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A professor’s perspective on lasting love

ASU professor shares advice for building, maintaining harmonious relationships

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February 12, 2024

Every year, the month of February sparks celebrations of love in the form of candy, gifts, a night out to a favorite restaurant or time spent with friends. But beyond the romantic Valentine’s Day demonstrations, February is also a time to learn about cultivating healthy relationships from day to day. 

To celebrate relationship wellness, we asked Bridget Granville Seeley, a teaching professor in Arizona State University's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, to share relevant insights into building and maintaining a healthy relationship.

Seeley, who holds advanced degrees in marriage and family therapy and developmental psychology, has been teaching courses on the topic for over 13 years.

Here, Seeley offers advice for setting a good foundation for a secure relationship, navigating busy lives together and maintaining separate identities.

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Teaching Professor Bridget Granville Seeley
Bridget Granville Seeley

Question: What, in your opinion, are the foundational elements of a successful and healthy long-term relationship? 

Answer: As a big attachment theory fan, I believe that the most important factor for a successful, long-term relationship is one’s attachment to their partner. Attachment can be both healthy and unhealthy. When a healthy attachment is formed between humans, there is a feeling of security, stability and satisfaction. 

This is important in parent-child relationships, and it’s important in romantic relationships. With children, an attachment is formed naturally, quickly and with almost no conditions — parents love their children even if they scream or cry.

With romantic partners, we tend to put conditions on the relationship that affect attachment, which is why it’s far more likely that people leave a romantic partner than their children. Ultimately in a relationship, a healthy attachment is necessary for a couple to withstand difficult times. 

Q: What are some common misconceptions about what makes a relationship successful? 

A: There is a misconception that couples just need to learn to communicate more. Make no mistake: Couples are communicating all the time — through looks, sounds, facial expressions, snarky responses or no response at all. All of these actions, or lack of action, are communicating happiness, anger, frustration, bitterness, annoyance, etc. The key is to learn to communicate effectively and kindly, both verbally and nonverbally.  

Another misconception is that couples should strive for everything to be 50/50 all the time, but long-term couples know this is impossible. For example, one partner may be ill and the other partner has to care for them, or one partner may need to work longer hours for a time. Successful couples understand the division is not always perfectly 50/50 and ebbs and flows with life’s circumstances.  

Q: How can couples navigate the balance between maintaining individual identities and keeping a sense of togetherness? 

A: This goes back to attachment theory. If a couple is securely attached, there is freedom to be apart, as well as mutual respect. These individuals are secure in their identity in the relationship and don’t feel threatened by a partner’s success. They may also miss their partner when they are not together but have healthy coping strategies when apart for a short time. I’m a big proponent of emotion-focused therapy (EFT) for couples and families working to develop secure attachment.

Q: What advice do you have for busy couples who may be struggling to maintain a work–life balance and find quality time for their relationship? 

A: It helps to realize that relationships go through cycles, and they move through seasons in life. Sometimes it’s a tough season for the relationship, but you can still stay committed and sensitive to each other.

It’s also important to voice your expectations and make them realistic. This might sound like: “We expect that this next year is going to be tough raising our two-year-old and starting a new job, but we are going to remain committed and give each other extra grace during this time.” 

Q: How can couples continuously grow in their partnership and avoid relationship complacency? 

A: Couples can experience a lot of pressure to constantly keep the spark alive. Culturally we’ve said that if the spark is gone, then the relationship must be over. But I would argue that although sparks can run hot, they can also smolder. Many long-term couples have come to find beauty in the smolder, and see it as part of the process of love and commitment rather than the end of it. 

Q: Do you have advice for new couples on how to set a strong foundation from the beginning? 

A: I suggest premarital or couples counseling, even before marriage or moving in together. Have the hard conversations now. Find a therapist who administers the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP), an evidence-based program for therapists and educators to encourage open communication about the difficult areas in a relationship.

Couples can put the work in at the beginning when things are good and easy so that they have the tools when things become difficult. And then continue quarterly therapy check-ups every so often like a regular doctor’s visit or car maintenance.

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