What Makes a Relationship Work in 2020?
We talk to millennial couples who swear apps haven't ruined everything.
Talk to any person currently on a dating app, and you’ll likely hear the words “Ugh," and "It's so hard!” It isn’t a stretch to say the world of relationships has completely changed in the past decade — let alone the last 50 years — and sometimes it’s hard to believe you’ll find the kind of long-lasting love of your grandparents’ generation, the kind of Old Hollywood happily ever after of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, or Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And trust me, after dealing with more than enough difficult love affairs in the recent past, I completely relate.
“Dating is definitely much harder these days, especially with the rise of dating apps, social media, and just generally busier lives,” says NYC-based psychotherapist Matt Lundquist. “Sometimes, people find it harder to communicate, and they can move on too fast thanks to the millions of options available at their fingertips. This leads to further issues in their next relationship.”
Dating and marriage norms have changed over the years, too — millennials, more than the generations before them, are waiting longer to marry and have kids. This could be attributed to the fact that we’re also more likely to cohabitate with a partner prior to marriage, which allows us to try living together on for size without having to commit entirely just yet.
We’re more likely to get divorced as well. Although the divorce rate is down to just under three divorces per 1,000 people, according to CDC data from 2017, we’re still looking at comparatively higher rates than our counterparts back in the 1950s.
But what does a successful relationship, in this day and age, even look like? With almost everyone around me complaining about “too many” and “not enough” choices all at the same time, and reeling from a breakup of my own, I've got one question on my mind: How do we actually make a relationship last in 2020?
Being the hopeless romantic that I am, I decided to ask three couples who’ve been together for several years exactly what makes their relationship work — from what they think is the most important factor in their relationship down to how they make time for date nights. They’re all millennials between the ages of 29 and 38, and they all met in different ways (a setup, organically, and through Hinge), but, unsurprisingly, they all had similar sentiments about what they think defines relationship success. The upshot? It sounds like romance isn't dead after all.
Courtship and Dating
Since we are busier than ever, it’s logical to think courtship was a little easier back when our grandparents had a meet-cute at the sock hop. About 27% of Americans now use dating apps, and the stigma once associated with online dating has been pretty much stamped out.
On apps, you have a variety of people to choose from, as opposed to say, only those people who know your friends, or visit the same bars and restaurants you do. But before you think they had it so easy back in the day, remember that men were, traditionally, the ones to ask women out (emphasis on traditionally). Women have a much less passive role now, as far as cultural norms are concerned (or even dictates on apps like Bumble), and have the option to pursue the person they want organically.
What success looks like:
Ekta, 36, and Aamir, 38, who are married and expecting their first child together, met online when Ekta was getting ready to leave New York and move back to Australia. However, they connected on Hinge, Ekta stayed in NYC, and the rest is history.
“I think trust and loyalty are honestly some of the biggest challenges when it comes to relationships today because of things like dating apps or Instagram, and you really need to trust the person you’re with,” says Ekta of issues like jealousy or distrust that can be heightened by the temptations that are just an app away. “These are factors that didn’t exist back then, and we’re all busier than we were, so to have faith in the person when you’re apart is key.”
After all, you don’t really know what your partner's doing on their phone when you’re not with them (and sometimes, even if you are), and it's stressful to think about all of the opportunities available to meet new people. Though it can be hard to completely trust the person, Ekta says, it’s imperative to have that mutual understanding if the relationship is going to work — a lack of trust can cause so many petty arguments in a relationship. Ekta and Aamir also determine their success based on their ability to simply communicate and understand that difficulties may arise, but as long as they both worked toward resolution, things will be okay.
Making time for each other is also key in our busy world, which is why date nights seem to be absolutely crucial. Although the frequency varied from couple to couple — from one night a week to one night every couple weeks — all were adamant that some time apart from their mutual friends was key. It also didn’t matter what they did, just as long as they spent time together away from common distractions like work, friends, and family.
