A Couples Therapist Reveals The One Trait That Means A Relationship Will Last

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Happy couple outdoors in the city

After 30 years as a couples therapist, I've developed a pretty good feel for whether my clients were going to make it long-term.

Sometimes the ones who came into the appointment fighting, and left fighting, were the ones who made it. And sometimes the ones who were smiling and polite to each other didn’t make it.

What was the difference between couples who had a relationship that would likely last, and those whose relationship was headed for separate households?

Here's a hint: It has to do with communication — verbal and non-verbal.

And often, you can see the trait play out during a couples counseling session. But it's not just the ephemeral and hard-to-achieve "good" communication, it's something that runs much deeper. Something you can work toward and actually achieve. 

Allow me to explain.

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Which couple will last? An exercise. 

Let's take a look at two different couples and see if we can figure out which couple possesses the trait that tells us they'll likely last.

Couple No. 1: Where's the spark?

Wanda and Will are a dual-career couple who came to me to help resolve their communication issues. They took chairs opposite each other and both seemed eager to be there.

When I asked who wanted to begin, Wanda jumped in to complain about Will’s habits — he constantly lost his keys and important papers, he didn’t pay bills on time, his clothes were strung all over the house, and she was afraid to leave him in charge of the kids for long. Will looked sheepish but agreed that Wanda was right.

Will’s complaints about Wanda centered on how rigid she had become, to the point where she had eliminated all the spontaneity in their lives, especially their sex lives. He missed all the wild, crazy sex they used to have, and in fact thought she had energy enough for their two kids, but not for him. Wanda looked at Will with surprise and she grabbed a Kleenex as her eyes grew moist.

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Couple No. 2: Wait, she said what?

Cameron and Cassie also presented with communication issues and snuggled next to each other on the couch. He’s a corporate executive and she manages their extensive social engagements as well as their two kids’ activities.

Their complaints sounded a lot like Wanda and Will’s, except that Cassie was the disorganized one. Cameron blamed it on Cassie’s indulgent parents, and he was afraid Cassie would ruin their kids, too. He described her as weak-willed and lazy, and even though he loved her, he didn’t have much hope she could change.

Cassie reached for a tissue and stared at the carpet until I asked for her thoughts. Then she grew animated and asked if I saw now what she had to live with, how Cameron was only organized because he had two assistants at work who were paid to organize him. She complained that his parents wouldn’t win any awards, especially his dad who had so many affairs that he listed them on a spreadsheet. In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron inherited the same weak character. He never initiated sex anymore, and she thought he was probably having an affair.

Cameron opened his mouth to object, then closed it.

But wait ... there's more!

Any predictions yet? Here’s a little more information.

Both Wanda and Will listened to each other’s complaints and even agreed with some of them. Their complaints centered on the other’s behavior.

Cameron and Cassie, on the other hand, weren’t listening to each other as much as defending themselves or warding off their spouse’s criticism. Their complaints weren’t so much about behavior but about judging the other as a person. If either of them agreed with their partner’s criticism, it meant self-condemnation.

So Wanda and Will’s relationship was the one that gave me hope that it would last. And the key ingredient?

Openness. They were open to really hearing from their partner, and even agreed with or owned some of the complaints that were made.

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The mystery trait that predicts which couples will last? Openness between partners.

When I see openness between partners, I’m thrilled! Because I know we will be able to work on the issues that need to be fixed, instead of playing verbal ping-pong about who’s right and how the other is wrong.

Openness keeps us from spinning our wheels so we aren’t caught in a defensive, negative feedback loop that tears the fabric of the relationship.

Openness creates a powerful atmosphere in which relationships can breathe and evolve.

When I see openness in a couple, here are some of the things I’m seeing:

  • A willingness to change and grow
  • A focus on changing self, not my partner
  • Curiosity about my partner, not judgment
  • Listening to understand, not to defend
  • Verbalizing complaints, not criticisms
  • An acceptance of the need to work on oneself
  • An ability (or willingness to learn) to tolerate strong emotions in self and other
  • An understanding that it’s never too late to grow up

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A predictive strength

Openness is an awesome, predictive strength for a couple, but it’s not a guarantee. Some couples can be open to growing, and decide they no longer want to be together. And some defensive, bickering couples can stay together forever, probably because they’ve gotten hooked on arguing as their only way to connect in an artificial intimacy.

It takes tremendous courage to be open! It takes guts to risk looking within yourself, to acknowledge your mistakes or limitations. It means you get vulnerable.

But, the thrilling news about vulnerability and openness is that it can lead to intimacy and deeper commitment, and that’s a surefire way for a relationship to last.

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Judy Tiesel-Jensen is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) and Psychologist Emeritus, specializing in couple relationships, much of which is reflected in her recent book, Invitation to Intimacy: What the marriage of two couples counselors reveals about risk, transformation, and the astonishing healing power of intimacy. For more information, visit her website.