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What Makes a Couple Successful? Tips From a Relationship Therapist

A Gottman-trained therapist gives insight to lasting relationships and how to make them work

minute read

Written by Kelsea Pieters on February 10, 2023
What You Need To Know

How to sustain love? For couples, it turns out there are many twists, turns and considerations along the road to living their best relationships. Mostly it comes down to honest communication, but Scott Cypers, PhD, shares other tips to keep the flame alive.

Love is in the air, which must mean it’s Valentine’s Day. People around the world contemplate the grandest gestures of affection possible to show their significant other they care or write off the 14th as just a day invented by Hallmark. Polarizing as it may be, Valentine’s Day is a time to reflect on the root of love itself. What happens to us when we fall in love? What makes a couple successful? How can we ensure our relationships last?

Scott Cypers, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is a Gottman-trained therapist who helps couples use the lessons of experts such as Gottman to help couples live their best relationships.

He provides some insight on our brain in love, different types of love and what successful couples do.

Q&A Header

Can you describe what happens to us when we fall in love?

There are neurochemical processes that create these feelings of happiness, love or feeling connected. Oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. Your body is producing hormones that make you feel a certain way toward people. And there are many different kinds of love.

Can you tell us about these different types of love?

There are many ways that people describe different types of love, and I like to encapsulate them in my own metaphor of a large amusement park. Within that amusement park, there are four fundamental lands that can at times have some crossover. They include: Relationship Land, Hook Up Land, Activity Partner Land, Friendship Land. The distinction between these lands involve the amount of emotional and physical connection associated to the relationship. For example, Friendship Land can have a lot of depth of emotional connection with minimal to no physical; while Relationship Land has both; Hook Up Land is purely physical. Activity Partner Land isn’t emotional or physical, but you feel good being around this person.

Part of my role is to use this metaphor to help teach people how to understand the Relationship World and the different pathways for friendships, hook ups, etc. I find fun or interesting ways to teach kids and adults these concepts that anxiety usually keeps them from entering.

So you’re a Gottman-trained therapist. What does that mean?

The Gottman method is research-based approach to couple’s therapy started by psychologist John Gottman. He says, “If I watch a couple fight for two minutes I can predict with 99% accuracy if they will stay together.” It focuses on interaction styles and grounds itself in research based on what separates successful couples from those who relationship ends. Are you having productive arguments? Are you making sure your partner feels heard?

What are your tips for successful relationships?

It’s all about honest communication. Gottman relies on seven principles in helping couples build successful relationships, including:

Know how to resolve conflict.

We understand that if you and I sat down to play a game of Uno, we would have to go over the rules. We must get some agreement on how we are going to play Uno on how it works for both of us, or the game will end in disaster. But, couples don’t take the time to do this in their relationship, hence fights usually end in negative outcomes. So, my first rule is to try to slow couples down and come up with the rules of successful conflict negotiation.

Find ways to keep building positivity into the relationship bank account.

Gottman early on used the metaphor of a relationship bank account. There are things that deplete the bank account, like fighting, and there are things that allow for the bank account to grow and flourish. I focus couples on the elements that restore or replenish the bank account, including helping couples understand how to make each other feel valued and loved. This is where the work of author Gary Chapman and love languages really helps – as he notes that everyone has one preferred way that makes them feel heard and loved. Taking time to understand what their love language and what works for them can be a prime way to invest in the relationship.

Take time to date and get to know each other again.

Another source of investment is taking the time to slow down and go back to courtship; take time to hear about your partner again. Gottman calls this building a love map. In a session, I’ll play the newlywed game with couples to find a fun way to create that map again. Successful couples spend time to have that kind of fun. Paying attention to each other can help build value in a relationship.

Talk about why they fell in love.

Another method to bring in more positivity is to connect with the attributes of what lead to us falling in love with our partner in the first place. I try to take couples back to the courtship and loving phase in the relationship to help them truly understand why they are meant for each other.

This work can tie into another relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, who talks about how we fall in love with a person uniquely suited to help us heal our childhood wounds. He notes that many times we fall in love with familiarity and not necessarily what is healthy. As such, we pick partners who have the best characteristics of our primary caregivers, yet also the same ability to wound us like our primary caretakers. In this understanding, relationships can have a powerful way to help transform and heal our partners as well as stretch us as individuals. Allowing this understanding to unfold allows couples to connect on a truly deeper level.

At the core, my work as a couple’s therapy provider is to help couples understand their own “relationship bank account,” including what is causing the debits and how to minimize them as well developing a better investment strategy that allows for couples to thrive. At the heart, is helping couples see the value in their partner and learning ways to resolve conflicts in healthier ways that minimize the debits.

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Scott Cypers, PhD