7 minute read
Our story starts in 2007. I’m in the university library, studying for a psychology exam, when a smiling face pops up over the top of my computer. He’s got three Flumps sweets in his hand, and they’re all for me. I reach out to tickle him on the stomach and an electric bolt runs through me. I pull my hand away. What just happened? I blush with embarrassment, and then I realise… I fancy him! This boy – a friend – who is so kind, caring and funny. How have I only just seen it? He is everything.
Twelve years later, and that boy is now a man, my husband, and he’s still everything. They say time flies when you’re having fun – and the two years since we got married have gone in a flash. Of course, not every day, week, or even month has been perfect but, more often than not, we’re happy. Yet, witnessing other marriages fall apart in their first few years makes me see how vulnerable they can be. Until recently, the ‘D’ word was something I linked to friends’ parents – not friends of mine. When I heard that a couple of my mates had filed for divorce last year, my heart almost stopped. Is it possible to keep love, real love, alive forever?
Our honeymoon period might be over, but the flames that fire our partnership are our foundation. Of course we argue, but it’s been during our darker moments that I’ve realised how much I have to learn from the person I married. Our relationship is an ever-evolving thing, and that’s what makes it feel so rich. So, how can I ensure that the embers of our love radiate warmly forever?
‘Every relationship is different’ says Sarah Abell, couples coach and founder of Naked Hedgehogs, ‘but there are some core foundations under a solid relationship, which come down to having a strong connection. Once you have this, it’s a bit like a washing line – you hang your issues and differences on it and, if that “connection” is not strong, the line will collapse.’ In the lead-up to our wedding, people warned ‘marriage is hard work’. I remember thinking ‘work?’ – I’m madly in love; it never feels like work, even when helping each other navigate deep, dark oceans of anxiety and uncertainty. But is this what people mean by ‘work’ – keeping our connection strong? And, if so, how do we do it?
Misreading the signs
I look back over the past year. No dramatic revelations or betrayals, thank goodness, but periods of impatience and bickering; a sporadic dimming of our light, the reason for which is a riddle I’ve not been able to crack. ‘We all have weeks in our relationships when the toilet seat has been left up, or the toothpaste cap has been left off, and they are the most irritating things we’ve ever come across, and then we have weeks when we don’t notice these things at all. In periods of irritation, our connection to our partner is probably weaker than usual. Instead of seeing this as a sign of “maybe I need to fix our connection”, what we often think is “I need to sort out the toothpaste situation”,’ says Abell. ‘We look at the issues, rather than what’s behind them, which is, at some level, that we’ve become disconnected. It’s probably more about a [lack of] connection, than about the toothpaste or the loo seat.’
But what exactly is connection? What does it mean in practical terms? ‘It’s the sense of “Are you there for me? Am I safe with you? Do you respond when I need you?” When we fear our partner is not there, or accessible, to us, we can react in a negative way,’ says Abell. ‘It feels empowering to know that any squabbling or irritability that shows up isn’t necessarily a negotiation that needs to be had, but actually an indicator of where to focus our energy. I think back to the argument about housework we were dancing around a few months ago, and can see now that it miraculously dissipated into nothing as soon as we took a planned trip to Scotland. A coincidence? No, according to Abell, a few days away walking in nature, being together and talking solidified our real, true connection – and the housework argument went away.
Could ending our bickering really be as simple as this? Making our connection a priority? It seems obvious but, actually, with the demands of life, we agree that it’s easy to put each other last, because we assume the other person will just ‘be there’. We vow to make more time to disconnect from life and reconnect with each other. ‘Most relationships will cope to a point,’ says Abell, ‘but, over time, like a plant needs water, we need nurturing, too. No relationship is going to survive without investment of time, energy or attention.’
