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A bit more than a decade ago, I realized I wanted to write a book on relationships, and two years after that, Secrets of Happy Couples was published in 2011. There were many things concerning the relationship cycle that I wanted to write about, but I knew people would want more than my own lived experiences and stories from clients I served—I needed research.

I designed a survey for couples who identified themselves as happy to determine what they did differently than couples sharing an unhappy or mediocre relationship. Through this extensive research (I interviewed 100 happy couples), I discovered four factors that set happy couples apart from the rest: effective communication, monogamy, no longer trying to change their partner and prioritizing their relationship over their individual needs.

Effective communication was key for the happy couples. When misunderstandings, hurt feelings and challenges presented themselves, they communicated in ways that moved them forward in the same direction. Communication does not have to be verbal to be effective. When you are communicating effectively, both your verbal and non-verbal language are congruent. You are being honest, kind and sincere. You understand the importance of communication, and while you are communicating what you want and need, you also are conscious of honoring what your partner wants and needs, as well.

I wasn’t expecting monogamy to be a factor but in fact, it was. When I asked for happy couples to complete my survey, there were only two criteria. You had to be together at least 10 years, since most everyone looks good in the beginning. Secondly, you each needed to identify you were happy in your relationship when your partner wasn’t present. I did not seek volunteers in any religious institutions. And yet, monogamy emerged as a factor in relationship satisfaction. The participants mentioned things like trust, respect, honesty, loyalty and commitment as the glue that held things together.

Since I strongly subscribe to Choice Theory® psychology, I know people are happier when they accept others as they are. I was pleased to learn that the great majority of my survey respondents listed “no longer trying to change each other” as a factor in their happiness. It’s true acceptance of one’s partner, with all the advantages and flaws, that makes for a happy relationship. There will always be something about your partner that isn’t exactly the way you want it to be; the best way to handle those traits and behaviors is by looking for how those things benefit you. You can move from conflict to tolerance to acceptance, and if you really want to give a gift to your relationship, you can move from acceptance to appreciation.

Perhaps the most important thing that happy couples have in common is the way they prioritize their individual needs. When you are single, you have needs. You are completely in control of you—meet them and you’re happy; ignore them and you’re frustrated. When you are in a couple, there are your needs, your partner’s needs and the needs of the relationship, and they aren’t always aligned. The happy couples admitted often putting their individual needs on the back burner to attend to a higher calling. Some people cited their Higher Power and gearing their behavior toward what that Higher Power would want. Other said they simply prioritized the needs of their relationship over their own individual needs. In any case, the happy couples prioritized something more meaningful and profound over what they wanted as an individual. It is important to note, no one claimed to do this 100 percent of the time.

However, if you find yourself always putting your relationship before your individual needs while your partner is not, you might be co-dependent. If this is true for you, you may find yourself unhappy a good bit of the time. What started as something you gladly did may have turned into something you feel martyred over. You may want to pull back from that a bit and start being more assertive about the things you need. If you are always the one prioritizing your relationship, but your partner isn’t, you are involved with someone who is taking you for granted.

Are you happy in your relationship? Which of these four elements are present? Do you have effective communication? Are you monogamous? Have you stopped trying to change each other? Do you prioritize your relationship or Higher Power over your own individual needs most of the time? If you answer yes to all these questions, you have an awesome relationship. If you are somewhere in between, you may see some things you can work on. If you happen to have answered no to all the questions, you may want to take a look at Secrets of Happy Couples: Loving Yourself, Your Partner and Your Life. It’s designed to walk you through the relationship cycle, help you maintain a great relationship and develop resilience when a relationship ends due to death, divorce, or decision.

I hope you all have a wonderful Valentine’s Day. There is always someone to love: your significant other, your parent, your friend, your child, yourself, or a stranger in need. Love is the word of the day, and you can give love whether in a relationship or not. You just need to be willing to give it unconditionally, expecting nothing in return. Do it for yourself, and you will have a much better day.

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