What makes a relationship work? (10 tips for making it last)

13 things I've learned in 13 years of marriage

Today is our sixteenth wedding anniversary. (I can’t believe it, of course.)

Milestones invite reflection, and I’ve been thinking about what makes relationships work. Or not.

Last year I chose Ellen McCarthy’s wonderful book The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook as a Get Smart selection for last year’s Summer Reading Guide. It’s fun, practical, readable, and wise, packed with nuggets of wisdom about what makes relationships work. I’ve been recommending it like crazy (and was happy to see this week that my mom even had it checked out from the library).

I was struck by the author’s take on what does make a relationship work: in short, it’s the un-sexy stuff, the kind of things that no teenage girl includes on her man-of-my-dreams list. Skip tall-dark-and-handsome, go for kindness. You’ll recognize “the one” not because he sweeps you off your feet, but because he feels “comfortable.”

That’s not exactly what we’re taught to seek in romantic relationships.

In the book, McCarthy tells of when she co-hosted a radio chat about love with a well-regarded psychologist:

“As I watched his responses to readers’ questions appear on my screen I grew increasingly frustrated. People asked about what to look for in a mate, how to know when they’d found the right person, and how to trust again after a betrayal. The psychologist’s answers were like a broken record. His message: “Choose someone kind. Choose someone kind. Choose someone kind. Be kind, and choose someone kind.”

What makes a relationship last? It’s the stuff we’re tempted to write off as boring: kindness, goodness, gentleness, forgiveness.

Sixteen years in, I’m happy with where we are. I’m hopeful for our future, but I know that won’t just happen. My goal is to be grateful, and to pay attention to where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

While I’ve been warned by older and wiser friends not to panic if we hit a rough patch—strong marriages have bad weeks, months, even years—our challenge right now is not to take the good years for granted.

With that in mind, I especially liked this list of tips on making it last, borrowed from the The Real Thing:

Hang gliding, new restaurants, dance lessons—any activities that create interesting experiences.

This is straight from John Gottman. You know I’m a fan.

Both boost oxytocin levels, which elevates feelings of love.

Celebrating together increases marital satisfaction and intimacy.

Just for fun, and to defuse conflict.

For many couples, this looks like church or synagogue.

Actively seek things to be grateful for in your relationship.

According to Pew, this is one of the top 3 factors for a successful marriage.

Your spouse will change, because we all do. My favorite related quote from the book, from author Mignon McLaughlin: “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”


I’d love to hear your take on what makes a relationship work, whether you’re married, single, never want to marry, or hope to marry one day.

P.S. My adolescent marriage, my best advice for a happy marriage, and the best book you’ve never heard of on making marriage work.

Books mentioned in this post: 


I published a version of this post last year for #15 and a year later I can’t argue with this list. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.

What makes a relationship work- Skip

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Leave A Comment
  1. Jess says:

    We’re 15 years next week, and I married at barely 20! (So young and I can’t believe my dad said yes at that age!) One piece of advice we got and didn’t appreciate at the time but love now is “treat your children as renters”. At first we didn’t get it, but 5 kids later and I completely understand. One day, they’ll all be gone and then it will be just Chris and me standing. Will we know each other after all that time or did we spend it all on the kids and forget about one another?

  2. Lisa Aberle says:

    Many of the older men in my family have a traditional view of gender roles. In my generation, my friends are dissatisfied with their marriages when their husbands expect them to do everything with running a house. Sometimes they don’t work outside the home, sometimes they do. One of the things I love most about my marriage is that we work together. My husband is great at cleaning while I am not. I like the finances. I hate grocery shopping, so we often go shopping as a family. I really appreciate that my husband recognizes my weaknesses and is there to help me. After ten years of marriage, his kindness and thoughtfulness make me happy to give him all the things he needs.

  3. Mary Kate says:

    Huh, I’m also an INFP and I spent my twenties in and out of serious relationships with a good amount of singleness in between. I wouldn’t say I was happy the whole time, but I also wasn’t miserable the whole time, and now, in my early 30s and living with my boyfriend of 5 years, I’m actually glad that we didn’t meet until we were 28. I feel like I needed that time to grow. (Also, I’m a writer, and I need those ridiculous experiences as fodder for my writing 🙂

    Happy Anniversary to you!

  4. Anna says:

    Happy Anniversary! I agree with all of your tips. My main thing would be to keep communicating- talking and listening through all the ups and downs.

  5. Ana says:

    Happy Anniversary! We will celebrate our 11th anniversary tomorrow. Those are great tips. I would add a couple:1) in addition to celebrating successes together, also to mourn & share the struggles together (this is hard for me, I tend to retreat into myself, but it definitely builds intimacy to be “us against the world”) 2) don’t keep score. it’ll even out in the end.

