What Keeps Couples Together For the Duration?

About 9 out of 10 of us in the United States will “marry” in various arrangements at least once. About 40% to 45% will not stay married. And with each subsequent remarriage, the risk of divorce elevates. In this article, I review the factors that bring us together, and not those that drive us apart.

Researchers have discovered common themes across cultures in regards to the most desirable traits that we search for in a mate. These include in rank order: kindness/understanding, exciting, intelligent, attractive, healthy, easy going, creative, wants children, and earning potential. There are minor gender and cultural variations across the above-qualities. Most of these traits are widely regarded by clinicians, such as myself, as prosocial, not asocial, or anti-social attributes.

In addition, there are a few theories that suggest index forces at work in the very earliest stages of mating. Here, I borrow Sternberg’s triangular paradigm. We are attracted to one another via sexual passion. The second powerful factor is commitment. Psychosocial intimacy is the third. It is my clinical view that commitment and intimacy are far more enduring than passion.

John Gottman and colleagues indicate that non-verbal communication between partners is absolutely critical. As a result of extensive research in their “Love Lab”, they identify that five positive exchanges for every one negative exchange is optimal in keeping a couple connected. Compatibility, shared power, and psychosocial development levels are also important factors. This is based on my clinical experience with couples.

Many couples are now waiting longer to commit to a longer-term relationship, and cohabitation is becoming a growing strategy. However, for those who subsequently marry, the likelihood of staying so, makes no difference.

In essence, an enduring relationship takes time, energy, and realistic expectations to make it work “until death does us part”. There are no short cuts!


Buss, DM. (1994). Mate Preferences in 37 cultures. In WJ Lanner and R Malpass (Eds). Psychology and Culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Buss, DM. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. (2nd ed.). NY: Basic Books.

Gottman, JM. Gottman, JS, DeClaire, J. (2006). 10 lessons to transform your marriage. NY: Crown Publishers.

National Center Health Statistics. (2010). Cited in S. Jayson. “Living together first has little effect on marriage success”.

Sternberg RJ. (1999). Cupids arrow: The course of love through time. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Image via IzabelaGorz / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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