What Goes Into A Long-Term Relationship?

Commitment phobes, this way

Meryl Streep has been married to Don Gummer for 39 years. That feels like a very long time for most of us, not least because it's more than likely that the longest relationship we've ever had is with Netflix and Facebook. I'm currently at that age where if my friends aren't putting rings on it, then they've stopped dating for the thrill of it and are, instead, dating to find a partner.

My response to that is a very sincere: Whoa, buddy! The long-term is real and can feel very scary. How are you supposed to commit to another human being if you can't even commit to finishing a book, huh? Well, rule number one is that you've always got to have fun. 

"The couple that can laugh together has a better chance of staying together," Susan Winter says. The bestselling NYC-based author, relationship expert and dating coach says relationships are typically considered long-term after three years together. Once you begin to see your significant other as a life partner, then the long-term begins to manifest. Sometimes it takes a couple months for this realization to click, sometimes it takes years, and sometimes it never sets in because, hey, things just aren't going to work out. 

Sometimes, however, you know immediately a person you meet is going to play a major role in your life. "Having that gut reaction doesn’t guarantee they’ll be the love of our life," Winter says, "but it does guarantee that their participation in our life will be impactful." This could mean three years, eight, 10, or 50. The important thing is to keep an open and honest dialogue going between you and your partner (or partners) and know that moments of unhappiness do not a relationship break. Winter stresses that disappointing our partner and vice versa is going to happen, but "the ability to work through each disagreement is what keeps a relationship alive." 

If the idea of a long-term relationship terrifies you, consider what actually goes into one. Most of us have friendships that have lasted decades—what has kept those relationships going? According to Winter, it's humor, vulnerability, and a strong sense of one's own needs and interests. Commitment is daunting. It holds one accountable for something, which in the case of romance, is another person's well-being. (No biggie or anything!) But with enough understanding of what really makes flings way more than just that can one begin to see the possibility of the long-term—if that is, indeed, what an individual so chooses and desires.

Winter advises understanding what disagreements are worth having and what disagreements aren't worth the time. The bottom line is that it's essential to always have compassion and show some grace toward your partner because you both are human and humans screw up. "The more gracious you can be in discovering your partner’s faults," Winter says, "the more gracious they’ll be as they realize yours." It's not going to be a fairy tale romance all the time. All honeymoons end. But Winter revels in long-standing love's ability to weather the toughest of storms. "Long-term relationships experience every facet of falling in and out of love, and experiencing love and its finest as well as its worst," she says. Which makes keeping a sense of humor all the more important. Winter believes developing a lightness can help a long-term couple parse through which issues matter and which should be allowed to slide. Always, always, always shake up your routine and work to maintain a sense of curiosity and wonderment with your partner; you're exploring this tricky world together, after all. 

But perhaps the most vital part of a successful long-lasting relationship is you and your sense of well-being. "Loving someone doesn’t mean we give up our own life," Winter says. "The cost of doing so will rip our relationship from us." Doing things for yourself and spending time alone keeps you in check with yourself. Love can be all-consuming, yes, but losing yourself in a relationship can be detrimental to your future. Sure, it's nice to live that Jerry Maguire fantasy of finding someone that completes you, but you have to be more or less completely individual in order to go the distance with another. It's not so much about completion as it is about enhancing your completeness and having a support system for that. Because the longest relationship you're ever going to have is the one with yourself. Might as well make that one as fruitful as it can be.