  6. I’ll add one. Kill the belief in the “soul mate”, never worry if you chose the right one or if life would have been better with another. Because in all likelihood those are myths. All marriage come with trial, even the Bible says “those who marry will have tribulation in their flesh”. It’s unavoidable. There is always a crap sandwich. With a different person, you would have a different crap sandwich to eat. LOL

    • Sarah says:

      Carrie – I agree that marriage is a leap of faith, regardless of how well you THINK you know the person. After 25 years of marriage, I feel one reason it works well is that we both choose to see each other as our ‘soul mate.’ We choose to find small, inconsequential, yet annoying things cute in each other. We choose to be kind to each other and save our best selves for each other. People that think a sign will come down and they will have an epiphany that the other person is their soul mate are being a little naive. All strong relationships come down to a choice.

  7. Michelle says:

    Happy Anniversary! Our 14th is Monday. Marriage is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I celebrate anniversaries as huge victories in compromise, growth, and teamwork – all things that don’t come easily to this INTJ. 🙂 I’ve married my complete opposite in personality with whom I share all Important Values Stuff and that’s what makes our marriage successful — that and prayer; support from friends, family, and community; and learning together. Always learning together.

    My advice is to not shy away from counseling. It’s not just for marriages that are in crisis. I wish we’d done it in our first years of marriage to learn HOW to be kind, show each other love in effective ways, and communicate with respect. For many of us, those things don’t come naturally. 🙂

  8. Emily says:

    Hi, Anne—congratulations on your anniversary! It’s an important milestone to celebrate. My husband and I married at 28 and 27 and are celebrating our 23rd year this August. In my opinion, your experts are spot-on. Kindness matters, and over the years, it really makes all the difference. My husband’s unassuming, whip-smart, and very, very kind; I give thanks for him very single day. It occurred to me recently that your spouse is the one family member you get to choose. For me, having him in my life is the single most important decision I ever made.

  9. Michelle says:

    I’m a newlywed. Got married two months ago. I like that you pointed out that we’ll recognize the “one” not because he sweeps us off the feet but because he’s comfortable. That’s exactly why I love my husband. Of all the guys that’s ever been in my life, I have been extremely comfortable being who I am around him and that’s a blessing.

  10. 19 years ago we met.
    18 years married.
    What’s helped most besides my own maturing is:
    1) determine what we are each responsible for when it comes to the household/parenting
    2) if I am annoyed by something my husband did, I immediately think of the last nice thing he’s done for me.
    3) no nagging- I ask once and put a deadline on it if necessary but no repeating.
    4) NEVER complain about my husband in public
    I wrote on my blog about how my idea of marriage & the real thing have been so different. Tyere’s much growing within a marriage.

  11. Shar says:

    We celebrate 18 years this August. Best advice I ever heard about marriage was that it wasn’t as much about finding the right person as it was being the right person. When I met my husband, at 19, he was completely different than anyone I had ever dated before. He was so kind and old fashioned. His grandma and great grandma had a strong hand in raising him and they taught him well. He still opens doors for me. And he is funny, he makes me laugh HARD every day. A week after we married, he left for Marine Corps basic trainning. We saw each other 30 non-consecutive days that first year. I knew then that if we made it through that, we could make it through anything, and we have. Marrying so young, I think the best thing was that when we did finally get to live together we were stationed away from all friends and family, so it was just us. We only had each other. And then waited to have kids for 5 years. So we really had a chance to just be the two of us for 5 straight years.

  12. I’m currently engaged, so I’m eating up everything relationship-oriented. This is a helpful list and I realized I’m just about to embark on #1! My fiance has been begging me to try golf, a pastime he adores, because he to spend time playing together. We finally went to the driving range last night and I actually liked it! It’s a great feeling to share his passion when he’s always so willing to do whatever I want.

  13. Kelly says:

    The first tip — doing something together — totally! My husband and I recently took 6 months of singing lessons together…and it was fantastic! Learning together, feeling vulnerable, trying out new activities together brings a bonding that parallel activities {like sitting together during screen time} just cannot. Great writing prompt — thanks! 🙂

  14. Happy anniversary! I agree that kindness is key. Be kind and acknowledge the kindness of your spouse. I would add two more things:

    1. Don’t keep score. It just builds to resentment. This includes doing chores around the house. In some seasons of life one spouse will do more than the other, but that’s ok.

    2. Only speak positively about your spouse to others. If you need to talk to someone else about something that happened,speak to a priest (or other spiritual mentor) or counselor.

  15. Ideally you can have both – the tall-dark-and-handsome (or whatever it is that you find attractive) – and the kindness! These things are not necessarily either/or. 🙂

    Happy anniversary. We are celebrating 12 years in September.

  16. Gail says:

    I’m a few days late reading this, but my husband and I celebrated our 47th anniversary this year and I agree, caring and kindness go along way. Another more specific act that helped our marriage was to have season tickets to an event we both enjoyed. In our case that was tickets to the local symphony. It meant that we had a date almost every month, that was partly pre-paid. Since some of the money was already spent, we made the effort to get baby sitters and to dress up to go out. Our children are long grown up with children of their own but we still enjoy dressing up for the symphony. It means that we get out of the house and enjoy each other company.

  17. I resonate with the encouragement to hold hands. My one-year-married self would never have dreamed that it would be something my married-with-kids-self would have to practice, but it is! When you’re always holding a kid its so easy to let holding hands with your husband go by the wayside. But how important!
    Thanks for the beautiful list, Anne!

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