.
6. Do the standing tiger / crouching dragon
There’s plenty of research showing that sexual satisfaction promotes marital stability and decreases the likelihood of divorce. Although it probably wouldn’t hurt, this doesn’t mean you have to have more sex: A 2011 study found that more experimentation (think: new positions and locations), more talking about sex and more “making out” increases sexual satisfaction—for both men and women.
Get creative in the bedroom.
7. Pay attention!
Remember your ex who always called your best friend Margaret instead of Miranda, or who always suggested Thai food despite your peanut allergy? Then you know how hurtful this obliviousness can feel—and how damaging it can be to a relationship. Start paying more attention to things that matter to your partner: the names of their colleagues and cousins, your anniversary date and their food preferences, for example. Partners that remember these types of details about each other tend to be highly satisfied in their relationships, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy.
Remember the little things.
For more science-based activities to boost your happiness in your relationships, check out Happify’s 4-week track, “Feel More Fulfilled in Your Relationship”!