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How Couples Stay Together
Recently, Professor Joseph Fanelli received an Amazon delivery he wasn’t expecting. It was a watering can for plants. It was also an expression of love—the kind of action that makes a loving relationship endure.
“I had been in my workshop at home when my wife came down the stairs and found me watering the plants with my water bottle,” explains Fanelli. “She didn’t say a word at the time. But the next day, I received the gift of a watering can. It was her way of saying she was thinking of me. It was the kind of daily act of love that has forged a solid bond in our marriage over 43 years.”
Though Fanelli retired in 2018, he continues to teach the popular Lust, Love & Relationships course in the Falk College and continues his private practice (he is licensed in marriage and family therapy). Over more than three decades, he has lectured, taught and counseled thousands of people of all ages on what it takes to build and sustain a loving relationship and a marriage that lasts for years.
“I do love talking about love,” says Fanelli. “The whole experience of desire and attraction, falling in love and sustaining love, is really a journey. During that journey, couples make a huge investment in each other.”
But it is how couples demonstrate that investment that determines just how long the journey will last.
Love, he says, is both an expression of emotion and an activity. Emotion and activity must be integrated into the daily life of a couple. “We have to nourish love the same way we need to eat and sleep to get us healthy. We need to feed our love every single day. If we don’t, we will create distance.” A successful relationship goes beyond telling a partner that they are loved; it’s demonstrating it in small but meaningful ways.
“Couples don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I don’t love you.’ I don’t think love burns out. I think love rusts out,” he says. “It’s a slow insidious kind of distance caused by not sharing with each other, not expressing one’s love for each other, not acting on the love experience.”
Fanelli acknowledges that there are many love relationships—parent to child, friend to friend—but there is a special intimacy in a couple’s relationship that is defined by warmth, desire, understanding, support, frequent communication and deep emotional commitment. “People think I’m unusual about this, but I really believe there is something organic—something alive—in the experience of love.”
Making time for face-to-face communication with a partner is helpful—but the quality of that time is critical. For example, Fanelli says having a regular date night is a good start. But time together that involves excitement and active engagement is even more meaningful. He cites evidence that when there is new or exciting activity that is shared, it stimulates brain chemicals in a way that brings couples together emotionally—similar to the chemical side effects of flirtation or sexual passion.
But what about conflict? How should couples handle disagreement in ways that strengthen the relationship? Fanelli says it’s all in the way you express yourself to your partner. Placing blame and lobbing criticism are relationship-toxic. “Tell your partner how their words or actions make you feel,” says Fanelli. “Be honest in your communications, not confrontational.”
Though the counseling field and public expression of sexuality has certainly evolved over the years, Fanelli says the fundamentals of a successful, long-lasting love relationship haven’t changed much. Simply put: it takes work and a daily dose of appreciation.