--By Dianne Hales

         Researchers have found key ingredients to the most mysterious love affair of all.
         What is it that keeps the music playing through a couple's years together? Not sex, which scientists & the couples they study say is important but not all-important. Decades of research have found no correlation between frequency of intercourse & marital satisfaction. In a recent survey of 350 long-married couples, fewer than 10% thought good sex had kept them together.
         Romantic love also isn't the answer. "Romantic love is a prerequisite to launching a good marriage," says psychologist Howard Markman of the University of Denver, "But it isn't enough to keep it afloat." Research indicates that more important than how much two people love each other or how happy they are before the wedding is how well they talk & share & work out their problems afterward. In other words, what they feel doesn't matter as much as how they deal with their feelings. Such new insights haven't produced a magic formula for making marriages grow & glow with time, but researchers have identified common characteristics of happy couples. Here are ten of the most important ones:
1. They're best friends. Good marriages endure for the simplest of reasons: The pleasure the partners take in each other. Like the only members of a super-exclusive club, they share secrets, work, play, hang out together. And, yes, they laugh a lot.
         When Jeanette & Robert Lauer asked more than 300 veterans of long marriages what had kept them together, the top items on the husbands' & wives' lists were "My spouse is my best friend" & "I like my spouse as a person."
         Given the choice of spending their time with anyone in the World, these people would choose their spouses," says Jeanette Lauer. "They treasure the time they have together." One woman volunteered that she would want her husband as a friend "even if I weren't married to him."

2. They listen to & confide in each other.
         When it comes to reaching out & touching each other, happy couples make AT&T look like an amateur. They're in constant contact, discussing & debating everything from the boss to the baby, the weather to World affairs. While much of their everyday conversation is simple small talk, over time they delve much deeper, daring to risk the vulnerability that comes from revealing their innermost feelings & fears to each other.
         Such communication is so crucial to a relationship that, in a study of 26 couples over a five-&-a-half year period, psychologist Markman found that the quality of their communications, which reflects to a large degree their ability to listen & share was the best indicator of how happy the couples were.
         Sometimes the only way to get what you need--or to find out what your partner needs--is to ask.

3. They're tuned in to each other's feelings.
         The classic wife's lament is that her man won't open up. However, according to Markman, preliminary findings indicate that the men in good marriages do express their feelings.
         Couples in which the partners can stay in tune with each other's feelings & are able to see each other's side of a problem will inevitably be more compatible & happier.

4. They can deal with negative emotions.
         All spouses experience the quick stab of jealousy or the slow burn of resentment. Happy couples, however, find ways of defusing such potentially explosive feelings before they get out of control. Interestingly, both happy & unhappy wives are better at finding ways to end a fight than their husbands, but only those in good marriages seem willing to call a ceasefire.

5. They know how to handle conflict.
         Whether they are newlyweds or seasoned veterans, compatible or combative, content or not, married people argue, but those in happy marriages are so skilled at handling conflict that, as psychologist Robert Lauer puts it, they "sound like experts, even though they learned how to fight by trial & error."
         The key lesson they've mastered is fighting fair. They focus on an issue, deal only with the current problem, avoid rehashing past grievances & criticise the spouse's action, not the spouse. And, while they argue to clear the air, they choose times of calm to sit down & actually work through a disagreement.
         Partners in unhappy marriages concentrate on blaming each other for what's wrong. They fight to win at any cost, bringing up past wrongs & opening old wounds. Those in happier unions, on the other hand, are more likely to admit they're at least partially responsible.

6. They're less than brutally honest.
         Partners in close, loving relationships follow the cardinal rule of diplomacy: They think before they talk. Although they express their feelings clearly & directly, they know that some of the most devastating words ever uttered have followed the phrase, "Here's how I really feel."
         "These couples believe in honesty," observes social historian Jeanette Lauer, "but they don't believe in letting it all hang out without any regard for the other person's feelings." Even in the heat of an argument, happy spouses "edit" their remarks so their words don't leave scars. Interestingly, as a marriage turns sour, the partners seem less willing or able to let their nastiest thoughts go unsaid.

7. They trust each other.
         In interviews with more than 100 marital veterans for her recent book, "Married People", Francine Klagsbrun noted that they mentioned trust much more than love. "Love was taken for granted for them," she observes, "but trust really says it all: It means you can open up to another person & not be hurt. In a good marriage there's so much trust that each partner can show his weakest side & know he'll still be loved.

8. They're committed to making the marriage work.
         Many long-time spouses considered divorce during their bleakest times together but in the end decided to stick it out. Those couples obligated to a lifetime partnership--however flawed or frustrating it might seem at times--felt that it was worth the time, energy & effort involved to make the marriage work. "These people aren't quitters," says Jeanette Lauer. "As a matter of fact, a lot of the older couples we surveyed were very critical of younger people for running home to Mama too soon. They thought of leaving as the easy way out."

9. They share interests.
         A shared love of music or passion for mountain-climbing can bring the two people together. In fact, Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg has found that mutual interests are a key ingredient in love, but the shared interests that create a bond aren't necessarily the ones that keep it strong.
         "The activities & friendships you develop together as a couple are much more meaningful than the things you may have enjoyed independently before," says Psychologist Levinger. "We always hear that people have to work at a marriage, but it's just as important that they have fun, too. Couples don't have to be clones with identical likes & dislikes, but they need a core of similar pleasures so they find joy in being together."

10. They're flexible enough to change & tolerate change.
         Only in the freeze-frame photos in their wedding albums do couples stay the same. From the moment the ceremony ends, they start changing. Happy couples go through just as many moves & moods, triumphs & transitions, setbacks & successes as unhappy ones. But they're able to adapt so well that their marriages endure & improve, not
despite the changes & challenges but because of them.
         "A lot of men & women commented that their partners weren't the same people they married," says Jeanette Lauer. "And they liked them even more." One man married for 30 years said he actually felt he'd been married to several women. Describing his wife's transformation as she returned to school & built a career for herself, he wrote: "I watched her grow & shared with her both the pain & exhilaration of her journey. I find her more fascinating now than when we were first married."

         Whatever journeys they take, all married people hope they'll end up sharing such mutual delight. The good news from the marital researchers is that they can. "Basically couples learn how to be happily married," says Markman. "And almost everyone can master the skills he needs to make his relationship better." How do you start? When I asked the experts, they offered some basic advice:
         --Concentrate on the things you like most in your spouse, not on his failings & foibles. Identify the qualities your partner admires most in you, & work on developing them.
         --Rather than thinking of all the things your partner is or isn't doing for the relationship, focus on what
you can do to make it better.
         --Check your communication skills: Are you listening to the things your spouse considers important or tuning them out? Are you making sure that your spouse knows what's important to you?
         --Watch out for early warning signals of problems-in-the-making. Many times the best defense against marital misunderstandings is quick offense. Let your spouse know how you feel before a minor matter triggers a full-scale squabble.
         --When you do fight, follow the rules. State your case, listen to his perspective & be willing to negotiate it. If you sense your confrontation is getting too hot, stop the action so you both have time to cool off.
         --When your marriage gets into a rough spot, don't give up too soon. If all else fails, give time a chance to bring you closer again!