How to Be Happy in a Relationship

happy, smiling middle-aged couple
Every moment like this one is the reward for some hard work.
Dougal Waters Photography Ltd/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When you're looking for love, being in a relationship sounds like it would be enough to make you happy. Once you find that special someone, the early days of a relationship feel magical. Everything the other person says and does is wonderful, and you're never upset or bored. He or she is the most thoughtful, understanding, attractive person ever.

At some point, though, that new relationship shine wears off. You start to take each other for granted. When you feel secure in your relationship, you stop worrying about impressing the other person. As you get to know each other better, you relax and stop being on your best behavior every time you're together. It doesn't seem as important to be solicitous of the other person because you're not trying to captivate each other anymore -- you're already together. Eccentricities and personality quirks also emerge, and you learn that not everything your partner does is cute or funny. Some of it might even be incredibly annoying. You fall into a routine. If you eventually decide to live together or get married, there are even more factors to consider, such as differences in finances, possessions or housekeeping styles.


While not all relationships are meant to last, it is possible to avoid some of the common pitfalls that can throw any relationship off-track and cause unhappiness. Being happy in a relationship can take some work, but if you're in it for the long haul, the results are well worth it. According to a Time magazine poll conducted in 2004, the majority of us find happiness in our relationships with others [source: Time].

In this article, we'll talk about a few strategies for maintaining that sparkle that keeps you both happy, starting with remembering the importance of friendship.


Friendship Matters

couple biking on the beach
Part-time lovers, full-time friends

Like we mentioned in the last section, it's common for people in a relationship to worry less about what the other person thinks of them. If you do make a big mistake, your partner is more likely to forgive you than your friends might be, because he or she loves you. While that's probably the case, it's not an excuse to treat your partner worse than you treat your friends. According to psychologist John Gottman, "respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them" [source: Edge].

One way to convey affection and respect is to confide in your partner. That doesn't mean that you need to share every single detail about your day, but if you have something important on your mind, bring it out into the open. It doesn't matter if your partner doesn't exactly share your interests -- he or she will still appreciate your enthusiasm and understand why it's important to you. Show your partner that you respect and appreciate him or her, both through words and actions.


Once you're in a relationship and no longer just "dating," actually going on dates doesn't have to disappear. This is especially true if you have very demanding work schedules and your time together is limited. Just hanging out in front of the TV every night doesn't count, either. You may not be able to go to high-end restaurants and concerts every weekend, but that's not important. Go on a picnic, take a walk or sit in a coffee shop and chat. Find a hobby or sport that you both enjoy doing. It doesn't have to be big and fancy -- it's about spending time together.

Just as important is spending time apart. That might not make sense at first, but being together all of the time can make you just as unhappy as not spending time together. Your partner needs his or her own friends and interests, separate from the relationship. Set up occasional girls' or guys' nights out with your friends and discuss your specific plans with your partner. Often the insecurity and resentment that your partner might feel over plans that don't include him or her comes from being left in the dark.

No matter how considerate you are (or think you are), disagreements are inevitable in any relationship. But did you know that there's a right and wrong way to fight?


Learning to Fight Fair

unhappy couple with backs to each other
Fighting with someone you love? Don't hit below the belt.

Most people don't enjoy fighting with their partner, but at some point, somebody will say or do something that causes the other person to get upset. Fighting is a normal, healthy part of any relationship. However, fighting repeatedly over the same issues doesn't get you anywhere, and ultimately leads to more long-term unhappiness. If you can learn to fight fair, you can resolve your issues and be happier for it.

When we get angry, our natural tendency may be to tell people exactly what they've done to wrong us by using phrases like "you always" and "you never." If you want to put your partner on the defensive, this is the way to go, but that's not very productive. Instead, try using "I" statements to describe how actions or words made you feel -- like saying, "I felt hurt when you did that."


Fighting fair also means being very specific about the problem that you're having with your partner. If you're upset that he didn't take out the garbage when he said that he would, don't accuse him of never doing anything around the house. It's much easier to come up with solutions for a specific problem than a vague, all-encompassing one. Being specific also means keeping the argument about the current incident, not rehashing the past. Your partner can only do something about how you feel right now.

Although it's tempting to yell and curse to let your partner know how upset you are, your partner is more likely to listen to what you're saying and take you seriously if you remain calm. "Be clear about your intentions. Avoid "hitting below the belt" -- meaning, avoid making statements that you know will be hurtful.

Finally, think how important the issue is to you. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? The majority of conflicts between couples -- about 80 percent according to psychologist Brad Klontz -- are unsolvable [source: MidWeek]. It's really about learning to deal with the differences. This might mean having to compromise or just "agreeing to disagree." Apologize and move on. Of course, in order to fight fair, you need to let your partner know that you're upset. Learn about the importance of speaking up next.


Learning to Speak Up

Wouldn't it be great if, once you're in a relationship, you could automatically convey how you were feeling to your partner? That way, he or she could simply adjust his or her behavior to suit the situation and we could avoid the unpleasantness of arguing or bringing up difficult issues. Unfortunately, telepathy hasn't yet been accepted by the scientific community and remains the stuff of fantasy and fiction. That means that in order for your partner to know how you're feeling, you have to learn to speak up.

