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What Does Science Tell Us About Successful Relationships?

03/08/2014 19:23 BST | Updated 03/10/2014 10:59 BST

What do you feel when you see an elderly couple holding hands and taking a romantic stroll in the park, still happy after 50-plus years together? You may think, "That's what I want when I grow old".

Most of us want to settle down with "the one" and for that relationship to be a happy and healthy one. And while there is no such thing as a formula for the perfect relationship, there is a growing body of research focusing on the science of successful relationships. So what are the most important ideas when it comes to making love last?

Listening to your gut feeling

It's an interesting notion that we may know how happy a relationship will be in the long-term just by listening to our gut feelings. Even though newlyweds may not be aware of it, a recent study showed that they might know if they will have a happy or unhappy marriage. Recent research at Florida State University analysed 135 couples that had been married for six months and followed up with them every six months, over a four-year period. They found that the gut level feelings that they revealed during their original interviews predicted future happiness. The same applies to dating - if deep down you feel that something just isn't right, then normally it isn't.

Communication is key

It will come as no surprise that science has shown time and time again, that poor communication and conflicts over money lead to relationship unhappiness more than anything else. One study at the University of Michigan studied the relationships of 373 couples over 25 years. Conducted by psychologist Terri Orbuch, 46 per cent of the couples subsequently divorced and as part of the study, she asked these couples what their biggest regrets over their relationships' demise. 15 per cent said they would give their partner more of what Dr Orbuch calls "affective affirmation", including compliments, cuddles, kisses, and emotional support. Interestingly in relationships where the man didn't feel cared for or loved, these couples were twice is likely to split up.

Money was the main source of conflict for the couples who had split, and 49 per cent saying they fought over money, including different spending styles, one person making more money and lying about spending. Dr Orbuch advises that partners need to discuss their individual money styles and devise a plan, such as pooling money or keeping separate bank accounts.

Another important conclusion she drew from her work was that to have a healthy relationship, we need to get over the past, including feelings for exes, difficult relationships from our childhoods and so on. She also advised "active listening" where couples spent time engaged with their partners outside of talking about work, logistics, households and schedules for at least 10 minutes every day.

Friendships outside the relationship

We all know that having friends around us is good for our health and science has shown that is also has a positive impact on our relationships, too. One study at the University of Maryland found that when couples maintained friendships with other couples it made their relationship more fulfilling and exciting for several reasons; including increasing attraction towards each other, providing a greater understanding of the opposite sex in general and allowing couples to see how other people interact and negotiate.

Having fun

Have you gone to a theme park with your partner recently? Gone on an exciting adventure? Taken up a joint hobby together? Many studies have shown that if we take time to have fun with our partners we will be much happier in the long run. Between work, family and other commitments it can be easy to let fun time fall by the wayside but this is essential to our happiness, so take note.

Research at the University of Denver analysed 197 couples on their second year of marriage and those who shared new and exciting activities were consistently associated with better relationships. However hanging out in front of the TV doesn't count - both watching the TV and using the Internet doesn't build positive connections. Gaming and excessive use of social media have also shown to have a detrimental affect on relationships.

Being Positive

Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person? A positive attitude can go a long way in life and lead to success in careers - but also in love. Research at the University of Chicago found that when the husband has high levels of positivity, the relationship was more likely to be a happy one. How you respond to your partner's success is important, too. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that the way we react to our partner's good news, be it with excitement, enthusiasm or indifference is important when forming a strong bond.

A hundred other factors

Of course no relationship is the same as the next one. Another key issue is sex and intimacy and consistently science has shown that the more sex a couple has, the higher the level of relationship satisfaction. One partner drinking more than the other; sharing - or not sharing household chores; scheduling date nights; having children; expecting more; race; birth order; age; and education have also been proven to play a role in the compatibility and happiness of two people. One study even showed that you need five good moments for every bad one for a relationship to survive, while another claims sleeping naked is the key.

Despite all the scientific studies, I think it's safe to stay that love still remains bit of a mystery. Good luck on your quest for lasting love.

Author: Brett Harding is the director of Lovestruck, a website dedicated to online dating and bringing people together. For ideas on where to go on date nights, read our recent post here