There are few things more heart-warming than seeing a sweet-looking couple in their 90s holding hands and laughing together in a park, on an airplane, or standing behind you in the checkout line. The stereotype of older couples is that they’re grumpy and always nagging and snapping at each other. So what’s that happy couple’s secret?
Happy, successful relationships aren’t a fluke. I’m a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, and I work with many couples that want the kind of love that lasts into their 90s but don’t know how to do it. Whether you’ve been with the same partner for 30 years or you’re finding new love half a century into your life, it’s always the right time to brush up on your relationship skills. Here are 7 things you can do to make your love last a lifetime.
1. Develop a circle of trust
Healthy relationships depend on both parties feeling safe with each other, trusting that you are there for each other. Your circle of trust gets more important as you get older and must cope with the changes and anxieties that aging involves. For emotional safety to exist, you need to feel that your partner truly hears you, sees you, and accepts you as you are and that they want the best for you. You must hear, see, and accept your partner, too.
2. Commit to honesty
Love that will last a lifetime requires honesty — honesty about who you are, what you believe, how you feel, and what you want. Total commitment to honesty supports the integrity of a relationship. You must be open and willing to share, listen, and understand.
3. Fight with a spirit of love
Approach every disagreement with your partner with the intention to listen and respond in a spirit of love. Listen as much or more than you talk, focus on common threads rather than differences, look for a solution that pleases both of you, and separate feelings from facts. It may surprise you how big a gulf there often is between what you think you heard—what you feel you heard—and what your partner actually said.
4. Practice positive communication
What you say, and how you say it, affects how your significant other feels. Remember: emotions drive behavior. You want positive emotions to drive your relationship into your later years. Don’t try to control your partner or criticize them. Instead, actively show appreciation—finding things to appreciate in your partner will enhance the good feelings between you.
5. Support your partner’s independence
No matter how close you are to your significant other, you remain individuals with your own needs and interests. Spending time alone, doing your own thing shows mutual respect, not relationship strain. Advocate for your partner’s goals, and accept and support each other’s journey in life.
6. Try new things together
Don’t forget to have fun together! It’s important to go on new adventures and try new things. Don’t have a typical “date night.” Instead of dinner and a movie, take a class together or go on a day trip somewhere. As you grow older and face mortality, your relationship with your significant other provides an opportunity to explore your humanity and seek a better and deeper understanding of life.
7. Build a relationship with yourself
The relationship we have with ourselves is the key to success for all the relationships we build with others. When you are happy and fulfilled independent of others, you are most attractive to the kind of healthy, happy people you want in your life.
If you’re dating for the first time in a long time, don’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s the only way people will know what you want and what you’re about. If you’re celebrating your golden wedding anniversary, remember that even though it may feel you and your partner are one person, you still need to say, “I love you” and show your appreciation. Show affection. Have fun. Have sex! Love with the intensity of a teenager and the wisdom that your years on this earth have given you.