Family therapist shares 8 secrets to a happy and lasting relationship

Relationships can be a lot of hard work. Luckily, there's an eight-step formula for long-lasting love. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

To ensure your relationship stands the test of time, there are eight simple steps you need to master.

Marissa Nelson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, believes they’re integral to any successful marriage.

But, really, they could also be applied to any long-term relationship.

Here’s her eight-step formula for domestic bliss.

1. Personal growth

Nelson thinks this is one of the most important elements.

Here’s why: When a person is unhappy about something in their life (like their career) and their self-motivation is lacking, Nelson explained that energy will seep into the relationship.

“If I’m not feeling a sense of worthiness,” she said, “I’m going to be going into the relationship and soliciting it from my partner. Like ‘Come on, make me feel valued!'”

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“When we are fulfilled within ourselves and we’re striving to be better people…you’re going to get much more relationship satisfaction.”

The relationship will also feel more like a partnership.

READ MORE: ‘Flowers every Friday’: couples reveal what’s behind their long marriages

2.  Consistency

Consistency creates a sense of security in relationships, according to Nelson.

“I need to know that I can count on you..that you will show up or do your best to show up.”

“There will be times where, yes, I may need you to show up but something happens … or you’re really tired because you had a ridiculously insane day today and you can’t be as present.

Aside from those occasional blips, Nelson said, we need to feel like we can lean on our partner and that there’s reciprocity in the relationship.

3. Unconditional positive regard

This concept may require a mental shift for some people, Nelson said.

Basically, you need to trust that your partner has your best interests in mind. Even if/when they upset you.

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In those situations, instead of saying (or thinking): “You’re the problem, something’s wrong with you,” give your partner the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intentionally trying to hurt you.

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“It doesn’t mean that I can’t be affected by what you’ve done or what you’ve said,” Nelson said.  “It just means ‘I know it’s not coming from a bad place.'”

“If couples gave each other the benefit of the doubt a little bit more, people wouldn’t feel so isolated … [and like they] can never do anything right.'”

4. Vulnerability

This is the ability to be able to talk about how you’re truly feeling.

It comes down to getting to the heart of what’s really behind what Nelson calls “secondary emotions.”

“Sometimes people are wounded within themselves, but the way it expresses itself is with criticism, anger or resentment.”

When couples come to therapy, she said,  it often becomes evident that what’s underneath that anger is a sense of sadness or fear (of perhaps losing your partner or not being truly connected to them).

Those are examples of “primary emotions” which you need to identify and express, Nelson stressed.

“People are not talking about that stuff.”

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For some it may be scary, Nelson said. But you have to get over the fear that your partner will stop loving you if you fully open yourself up.

5. Effective communication

“Effective communication — it’s a lifelong skill. It’s something couples have to constantly work on.”

There has to be balance to your communication, Nelson said, so that you don’t get into a “speaker-listener” dynamic (where one person does all the talking).

Be mindful if you’re an over-communicator (that’s usually women, she admitted) and try to “lean out” a bit during conversations.

“The lean out is ‘sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you … go ahead and finish what you were saying.'”

The “lean in” (for the person who tends to get interrupted) is: “‘I hear you but let me finish my thought.'”

6. Attention

Just like a plant or a child, we crave attention.

“It is a biological need.”

“Some people feel triggered when they feel ignored, or when they’re together and people are not ‘present.'”

“We may be in the same room, but I’m on my iPad and not connecting to you.”

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WATCH: An ad campaign last summer showed just how negatively new technologies can affect human relationships. 

7. Sexuality

Sexuality is “a huge one.”

“For a lot of people, it’s about vulnerability,” Nelson said. “Being able to let someone into your emotional and physical space.

READ MORE: Having sex is all about quality, not quantity, says Canadian study

She said two of the most common reasons why couples seek therapy are affairs and sex issues.

“However the underlying issue is rarely about sex.

“You don’t realize how our relationship needs, and who we are, kind of manifest into our sexual life.”

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READ MORE: More relationship advice from a sexologist

8. Deep friendship

You and your partner have to be very good friends, Nelson warned, because there will be times when sexuality wanes.

It might be when you’re new parents or when one person is dealing with a medical illness.

“Life is going to throw things at you. But it’s the enduring friendship that keeps you bonded, that keeps you laughing.”

Marissa Nelson is the CEO and founder of IntimacyMoons, a couples retreat in Barbados.


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