Last week author Belinda Luscombe revealed how every woman can overlook her husband’s foibles to fall back in love with him. Now, in Part 2 of the series, she tells how you can make your relationship last a lifetime.
Ask a woman in a long marriage — I’m talking at least a couple of decades — the secret of its success and she’ll probably crack a joke claiming it’s because she and her husband have never demanded a divorce on the same day.
That might seem a blithe take on things, but there’s wisdom behind it. Research has found that marriages often get happier over time — not because those living in them resolve all their problems, but because they outlast them.
This doesn’t mean simply grinning and bearing it, although a little of that is occasionally required. You just have to actively try not to give up, even when that seems like an enticing option.
Belinda Luscombe who has extensively researched marriage and has spent the last 28 years living in one, advised on how to make love last (file image)
The truth is soulmates aren’t a thing — or at least not a thing you can realistically find like you might find the perfect little black dress. That’s not to say a couple can’t become soulmates over time. But to achieve that state of marital utopia, you must first avoid divorcing in the first place.
Over the years, both as a journalist who has extensively researched marriage and as someone who’s spent the last 28 years living in one, I’ve come to believe that the true secret to marital longevity is accepting some rather unromantic truths: long-lasting marriages are less than perfect, and don’t come naturally.
With that in mind, I’m sharing some of the tips and insight gleaned from relationship experts and psychologists during research for my book, so you can work at yours as effectively as possible.
People think marital bliss should be like floating down a river without a care in the world. The truth, though, is that pretty soon someone is going to get bored or restless and decide to rock the boat. The key to making your relationship last is how you deal with marriage’s troubled waters.
This is where I hope my advice can help. Last week we looked at the six biggest challenges couples will face: familiarity, fighting, finances, family, fooling around and finding help. Today we explore ways to handle those red flag areas, in the hope you will ultimately discover you really do have a soulmate — and you’re already married to them. . .
HE ISN’T OUT TO GET YOU
Except in extremely rare circumstances, your spouse is not out to get you. Nor, probably, to irritate you. I know it can be hard to believe this at times, but choosing to do so can transform a relationship.
Take my husband, Jeremy, an architect, who always asks, despite my repeatedly having shown him where we keep them, whether we have envelopes. They’ve occupied the same spot on a shelf for decades. Never mind. He still asks: ‘Do we have any envelopes?’
Belinda warns that familiarity in marriage can lead to boredom and frustration into destructive territory if handled badly (file image)
On the surface, it seems such an innocent question, and the answer so easy. ‘Yes, sweetheart. They’re on the shelf, near the pens.’
Yet what I hear is: ‘Whatever I’m doing right now is vital, even if it’s just random postage tasks. You, on the other hand, can’t possibly be doing anything worthwhile.’ And that infuriates me. I love this man. He makes beautiful things — buildings, meals, children — he’s handsome, stoic and great in bed. I’d be lost without him. Yet this question makes me want to put stones in my pocket and walk into the ocean. Or throw them at him.
How does this happen? Familiarity, that’s how, a by-product of every marriage. In many ways it’s wonderful, like broken-in shoes. But handled badly, it can lead you beyond boredom and frustration into destructive territory.
For me it’s envelopes; for you it will be some other little irritant. But the solution remains the same: you have to make a conscious effort not to ascribe bad intentions to your spouse’s actions.
So, I’ve chosen to find this perpetual inquiry amusing, accepting that some people simply live in a stationery-free world. His inability to recall where we keep envelopes isn’t a reflection of what he thinks of me. It’s a reflection of what he thinks of envelopes.
Where once this peculiarity drove me crazy, now I almost think of it with fondness — like the birthmark on his chin, a harmless blemish.
LEARN HOW TO FIGHT WELL
The marriage expert says that when fighting, it’s important to work towards a truce rather than a winner (file image)
Grim as it sounds, marriage is all about fighting. If you can’t figure out how to argue healthily, you can’t figure out how to be married. Of course, people who love each other should be able to give and take. But inevitably you’ll encounter situations where your positions are diametrically opposed, with no apparent room for compromise.
The way you deal with these discrepancies — from tiny tiffs to enormous ‘withdraw half the money from your joint account’ brawls — can make or break you.
So fight well. A good starting point is to remember that marital fighting requires a truce, not a winner, so fight fair. Don’t be shifty about what you want or what you’ve done. Don’t change your position just to win. Also, avoid starting sentences with the dreaded ‘you always’ or ‘you never’. For example: ‘You never put anything away,’ or: ‘You never want to have sex’.
This is criticism, not problem-solving, making the other person the problem. They will be insulted or wounded, and will feel less inclined to work with you.
Instead, approach issues with sentences that begin with ‘I’. So, ‘I would love it if you could put your socks away,’ or, ‘I miss having sex with you.’ Both are more likely to lead to dialogue and change.
Therapists also advise that brevity is a key virtue. So, get in, make your point, get out. And then, hopefully, you can keep moving forward.
CARVING UP FINANCES
Belinda revealed that for many couples, a little financial independence is viewed as a romantic option (file image)
Money is a perennial flashpoint, and so I asked more than 150 couples how they divided up their income and expenses, getting back dozens of permutations of three main answers. Many pooled resources with a joint bank account, while others preferred to keep all accounts separate while dividing up the expenses.
What appears to be the best approach for marital harmony is a yours, mine, and ours approach. The bulk of each salary goes into a joint account covering household expenses, with a smaller percentage paid into each partner’s separate account to do with as they please.
