While Hollywood and Hallmark may suggest otherwise, the secret to a successful long-term relationship isn't all romance and candlelight, says a Brigham Young University researcher who has spent 22 years studying what makes a happy marriage.
"Romance is over-rated," jokes BYU professor and marriage therapist Jeffry Larson, author of "The Great Marriage Tune-up Book." He says research shows that romantic love is just one component of a successful marriage.
"Our society sells romance and Valentine's Day and we don't see the reality. After they are married, most couples are really disillusioned when the romance begins to simmer down and they start to deal with everyday issues," he says.
Larson says studies of couples who have been married for 50 years or more say it wasn't the romance that kept them together over time, but rather what they describe as a deep, caring friendship and the ability to enjoy each other's company.
"Happily married people enjoy doing things together, have similar interests, they're good friends," says Larson.
While Larson says romantic love is important because it brings the couple together and establishes a level of intimacy, over-romanticized expectations about married life can be difficult for new couples to reconcile with reality. Research shows that most couples go through several predictable phases in their relationship, including a post-honeymoon period characterized by "disillusionment" and "distraction."
"Over time, not only do we expect more of each other, but we fail to understand that our love for each other is going to change too, from a romantic love to a more mature companionate love."
Fueled by a myth that romance is the key to sustaining the relationship, many couples will never successfully navigate the transition phase, he says. National statistics show that half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage, many within the first two years.
"Daily challenges take a toll on us physically and emotionally and the vitality of our relationship suffers. These transitions are not inherently bad-they are an unavoidable part of life-but they are often more difficult than we thought they would be."
The goal of Larson's research-based "Great Marriage Tune-up Book" is to help couples evaluate and improve their relationships.
"I have always wondered why couples do not follow the car maintenance model in their marriages. That is they get regular oil changes and tune-ups for their cars but they never think of getting regular marriage tune-ups or check ups," he says.
Larson says a marriage check up will evaluate the health of three general factors that determine marital satisfaction: 1) individual traits (mental health, social skills); 2) couple traits (including communication and conflict resolution skills); and 3) contexts (backgrounds, relationships outside the marriage). By comparing their responses with information from 5,000 others, couples can differentiate between "normal" adjustments and issues that might be cause for concern.
"It helps to have a context, a comparison group. When people realize they're not the only people living with adjustments, their mood is lifted," says Larson.
Larson says it's not uncommon for couples to get "in a rut" after a few years of marriage. When love has waned, he says couples can revive the marriage by: 1) thinking about a time in the past when you felt love and resuming the behaviors, attitudes and rituals that worked before; 2) giving love to get love, regardless of where your spouse is along the way; and 3) setting goals to improve the love in your marriage by increasing nourishing behaviors and avoiding destructive behaviors.
Nourishing behaviors include sharing feelings regularly, thoughtfulness (gestures, unexpected gifts), compliments, shared activities that you both enjoy, sacrificing for each other, service to each other, kind words, empathy, prioritizing your marriage, accepting your partner's faults, looking your best and showing respect.
"You have to change the way you do things, develop new ideas, interests, or activities. It involves prioritizing your marriage more, learning how to connect more with each other, and finding out what makes your spouse feel valued, unique, and important."
"The Great Marriage Tune-up Book" is based on marriage satisfaction research conducted by Larson and BYU colleague Tom Holman, and on other national studies. Larson and Holman are co-creators of a marriage preparation test called RELATE which has been utilized by more than 25,000 people as a tool to evaluate the strength of their relationships. A BYU faculty member for 14 years, Larson works as a marriage and family therapist and is former chair of the Marriage Preparation Focus Group of the National Council on Family Relations.