How to Make a Relationship Work, According to Experts

Communication is key.

Happy couple embracing outside on a patio.

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Falling in love is a magical feeling, but what about your happily ever after? Have you been surprised to find out that everything doesn't just miraculously work out when you're in love? In order to go the distance with your significant other, it's crucial to ask the question: What makes a relationship work? Sometimes, the catalysts at the beginning of your journey (physical chemistry, good small talk, and similar interests) may not be enough to guarantee long-term success. In other words, your relationship may need to get a little deeper if it's going to last.

Despite what we're taught from books and movies, everlasting love doesn't just happen. It takes effort and regular maintenance on both sides. "Relationships that work are the ones that are worked on," says Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., LMFT, a psychotherapist and emotional fitness expert. Psychiatrist and author Abigail Brenner, MD, agrees. "When you decide to join your life with another person, it’s about embarking on a journey together, for years to come," she says.

So if you're unsure whether you and your S.O. will stand the test of time, you're in luck because we've rounded up the six elements that experts say both parties should have in order to make a relationship work long-term.

Good Communication

"Always remember that communication is the most important part of your relationship," says Goldsmith. No matter how often the two of you talk, you may not be communicating well. Quality conversation is all about tapping into your S.O.'s emotions and understanding what they're feeling. Brenner suggests setting aside dedicated time to discuss issues important to you both as a couple and individually so you're not waiting for something to come up naturally.

Of course, they also need to feel comfortable expressing emotions clearly enough for you to empathize. No matter how well you know each other, you'll never be mind-readers, so making sure that you're relaying how you're feeling when you're not happy is key. For example, if you're upset because your date is late to dinner, don't spend the evening being passive-aggressive and hoping they'll catch on that you're angry. Instead, have a mature conversation about it, and make sure you're really hearing each other. "Listening carefully with undivided attention is essential to real understanding," says Brenner.

Unconditional Honesty

Life's tough, and one perk of being part of a pair is that you don't have to do it alone. "Having a partner you can trust creates a buffer between you and the difficulties of the world," says Goldsmith. For instance, if you are battling an eating disorder and feel ashamed, having someone you love and trust by your side can make your struggle at least a bit more bearable. Feeling supported by someone you trust can take a lot of emotional weight off your shoulders.

You should be open and upfront with your partner, too, no matter how difficult the topic or situation may be. Keep in mind that it's possible to be truthful without being harsh, reminds Goldsmith. So if you feel like you've been contributing financially more than your partner, having an honest discussion about it should be easier because you both trust and respect each other. Of course, the feeling should go both ways.

Separate (but Connected) Lives

In order to be content in a couple, you have to be content as an individual. When you have a fulfilling job, supportive friends, and exciting passions, you'll have a strong sense of self, which is pretty important when you're in a relationship. "This is so vital," emphasizes Brenner. Your relationship may be a large part of your identity, "but above all, you’re still who you are as an individual beyond your various roles in life," she says. If you don’t have your own interests outside of your partner and your relationship, you’ll wind up putting too much pressure on them to make you feel happy.

Goldsmith stresses the importance of establishing inter-independence—that is, "being involved with each other in a supportive manner without compromising your values or sacrificing yourself for the relationship." This will create a sense of balance and ensure that neither of you is leaning on the other to feel validated or worthy.

Quality Time

Your love language may not be quality time, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. The great thing about quality time together is that it's totally open to interpretation. Whether you and your partner feel closest when you're watching a black-and-white movie on the weekend or cooking your favorite meal together on a weeknight, it's imperative that you keep the connection alive and well. Reminding each other why you're together will only strengthen what you have.

Equally important as quality time together, though, is quality time apart. Brenner reminds us that you should both take time for yourselves, too, to do those things that are important to each of you individually. This ties back into maintaining your own identity as part of a couple.

Every time you and your partner make each other smile, it releases oxytocin and other happiness-inducing chemicals in the brain that make you feel closer. "Being playful keeps your love growing," says Goldsmith. As if you needed an excuse to goof off together.

Similar Life Goals

You and your partner don't need to have the exact same vision of a white picket fence, but your life goals should be compatible. If you've always wanted children, you shouldn't have to sacrifice being a parent because they don't want to be one. Similarly, if living on the same coast as your family is important to you, but your partner is dying to live on the other side of the country, they may not be the one for you. When it comes to successful couples, "you both know what you want out of life, what your common goals are, what you wish to accomplish in life, and are firmly committed to achieving things together," says Brenner.

Positive Outlooks

Sometimes unpredictable events throw a wrench in your plans, so being able to stay positive through a less-than-ideal moment is crucial. "Being positive may be the key to keeping harmony," shares Goldsmith.

While some people are naturally optimistic and positive, others have to think their way to happiness. No matter which type of person you are, being able to be positive is important for a relationship's long-term success. For instance, if you are having trouble getting pregnant and it's dragging you down emotionally, having a partner who can lift you back up will strengthen your bond and your ability to get through hard times in the future.

That said, remember to have realistic expectations of your partner, the relationship, and the future. You'll set yourself up for disappointment if you dream too far outside the realm of possibility. "Remember that you’re dealing with another extraordinarily complex individual in addition to yourself. There’s enough to work with without pursuing unrealistic ideals," says Brenner.

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