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Dublin: 17 °C Tuesday 22 July, 2014

Column: 7 ways to stay happy in a long-term relationship

Relationship counsellor Lisa O’Hara gives some practical tips… and explains why marriage is like martial arts.

Lisa O'Hara

RECENT RESEARCH from the Gottman Institute says that 69 per cent of conflicts in couple relationships are unresolvable.

An alarming statistic you might think, and it might makes you wonder if it can’t be resolved, is there any hope of peace and harmony again? Not just silence and not talking or sighing and giving in (and really not being happy about it), but more a sense of a genuine acceptance of each others’ differences?

According to a survey conducted by Grant Thornton in 2011, the most common reason nowadays for divorce (in 27 per cent of cases) is that the couple had simply drifted apart. The erosion of intimacy and friendship saw their relationship slide down the list of priorities and gradually more attention was paid to work, raising a family and other distractions, some pleasant and some more worrying (such as financial pressures, which are reflected in 40 per cent of all cases in Relationships Ireland).

So how can a relationship survive the inevitable struggles that come with a long term commitment?

1. Seek help early

Research tells us that the average couple waits six years before seeking help for relationship problems. This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long. It’s hard and sometimes embarrassing to admit that you cannot sort it out between you. Professionals will understand this and very little shocks them.

2. Be careful what you say

The happiest couples avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics. After all, when you want to blame or give out, do you really expect them to say ‘here, let me pull up a chair and you can tell me all about how I’m ruining everything for you’?

3. Accept influence from your partner

Long term happy relationships tend to turn to each other and consider the other’s needs as well as their own. This helps to build trust in the relationship and keeps goodwill and sharing alive. You need to know you matter and that you are cared for. This includes your partner listening to what you have to say, and not always just trying to get their own needs met.

4. Have high standards

Happy couples will refuse to accept hurtful behaviour from one another (eg criticism, contempt, defensiveness and/or stonewalling). It sets a tone of respect between them. Low levels of tolerance for bad behaviour at the start equals a happier couple down the road.

5. Learn to repair and exit the argument

Happy couples have learned how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Examples of repair attempts: using humour (but not defensively); stroking your partner with a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”); making it clear you’re on common ground (“We’ll tackle this problem together”); backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you often have to yield to win); and, in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way. If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.

6. Focus on the bright side

In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example “We laugh a lot” as opposed to “We never have any fun.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make regular deposits to your emotional bank accounts.

7. Stay interested

In long term happy relationships, couples remain interested in each other, they pay attention to what the other has to say and set time aside to be with each other (it’s why date night is so popular). Being busy at home and work means that conversations happen when there are other distractions, like making the dinner, putting the kids to bed, checking email, texts, Facebook, etc. When did you last look into their eyes? And smile straight at them? And say thanks, like you really meant it and it is not just a cursory gesture.

Lisa O’Hara is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland.

Relationships Ireland is introducing a special promotion offer of an initial Couples Counselling consultation for €30, which applies to couples who contact them and mention in their enquiry that they have seen the film Hope Springs. The offer runs October 5 2012. You can book on 1890 380 380 or by emailing info@relationshipsireland.com.

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