“We work together and we have mutual friends, so it’s not like we don’t spend time together,” says Alex, 29, who’s been with her fiancé, Zee, 32, for seven years. “But we need to make sure we have time alone without anybody at least once a week, as you’re just in a different headspace with other people.” It’s also important to really make time that’s special — not just hang out in front of the TV after work, she says.
Sarah, 30, who’s been married to Adam, 33, for about three years, insists that “we need to go out or actually hang out together without distractions, and have quality time."
“I think couples forget that face-to-face time is important, and not in the ‘let’s watch TV together’ way,” elaborates Lundquist. “I think that these couples are doing an important job getting their needs met by talking to one another about the amount of time they need to spend together, but also giving them space when they need it, so heightened emotions don’t get in the way. Time and space is essential in a healthy relationship, and you should spend some time away from your partner. But it’s also a delicate balance that not all couples know how to achieve.”
The rise of the smartphone has definitely provided us with more options to communicate with someone, and we could even argue it’s made long-distance relationships (not unheard of in the '50s, but still less common than today) easier. It was a breeze to be able to Skype my college boyfriend instead of worrying about international cell phone bills, for one.
But technology also gives us a lot of access to the people we’re seeing, and we’re used to having them available to us all the time — which is a double-edged sword.
What success looks like:
“I think technology can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it,” says Ekta. “I think it’s great because if I need to call Aamir, I can, and if he needs to get in touch with me, it’s easy. I don’t have to wait until he’s at his desk to call him or ever wonder where he is.”
“Honestly, technology was a huge deal for us when we started dating, because it started off long distance,” says Sarah. “So we were in constant communication by texting. I could send him Snapchats so that he knew what I was up to while he was sleeping or at work, and we could talk on the phone whenever we wanted.” Now that they live together, Adam says they talk a bit less, but they still make sure they’re in contact at least a little bit throughout the day, even if it’s just to tell the other person what they’re up to. Those little check-ins make a huge difference, which the couple believes drives their success. ”It’s the small things that just show you’re valued, and that there’s mutual respect there,” says Sarah.
“This, to me, is less about communication and more about shared respect,” says Lundquist. “They make sure to check-in with each other and make sure that the other person feels valued, and there are so many other ways of doing this, too — whether that’s picking up a coffee for your partner when you know they’re running late or lifting them up at the end of a long day. It’s understanding that one may want to talk more than the other and that’s okay, and realizing that your shared needs trumps your individual ones.”
Of course, without social media, it could be argued that it was easier for us to trust the people we dated. Trust and social media, however, were a huge factor in how these couples determined the success level of their relationship.
What success looks like:
“A lot of couples have issues when the other person pays more attention to their phone than their partner,” Alex says. “Or if you start complaining about how one person in the relationship is more vocal about their partner on Instagram or whatever — these are things that can cause huge problems in relationships if the couple is insecure; social media can just exacerbate those issues.”
Again, access to temptation can rock a relationship, too. If your partner begins to follow and like random people’s pictures, you may wonder, “Am I not good enough?” After all, Instagram can easily be used the same way a dating app might be, provided you find and communicate with someone on their private messages. It’s vital to have strict guidelines when you spend time together, and also talk about how much you want to make public, especially when you have all these people sharing practically everything online, Alex adds.
It’s also important to have those kinds of conversations together and understand the other person’s point of view. “You’ll never be happy 100 percent of the time, but as long as you’re with somebody who you know wants you to be happy and will do their best to make that happen, [then] even through the hard times, you’ve got something good,” Alex says. “You may not always argue in the best way and you may not always have enough time together, but as long as the intention is present, you’ll always find a way to make things work.”
“It’s interesting, because social media rules were not an issue back in the day,” says Lundquist. “However, we’re increasingly on our phones, and that’s why, in my experience at my practice, people seem to be more ready to move on without healing after a breakup, because they believe that they have so many options at their fingertips.” However, more so than unequivocally trusting their partner, these couples seem intent on making things work no matter what, and that intention goes a long way. “They’re willing to work on it — together — instead of giving up on it, and that’s why they feel more connected,” he says.