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For many of us, finding a soul mate is one of our greatest hopes and dreams.

But while exciting stories of falling in love take center stage in popular culture, the day-in, day-out acts that make for a lasting intimate relationship don’t typically get the same play. Yet studies show that people who make the effort to maintain long-term, quality relationships enjoy tremendous benefits related to health and overall happiness

The secrets of success

Anyone who has ever been in an intimate relationship knows that at any given time there are countless dynamics that impact a couple’s interactions, from finances to work to children to extended family. Maintaining a healthy relationship takes time, energy, practice, and patience.

Happy couples who have been together forever may not have a secret formula, but they likely do have the following in their relationship:

  • Commitment to the relationship
  • Respect
  • Good communication
  • Mutual support
  • Mutual friendship and warmth
  • Physical and emotional intimacy
  • Romance and a healthy sex life
  • Independent identities and interests as individuals

Why make the effort?

While the novelty of dating may seem more exciting than the ongoing maintenance required in a committed relationship, the benefits of making an effort are considerable.

Compared to others, people in quality long-term relationships report higher rates of happiness and tend to experience:

  • Better mental health
  • Fewer medical problems
  • More satisfaction and meaning in life
  • Better relationships with their children
  • Lower rates of suicide
  • A longer life span

The children of such couples also benefit, with:

  • Better mental health
  • Fewer behavior issues
  • Lower rates of substance abuse
  • More success in school
  • More successful intimate relationships in adulthood

Cohabiting, civil unions, and marriage

In 2011, about 5 million people lived together in intimate relationships outside of marriage, up from 500,000 in the 1970s.

“Forget undying love or shared hopes and dreams—my boyfriend and I moved in together, a year after meeting, because of a potential subway strike,” says Nancy Wartik. In her article in Psychology Today, Wartik explores the situation and looks at recent studies that may indicate that living together before marriage might have its down side.

Some couples cohabit as a “trial period” before marrying; others choose to live together without marrying. Civil unions or domestic partner registries are an option in some states and cities for same-sex couples; some heterosexual couples are choosing this over marriage.

Is there any real difference between living together and officially tying the knot?

The research suggests there may be. As Wartik reports, “Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer-quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication, and lower levels of commitment.”

Researchers suggest that the reason for this difference is that people who live together first tend to bring more risk factors into their relationships. It is these risk factors—not the cohabitation itself—that creates difficulties in these relationships. People with more positive views about relationships tend to move ahead and get married.

What if marriage is not an option for you?

Researchers are beginning to study different legal options available to same-sex couples. Prior to removing a ban on same-sex marriage, Vermont offered civil unions long enough for researchers to study them over a period of years. In one study reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), researchers compared married heterosexual couples, same-sex couples in civil unions, and same-sex couples not in a civil union over a period of three years. They found equal levels of commitment and relationship stability between couples in a civil union and married couples.

On the other hand, same-sex couples who were not in a civil union were more likely to have ended their relationship. According to the APA’s report, “This suggests that the protections afforded by a legalized relationship may impact same-sex relationships, something the study's authors plan to follow up on in future research.”

It may be that formal community and cultural support, as well as the act of making a public, binding commitment, lead to longer-lasting, more stable relationships.

Common misconceptions

Having a child brings a couple closer together and increases happiness. It can help a struggling couple avoid divorce.
While having a child together can indeed be a joyful event, it represents an enormous change and consequently can be one of the most stressful times in a relationship. Couples with children have a slightly lower rate of divorce than childless couples, but they do not necessarily report being happier in their relationship. Even if couples stay together, having a child does not typically improve the parents’ satisfaction with their relationship.

The secret to a happy relationship is to find the one out there who is perfect for you.
Attraction is a wonderful and important part of falling in love and maintaining a relationship. However, no one is perfect, and there are many potential partners available. A lasting, happy relationship has as much to do with good communication and relationship skills as it does with finding a special person.

It is a good idea to live together before getting married, to test how compatible you are as a couple.
Many studies have found that couples who lived together before getting married are more likely to divorce and less likely to be happy with their marriage. Couples who live together without getting married at all are less likely to have stable, lasting relationships.

Same-sex relationships are inherently less stable and committed than heterosexual relationships.
Sexual orientation does not predict whether people will choose to be in a committed relationship and whether they will be faithful and happy within that relationship. People who are lesbian and gay are as likely as people who are straight to be in or seeking a committed relationship, and same-sex couples report similar levels of commitment and satisfaction with their relationship as straight couples do. Most states and countries ban same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. As a handful of states have removed their bans on same-sex marriage, researchers are interested in studying the effects of access to the institution of marriage and its benefits and social support for same-sex couples.

Married people have less sex than single people.
According to national studies, married people have sex more often than unmarried couples, and they report that they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally.

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