Many people are reluctant to voice their concerns because they want to maintain the illusion that everything is perfect in their relationship. There's also the fear of the unknown -- a comment you made innocently could lead to a fight or something else that you didn't expect. However, holding in your feelings will breed anger and resentment. While you're seething on the inside, your partner might continue to do or say whatever upsets you, because he or she has no idea of what's truly going on.


If the issue really bothers you, it will probably eventually come through in your actions or even your facial expressions. This will only confuse your partner as to your actual feelings. Once you do speak up for yourself, he or she may be hurt that you chose to wait instead of being honest. A happy, healthy relationship means trusting that you can be yourself with your partner and have your opinions respected.

Start with thinking about exactly what you want to say or even writing it down. If it's an especially difficult topic, try to pick a time that's good for both you and your partner -- after an extra-long day at work isn't the best time to start a long discussion. Learning to express your thoughts and opinions will build mutual respect and trust with your partner and make for a happier relationship. So will learning how to listen to each other, and we'll talk about that in the next section.


Learning to Listen

couple talking
Listen actively instead of just lending your partner an ear.

There are few things more insulting than having a long conversation with someone, only to realize that he or she hasn't been paying the slightest bit of attention to you. When that someone is your partner, it's even more hurtful. It conveys the message that he or she simply doesn't care enough to devote attention to the conversation. Many a fight has started with the accusation "you're not listening to me!" for a reason -- good communication is probably the most important thing in a happy, successful relationship.

Many relationship experts advocate active listening instead of passive hearing. Active listening involves several steps beyond just physically taking in someone's words. First, you stop whatever you're doing while your partner is talking -- that means turning off the TV or stepping away from the computer, no multi-tasking allowed. Don't think about what you're doing at work tomorrow, or try to anticipate what the other person is saying so you can quickly formulate a response. Just look at your partner and really listen, paying attention to nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language.


You also have to demonstrate that you've been listening. A conversation with your partner isn't a debate or a battle that you must try to win. When he or she's talking, it's about him or her, not you -- let go of your ego. Encourage the other person to elaborate. Repeat back to him or her what's been said -- not word for word, because that's just annoying, but by paraphrasing. Try to express what emotions you think are at play. For example, "It sounds like you got upset when that happened." If you're not sure exactly what's going on, encourage him or her to elaborate.

Here are a few things to avoid if you want to help your partner feel understood, accepted and loved:

  • Interrupting
  • Passing judgment
  • Criticizing
  • Giving advice (unless it's asked for)

Now that you've established the importance of friendship, fighting fair and communicating, there's another potential stumbling block that can incorporate all of these. When you're in a relationship, it's important to maintain collective goals.


Maintain Collective Goals

We're always told that it's important for us to have goals and work toward reaching them. When you're in a relationship, you don't just have your own personal goals. You also have collective goals -- things that both of you are working toward. When you have support both for your personal goals and collective goals with your partner, you'll be happier in your relationship.

The best way to start is to discuss your goals with your partner. Make a list of your personal goals, both short-term and long-term, as well as a list of things that both of you would like to accomplish. These might be external goals, such as saving a specific amount of money to buy a house, or be related directly to your relationship, such as setting up a weekly date night. Discuss the steps that you're both going to take in order to make it happen, and then revisit those goals on a regular basis to check on your progress and adjust them if necessary.


It's also important to let your partner know about any major decisions or changes that you'd like to make that will impact your personal or collective goals. Changes like going back to school or making a career move would certainly impact your partner's life in many different ways. It might also impact your collective goals. How will you pay for school? Will your salary be higher or lower?

Keep in mind, too, that you and your partner have different strengths. If he's a planner and the goal is to take a long vacation in the summer, it might be better to let him do the research. If she's better with finances and your goal is to save money, then she should probably be the one setting the budget and balancing the checkbook. As long as you communicate your thoughts and feelings, you can keep conflicts to a minimum.

Want more on learning to be happy with yourself? Interested in tips from happy people on achieving that joy? Try the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Brockman, John. "The Mathematics of Love: A Talk with John Gottman." EDGE: The Third Culture. 2005.
  • Carroll, Linda. "Dull days wreck a marriage faster than fighting." MSNBC. May 21, 2009.
  • Gottman, John. "Gottman's Marriage Tips 101." The Gottman Institute. 2004.
  • Harrar, Sari and Rita DeMaria. "Tips for Open, Honest Talking." Reader's Digest. 2009.
  • Hicks, Jesse. "Probing Question: What predicts a happy marriage?" Penn State LIVE. February 17, 2009.
  • Kaplan, Mark and James E. Maddux. "Goals and Marital Satisfaction: Perceived Support for Personal Goals and Collective Efficacy for Collective Goals." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 21. Issue 2. June 2002.
  • Mitchell, Lawrence. "5 Ways to Communicate with Women." AskMen. January 2008.
  • UT Counseling and Mental Health Center. "Building a Healthy Relationship from the Start." University of Texas at Austin. 2008.
  • UT Counseling and Mental Health Center. "Fighting Fair to Resolve Conflict." University of Texas at Austin. May 16, 2007.
  • Wallis, Claudia. "The New Science of Happiness." Time Magazine. 2004.
  • Young, Katie. "Fighting Fair in a Relationship." Midweek. May 2, 2007.