What Makes a Successful Marriage? It's The Little Things

We turned to a couples therapist for the deets.
Couple looking after child
Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images
Erin Celletti
Erin Celletti
Erin Celletti
Erin Celletti
The Knot Contributor
  • Erin is a freelance contributor to The Knot and loves creating lifestyle, travel, beauty, relationships and commerce content.
  • In addition to writing for The Knot, Erin contributes to a wide range of publications including The Everygirl, The Everymom, Scary Mommy, Romper, Bustle and Brides.
  • Erin lives just outside of New York City, has a Bachelor's degree in Journalism and two Master’s degrees in Education and Administ...
Updated Jan 22, 2024

Marriage is beautiful. Marriage is hard. Marriage takes work. We've heard all the various sayings ad nauseam— and they all hold some sense of truth. But what exactly does a successful marriage take to make? Is there a Krabby Patty Secret formula to it, so to speak?

While there's no perfect recipe for a successful marriage, there are some key ingredients to what it takes to make a marriage work. We spoke with Ashley Lurker, LPC, ACS, for her insight into what makes a successful marriage. Here are some of her top takeaways from working with couples, as well as successful marriage tips.

Meet the Expert:

  • Ashley Lurker is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS) and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). She has also been trained in Couples Work through the Gottman Institute and Beck Institute; and is currently a couples therapist at Mindful Power, a coaching therapy practice based in Hoboken NJ.

In this article:

What Makes a Marriage Successful?

When trying to figure out what makes a marriage successful, it helps to think backward: What might make a marriage unsuccessful? Overall discontentment, a lack of communication and little to no intimacy are all general examples. So a successful marriage should include things like sharing overall happiness, strong and open communication and a feeling of complete safety.

When classifying a marriage as "successful," it's also important to consider your own personal definition of marital success. Because every marriage and relationship is different, each will need to have certain needs met in order to be successful. But, when it comes down to it, it's a lot of the little things—11 little things, to be exact, according to Lurker.

Here's what she says are some of the "big picture" or universal elements of a successful marriage or relationship.

11 Keys to a Successful Marriage

1. Time for Connection & Intimacy

"Prioritizing the relationship and your partner, making sure to keep the different areas of intimacy and connection alive," is one of the most vital keys to a successful marriage, says Lurker. Sure, balancing professional and social calendars can be tough at times—but shared time together should be high on your must-list. Lurker recommends spending time with your spouse in different areas of life, as it will help you see and appreciate different sides of them—such as "a good parent, a professional, a lover and silly [as a best friend,]" Lurker suggests.

2. Mutual Respect

Respect is an absolute necessity for marital success. "Treating each other well and having a genuine respect for one another is key," says Lurker. "Contempt, such as putting each other down or ignoring each other, is often something that destroys relationships. The concept of being a team rather than adversaries when dealing with conflict is incredibly valuable."

3. Ability to Compromise

Compromising isn't easy or fun—but it's 100% essential in relationships. "Knowing you are bound to disagree on things and being attentive to your partner's needs while respecting your own," is a key component to a successful marriage, says Lurker.

4. Curiosity

Chances are, you know your partner better than anyone else in the world. But you should always want to learn more. Embrace curiosity when it comes it your partner and their inner world. "Having a curiosity about your partner keeps the relationship fresh and shows you care," explains Lurker. "Knowing their inner world, whether it's their favorite movie, a food they hate, or a coworker they are having a difficult time with, tends to help with connection."

Sometimes, couples that have been married for years can "fall into a trap of thinking they know everything about their partner," Lurker notes. (So stay curious!)

5. Expressing Inner Thoughts & Emotions

Communication can sometimes require work—and even get a bit uncomfortable occasionally. Nonetheless, expressing your inner thoughts and emotions to your partner is so important. They aren't mind readers, after all. So instead of assuming they innately know what you want or need, tell them.

"Having the ability to communicate your thoughts and emotions in an assertive manner can prevent misunderstandings and help you meet each other's needs," Lurker says.

"Not avoiding conflict [and] discussing differences with mutual respect is helpful," she adds. "If we continually avoid conflict, it tends to breed resentment."

6. Listening & Validation

Part of having strong communication in your marriage is not just the ability to talk and express your feelings, but being able to truly listen and understand those of your partner, too, reminds Lurker.

"Often reflecting back what your partner said can demonstrate that you are actively listening and ensures that you truly understand what they are trying to communicate," she suggests.

7. True Acceptance of Each Other

Recognizing that you both might have different needs and respecting them is another key for a successful marriage, says Lurker.

She explains, "For example, each partner might prefer different love languages. If your partner needs words of affirmation, but you prefer acts of service, you might wonder why they aren't appreciating your acts of service as much as you would in their place."

8. Trusting in Positive Intent

Trusting your partner is an obvious non-negotiable for a successful marriage, but taking it one step further and trusting that they have the best of intentions can help avoid conflict and misunderstandings.

"Your partner [may say] a neutral statement like, 'You spent a lot of time painting with our child…,' and you interpret what they said as, 'They think I'm wasting time/making us late for an event,'" explains Lurker.

"When in doubt, ask for clarification."

9. Flexibility

Rigid thinking and behavior won't get you very far in any relationship, especially marriage. Instead, you want to be able to grow and change with your partner as you evolve together. This requires flexibility.

"New ideas and opportunities come our way and being able to be supportive of one another is important," says Lurker. "This doesn't mean you have to always agree, but having an open mind can be helpful for your partner feeling understood."

10. Shared Values

Having shared values doesn't mean you both think the exact same way about the exact same things. It means having aligned, mutually respected and held goals and belief systems.

Values, according to Lurker, "inform how we behave, the goals we establish, and what is important to us." She adds, "If you share values, it can help with feelings of connection and reduce arguments."

11. Empathy

While you might not always be able to fully understand what your partner is going through or feeling, you should always make your best attempt to show empathy. "Having empathy is being able to understand where your partner is coming from [or] walking in their metaphorical shoes," Lurker explains. This doesn't mean you have to agree, but if you can validate them and make sure they feel listened to, Lurker says it can reduce defensiveness during conflict.

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