As long as those percentages are agreed upon and observed, nobody gets to criticise the other’s choices, even if they seem stupid. An approach similar to this helps smooth over different spending habits between me and my husband.
I buy my clothes at second-hand shops, and donate lots back again. He will buy a crazy expensive Helmut Lang overcoat without blinking. But, even if he wants to spend his portion of our liquid assets on rainbow stickers, I don’t criticise as long as all the family needs are met.
For many couples, a little financial independence is actually the more romantic option. ‘With one account, giving gifts to the spouse feels somewhat diminished,’ one long-term married person told me. ‘It’s more sacrificial and generous to buy a gift with money that was set aside for you.’
Belinda warns that it’s a bad idea to always prioritise the kids over your spouse, as they soon become teenagers and leave home (file image)
Therapists like the three-way system because it mirrors what a healthy marriage would look like.
‘It reflects the fundamental nature of commitment when commitment is healthy,’ says marital researcher Scott Stanley. ‘There’s an “us” and there’s a “me and you.” And “you” don’t have to disappear for the”us” to exist.’
DON’T LOVE THE KIDS MORE THAN HIM
In these days of child-centric parenting it’s easy to believe that, unless your child’s every want and need comes first, you’re failing. Interestingly though, a 2014 survey of 40,000 UK households revealed adolescents were happiest when their mother was happy with her husband.
It really is a bad idea always to prioritise the kids over your spouse. First, kids soon turn into teenagers and want very little to do with either of you. Then they leave. Second, studies strongly suggest that kids whose parents love each other are much happier and more secure. They have a model of what a good relationship looks like and how people should treat each other.
So one of the best things you can do for your kids is love the heck out of your spouse.
It’s tempting, of course, especially when things aren’t going well, to default to siding with your kids. We’re almost biologically programmed to do it.
But we chose to love our spouses. And we have to keep choosing to do so.
The marriage expert says it helps to remember that the kids are not the reason you got together (file image)
It helps to remember that the kids are not the reason you got together — they’re more of an absorbing joint project, like a three-dimensional, mobile jigsaw puzzle that talks back and leaves its underwear in the bathroom. And that sometimes, this kind of partnership requires putting your team-mate first — maybe taking a kid-free holiday together, or even just a breakfast.
HAVE A SCHEDULED SEX LIFE
Sex is good for us — researchers have found that people who have regular orgasms have less stress and lower rates of heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and endometriosis. It’s also great fun. And yet sex is one of the chief sources of pain, estrangement, and bewilderment within couples.
That tends to be when it’s not happening — which often boils down to life getting in the way, with sex no longer considered a priority.
Therapists acknowledge that it can seem contrived to have a specific night set aside for sex, and many people are resistant to this idea. But when things get hectic or kids sap your energy, being spontaneous may simply be outside the realm of possibility.
‘What else do you do in your life that’s of value to you that’s not planned?’ asks Canadian sex researcher Lori Brotto. ‘Really, nothing. When you plan sex and talk about it, it opens up fantasy and anticipation, and actually thinking about the factors that give rise to a pleasurable sexual encounter.’
Having a little flag fluttering in your mental calendar can reduce the tension around whether sex is ever going to happen again. It can also diminish the fear of rejection or confusion if you both know what’s planned.
Belinda believes having a mental calendar can reduce the tension around having sex and the fear of rejection (file image)
Then, if that night sex becomes impossible, the two of you can at least discuss it and know why. Alternatively, some counsellors also recommend establishing a little sign that you might want sex: a pebble in a jar or a particular coffee cup at breakfast that’s a secret signal between the two of you.
What do big companies do when their enterprise begins to go pear-shaped? They call in consultants. They pay through the nose for an objective, expert third party to offer advice. Yet married couples, with so much on the line, often don’t seek outside assistance until it’s too late. The relationship researcher Dr John Gottman estimates that couples wait an average of six years too long before seeking help.
Yes, therapy can be expensive, so approach it sensibly. After you’ve consulted friends and/or the Internet for recommendations, call a few counsellors and see how they respond to your concerns. If you have a specific problem — money, parenting, or sex — try to find someone who specialises in that.
And remember, it’s unlikely to be as expensive as lawyers in an angry divorce.
If you are in a high-conflict marriage, splitting could turn out to be the best thing for you both. Even so, therapy might help you do that in the least harmful way.
For my own part, almost a decade after I peeked into the chasm of what life might be like without my husband, I love him more than ever. We didn’t start out as soulmates — but after a certain amount of teeth gritting by both of us, that is what we have become.
Three steps to solving any problem
Terrence Real, author of three bestselling books about marriage, developed a three-step technique for raising a problem with a partner.
1. First ask your partner if he or she is willing to listen, then remind yourself that you love this person.
2. Now tell your partner four things: a. What you saw or heard that you found problematic. Don’t say ‘this is what you did’.
b. What you came to believe as a result of what you saw. You literally say, ‘What I made up about this is . . .’ Talk about your impressions, without making assumptions.
c. How you feel about it.
d. How you’d prefer it to go next time.
3. Finally, let go of the outcome. Whatever happens, thank your partner for listening and move on. Do not escalate the fight.
Dr Real’s technique seems alarmingly one-sided — it doesn’t provide any opportunities for righteous indignation. But it does bring us to the hardest part of fighting well: listening.
Adapted by RACHEL HALLIWELL from Marriageology: The Art And Science Of Staying Together by Belinda Luscombe, published by Oneworld on June 6 at £11.99. © Belinda Luscombe 2019. To order a copy for £9.59 (20 per cent discount) call 0844 5710640. Offer valid until June 6, P&P is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery.