In 2014, scientists took a closer look at what makes us hook up, stay together, break up and everything in between. Their findings? Lots of things that will probably sound familiar to every happy couple out there.
The questions ranged from small (what sleeping positions say about a couple) to large (whether marriage is better than unmarried cohabitation). The overall conclusion: While we may act like love with a capital L is the most important factor for a long-lasting relationship, science proves it takes a lot more than that.
But with the divorce rate finally on the downswing and people waiting longer to get into the best relationship for them, it seems lots of people are already in the know. Here are 11 awesome things we learned about our relationships this year:
1. There's no need to rush into things.
While a spontaneous, whirlwind engagement maybe seem romantic, taking it slower can have a major payoff. A study carried out by Emory University found that the longer couples date before marriage, the greater their odds of staying together. If fact, couples who date for three or more years are 39% less likely to divorce than those who date for less than a year.
As Olga Khazan wrote in the Atlantic, "Dating for a while before tying the knot might indicate a level of planning that suggests the couple is in it for the long haul." The same goes for cohabiting: Research this year found that the longer a couple waited to make a serious commitment to one another (getting engaged, moving in together, getting married), the better their odds at marital success. Now if only your mother could get that message loud and clear...
2. It's not the money that matters.
Fancy engagement rings are pretty, but they're not always the best idea. That same Emory University study, which surveyed 3,000 heterosexual couples, found that "marriage duration is inversely associated with spending on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony." Specifically, those who had spent $2,000 to $4,000 on rings were 30% more likely to get divorced.
That doesn't mean fancy things are a relationship's downfall, but the researchers did note, "If wedding expenditures are indeed associated with debt stress, then it is possible that wedding expenses raise the likelihood of marital dissolution given that prior literature suggests a link between economic stress and marital dissolution." Money is a common source of disagreement between couples, so this is hardly surprising. Plus, most happy couples know that a quiet night in or cheap takeout can be better than a lavish night on the town any day.
3. Couples that cuddle up together stay together.
Or at least couples that sleep together are happier than those who don't. A study from the University of Hertfordshire looked at couples' sleeping positions and found that 94% of couples who spent the night in contact were happy with the relationship, whereas only 68% of those who didn't touch were satisfied.
With science already telling us that cuddling is good for our health, this is all we needed to get cozy this winter.
4. The two most important words are "thank you."
A recent study from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, examined whether there is a "glue" that binds relationships together. The answer, according the study, is gratitude.
And it's now scientifically proven. The researchers placed 77 couples in situations where they both gave and received gratitude from their partner. Afterwards, the participants not only felt more peaceful and proud and perceived their partners as more understanding, caring and responsive, but they also saw increases in their oxytocin levels, a neuropeptide that promotes pro-social behaviors like trust and affection. That's a lot of positive impact from two small words.
5. The little gestures, like kissing, become more important than ever.
A two-year study of more than 5,000 people from the Open University in England concluded that, for couples whose relationship stayed on track, "surprise gifts and small acts of kindness were valued highly, with 'a cup of tea' being singled out as a significant sign of their partner's appreciation." These couples "cherish[ed] affection and cuddles as much as sexual intimacy."
That includes kissing. Another study out of England found that parents with high levels of "couple bliss," as demonstrated through happy behaviors like kissing, tended to be better, more positive parents. The little things never stop mattering.
6. Simple honesty solves lots of problems.
Everyone has rough patches, but being honest with both yourself and your S.O. is often the best way to tackle an issue. For example, jealousy can be overcome, psychologist Michael Broder told Mic, if it prompts couples to be honest with each other about what they're attracted to and what they want.
Another telling finding: Couples who are honest with themselves about the state of their relationship are the ones headed to marriage. A University of Illinois study of 232 never-married straight couples found that highly committed partners remembered their relationship history accurately, while couples faring worse basically lied to themselves, looking back and thinking everything was fine.
In short, your mother was right: Honesty really is the best policy.
7. You don't need to be married to have an amazing relationship.
There have been studies showing that married people experience health and life benefits that singles and dating couples don't. But since then, studies have also shown that cohabiting couples experience the same advantages as their married counterparts. In fact, 2014 revealed that fewer people than ever are married, and there are more cohabiting couples than ever: Twenty-four percent of never-married adults ages 25 to 34 are living with a partner, according to Pew Research analysis. And lots of couples cohabiting are still creating families.
Plus, as the Emory University data found, some classic hallmarks of marriage are actually threats to the relationship. Both pricy engagement rings and fancy, expensive weddings actually correlated with higher divorce rates.
8. It's not about having a "soul mate" — it's about having a partner.
A 2014 study by Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz found that fixating on that term can actually be detrimental to the relationship. According to psychologist Benjamin Le, people tend to view romantic relationships as either part of "destiny" or "growth." Those who think of their partners as their "soul mates" view their romance as destiny — a belief that lays the groundwork for disappointment when reality falls short of the fantasy. On the other hand, viewing your S.O. as a partner on a journey (to use the hated Bachelor term) gives you the expectation of growth and change.
"If we are soul mates, then nothing will go wrong in our relationship, and it will be easy. A conflict makes a destiny-believer question whether the current partner is actually their soul mate, and then they give up on working it out," Le told The Science of Us.
9. Long-distance relationships aren't all doomed.
Thanks to technological advancements like Skype and FaceTime, an increased number of couples are making a go at it long distance — and succeeding. According to research from Cornell University, couples in LDRs are more likely to build stronger bonds than those in close proximity to one another.
Another study found that people in LDRs also go above and beyond, including the healthy practice of savoring happy memories. "Taking the time out to place yourself back in a happy memory for just a moment has the potential to build upon your happiness in the present," lead researcher Jessica Borelli told Mic. And long-distance couples know this better than most.
10. Kids don't have to be part of the final picture.
A major U.K. study of married and unmarried couples found that those without kids reported being happier and more valued by their S.O.s than the partners with kids. That widely reported finding came on the heels of another study that found parents, while reporting more joy, also have more stress and anxiety.
11. It all comes down to kindness.
Gratitude isn't the only telling behavior about relationships. Multiple studies, including that published by psychologists (and spouses) John and Julie Gottman this year after 40 years of studying couples, show that long-lasting relationships require two traits: kindness and generosity.
How did they prove it? The Gottmans set up a "Love Lab" where they studied newlywed couples' interactions. They then predicated the couples' success — who would be the "masters" or "disasters" — and followed up six years later. The key distinctions of the ultimate "masters": They were connected and paid close attention to each other, and they performed small acts of kindness for each other regularly.
The most important time to be kind, the Gottmans found, is during a fight. Otherwise it can build contempt, which the researchers say is the No. 1 factor in couples breaking up. As Emily Esfahani Smith pointed out, "Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood and validated — feel loved."
But if you're part of a happy couple, you already knew that.