Whether it's in Hollywood movies or the fairytales that parents read to their children, everyone knows a good love story ends with the couple living 'happily ever after'.
In real life, too, long-term love is the dream for which human beings yearn.
But finding and maintaining it is not easy, as we know from years of researching and writing about relationships.
Continue reading after the cut.....
Every day, people struggle to stay the course - and there's no shortage of advice out there. Self-help books, problem pages and numerous websites all promise you 'the secret of staying together', the rules for 'keeping your love alive' or 'the answer to overcoming relationship problems'.
The problem is that not much of the advice is based on real-life experience. That's why we carried out a research study with more than 5,000 people in long-term relationships.
We wanted to find out what they were actually doing to make them work, and over the next few days we'll be sharing their secrets with you, weaving them together with other useful ideas from therapists, in a way that will be helpful for your own relationships.
Whether you are in the initial stage of rose-coloured spectacles or a little way down the line when the glasses (and even the gloves) are off, we'll offer you entertaining and helpful tips on making your relationship better, with topics including:
● What should you do when one of you wants to have sex more often than the other.
● Why bickering is a good thing.
● How to get through conflicts, tensions and crises.
● And why the best Valentine's gift for your partner might be making them a nice cup of tea!
Let's start with what might seem like a controversial question. How important is sex in keeping a couple happy and in love? We say 'controversial' because all the self-help books and problem pages insist it's the 'glue' holding couples together and is critical for a healthy marriage.
According to these widely held views, everyone should have a consistent amount of sex and it isn't OK for this to diminish over time.
Above all, people are warned against having a 'sexless' relationship - as if it is the worst thing imaginable and will inevitably lead to you separating.
The good news is these messages about sex are absolutely wrong. Our research shows many couples enjoy happy, long-term relationships while having less sex - or no sex at all - over time.
Indeed, when we asked people what they liked best in their relationship, sex wasn't in the Top Ten. As you can see below, other kinds of closeness and contact were prioritised much more highly.
These are the top answers to the question: 'What do you like best about your relationship?'
1. Laughing together.
2. Sharing values and interests.
3. Being best friends.
4. Being cared for and feeling supported.
5. Feeling safe and secure.
6. Being happy.
8. Sharing a close relationship.
9. Talking and listening.
10. Being in love and/or being loved.
One of the most revealing findings resulted from showing people photographs depicting different forms of physical affection and asking them which best reflected their own relationship.
One couple, Linda and James, were typical in identifying much more with a photo of a couple cuddled up on a settee than with any of the more sexual photos.
'That's more us on the sofa together, or on a park bench together, or having a coffee together. It's not that we don't do anything together, it's just not sex.'
This kind of reaction is in line with other research studies carried out around the same time as ours. Take the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, a major sex survey taken every ten years in Britain. In 2013, it found that over the past two decades the amount of sex that people have has actually gone down.
To be more precise, the average number of times per month that people aged 16 to 44 have sex has decreased from five to three since the early Nineties. So people are having sex on average less than once a week.
Despite this, most people (around two-thirds) still said they were satisfied with their sex lives. So having lots of sex clearly isn't as important as we've been led to believe.
The survey also found having less sex wasn't linked to being dissatisfied with your relationship. That's not to diminish the significance of sex; it's a vital part of a relationship for some people.
For others, it's clearly enjoyable without being crucial - something they can take or leave. And for some it isn't a feature of their relationship at all.
Where problems can arise is when there's a discrepancy in sexual desire, a common issue according to the sexual attitudes survey, which suggested one in four people in relationships didn't share the same level of interest in sex as their partner.
This can happen for many reasons. For example, people who'd had children felt more dissatisfied than others about how often they had sex or physical intimacy.
Take Daniela, a young mother who told us the sexual side of her relationship with her partner Darren had diminished since the birth of their children. As a result, she no longer felt they were 'a proper couple'.
Many new parents blamed feeling too tired, after juggling work, chores and childcare, and for some - especially mothers - the struggle to become a sexual being again was very difficult, emotionally and practically.
It's not just parenting that causes these kinds of shifts. Human sexuality is rarely static. Some people notice a decrease or increase in how much sex they want, changes in their sexual fantasies or what kinds of touch they prefer. For others, it can be a total change in the people they find attractive or whether they want sex at all.
Everyone in our survey spoke about changes in physical intimacy during their relationship. It's important to realise that such differences don't mean people aren't happy with their relationship in other ways and there are various ways you can navigate these fluctuations in physical intimacy.
Though sex can play a much lesser role in long-term relationships than you might think, many people feel it's important to have some kind of physical intimacy.
Remember the kind of physical affection people prefer is unique to them. You can't just transfer it from one relationship to another and you need to know what your partner enjoys rather than expecting or implying, for example, that they should like to be touched in the same way your former partner did.
This is important because long-term conflicts can easily bubble away between partners over the years if one person won't engage in the kind of physical touch the other person wants.
The conflict is often rooted in the assumption that it means the same for both people. For example, there are often misunderstandings about public displays of affection (PDAs). One woman, Octavia, told us how she saw holding hands in front of other people as a sign that her partner was proud of their relationship, and that she felt rejected when he refused.
But her partner said PDAs were frowned on while he was growing up, so he felt intensely uncomfortable about them.
So what kind of non-sexual physical intimacy do you and partner like and feel comfortable with?
Together, draw up a list of each of your top five activities, then make time over the next week to experience one thing on your list and one thing on theirs that you both fancy. Try to let go of any assumptions.
To help you, we've listed some of the kinds of intimacy that came up in our study:
Hair stroking - light kisses - back scratching - foot rub - holding hands while walking/at home - curling up together to watch TV - tickling - back massage - arm stroking - knee/leg stroking - kissing all over - earlobe nibbling - bathing together - bear hugs - a quick hug - kissing in public - sleeping together - snuggling up asleep - showering together - shoulder rub - head massage.
Whatever your differences, there's room for compromise. If you're too embarrassed for PDAs, offer to do their next favourite thing.
Culled - Dailymail
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