How they stay together: what 68 long-term couples taught me about love

“There were times when I think we could have come close to splitting,” says academic David Christian. Author Chardi Christian, his wife of 50 years, nods. “[But] we worked hard at not [splitting],” says David, “and in fact I think we both really didn’t want to split.”

Being in a relationship that endures is something many people aspire to – the romantic ideal of having someone to accompany you through life’s countless ups and downs. And research shows there are very real benefits to being in a successful long-term relationship: couples who stay together are healthier, wealthier, happier, having more sex and living longer than their solo peers.

Despite this, most romantic relationships fall apart: whether you’re Bill and Melinda or Kim and Kanye, having a relationship that lasts seems to be one of life’s toughest tests.

So how do some people do it? What does it actually take to make love last? For the past 18 months, I’ve been conducting a not-so-undercover investigation into these questions with my weekly column How We Stay Together. Almost 70 couples of different ages, demographics and orientations have gamely taken part. And about once a week, I’ve been invited to their homes (usually via technology) to ask them many nosy questions.

Each couple has their own delightful story of falling in love. As an unabashed romantic, I adored their meet-cute stories: how he gave her his jacket while they waited in the dark, how they flirted over the photocopier, how she walked into his gelato shop on the other side of the world – and the rest was history. Some fell in love immediately, others took years and years before they got together. There are few things more magical than the beginning of a love story.

But I was more curious about what happened next – how they got past the irritations, the frustrations and those inevitable crises. To their credit, most of the couples were happy to share their secrets.

Now, as the series comes to its end, I’ve tried to draw some conclusions from all those conversations. There were plenty of variables: some couples argue furiously, some have never exchanged an angry word. Some admit the romance has faded, others say they still really fancy each other. Some disagreed on money, some disagreed on how to raise their children, and, curiously, many owned pets, usually a dog.

But I did notice there were a few things that came up over and over. And so these are the things that I think make for an enduring relationship.

Shared values

Whether it’s a passionate belief in social justice like Ron and Mary, a desire to explore the world together like Mike and Trish, or simply being determined to laugh in the face of adversity like Gary and Jayne, common values and a shared worldview are a recurring theme in almost all my conversations with enduring couples. And often, they figured out those values early on.

The art of compromise

Liz and Morie come from different cultures, Michael and Alyce from different generations and Paul and Lisa are about as different as you can get. Yet the thing these three couples shared with many of the others I spoke to is that they have learnt to compromise for each other.

A bit of grit

The number one thing that almost every couple spoke about was commitment: a shared agreement to hang in there, no matter what. Many of the couples, including Sarah and Mark, John and Marjorie and Kevin and Warren, have gone through some of life’s biggest challenges together but everyone involved knew the other would stand by their side.

These conclusions are not particularly groundbreaking (call it the Anna Karenina principle) but it seems to me they are the key ingredients for enduring love: shared values, being prepared to compromise on everything, and a sheer pigheaded determination to stay together above all else.

There was something else I learnt too: that, in a world filled with doubts and fears, love is real. It is simple and strong, a thing of beauty often disguised as everyday life. And, despite life’s many challenges, it can last.

As Max Ehrmann wrote in his much-quoted 1927 poem Desiderata: “Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.”

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