Care enough to argue
But what happens when it’s not about the toothpaste cap, but something bigger? What do we do when we really have something to fight about? I talk to Andrew G Marshall, a marital therapist who has written 19 books on the subject, including Can We Start Again Please? Twenty Questions To Fall Back In Love (Marshall Method Publishing, £6.99) and The Happy Couple’s Tool Handbook, out later this year. ‘If I had just one piece of advice, it would be to argue more. Most of us don’t know how; we either never learned, or we learned how catastrophic arguing can be,’ he says. Is arguing cathartic, then? ‘An argument brings issues to the surface where they can be dealt with; it tells us what things are important, and it’s where we discover where the passion is. That’s the thing about rowing, it’s actually passion – it shows that we care. Burying issues is what we do with flatmates,’ says Marshall.
If arguing is so therapeutic, why doesn’t it feel that way? I tell Marshall I hate arguments, and ask how I can defuse them. ‘You don’t like arguments, so you duck invitations for them; put up with wet towels on the bed, or whatever. You have opportunities for a row that you swallow, and then you do what I call “bottle and blow” – where it only takes one tiny thing and off you go. Your partner thinks, ‘She’s overreacting! All I did was…’ But they haven’t noticed the things you’ve swallowed.’ This is exactly what I do, and I see how my not-so-clever tactic isn’t working. How do I get around it? ‘Talk earlier! Don’t wait till you’re about to boil over, then the arguments will be smaller and easier to get over,’ he says. Aha!
The cheat's guide
Then there’s the topic every couple needs to discuss: infidelity. I can’t see either of us straying but, then again, why would anyone swear vows to each other if they knew that further down the line, one of them was going to be unfaithful? If prevention, not cure, is the answer, then I need to understand why affairs happen in the first place. I seek out the guru on this subject, relationship therapist Esther Perel. ‘How do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practised?’ she asks in her TED Talk ‘Rethinking infidelity... A talk for anyone who has ever loved’. She explains that infidelity is largely misunderstood. ‘The definition of infidelity keeps expanding. Sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps… There is no universally agreed upon definition of what even constitutes infidelity.’
I see this around me; each relationship has its own set of rules. I’ve consoled friends who have felt betrayed by their partners for radio silence on nights out, and been baffled by others who have taken back their partners after affairs. Infidelity means different things to different people. Perel describes her favourite definition as the following key elements: ‘A secret relationship which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and sexual alchemy.’
I realise we’ve never sat down and agreed on a set of rules. For us, I guess it’s been more a sense of feeling them out over time; getting to know each other’s boundaries. Perhaps one reason we are still together 12 years later is because our inherent boundaries are similar, and so we’ve never pushed each other into the danger zone. But a friend adds food for thought: People change – we might not always have the same boundaries, and what about if, or when, temptation comes along? Abell brings it back to connection. ‘When we feel weakly connected and we try to answer, “Has my partner been there for me? Do they love me? Does what I do matter?”… If we answer no, it increases the chance of looking for a yes elsewhere. But, if we can answer those questions with strong yeses, it protects us from looking; that’s not to say temptation won’t come along, but we may be less willing to act on it,’ she says. Marshall sums it up perfectly: ‘We need to understand why affairs happen. I have an equation that answers this: problem + poor communication + temptation = an affair.’
After all this valuable wisdom, I ask the people whose relationships I admire the most to tell me their secret. My friend, Eminé Kali Rushton, Psychologies Wellbeing Director-at-Large, shares that she and her partner also ‘felt out’ their boundaries together. ‘I think our relationship feels so love-filled because we have dedicated time apart, doing things that fill us up and stop us feeling depleted. We have an unspoken agreement that when we come back together, the day’s challenges will have been sorted through and left in peace, and we spend positive quality time together. The simplest stuff knits us together.’
Hard work, you say?
Then there’s the relationship I hold in the highest regard, because I’ve seen what goes into it over many years: my parents’. Mum tells me, ‘Trust is easily lost, so be careful with it. And, if you can laugh together, you’re halfway there. Your Dad still makes me laugh, and I make him laugh. It doesn’t matter if no one else gets it!’ I think of how my heart lights up when I make my husband chuckle, and how his face glows when he makes me giggle; a glow of connection! When we’re laughing, we’re connected. What is the key to keeping love alive? Perhaps it’s as simple as making it our mission to make each other laugh… And, as for the warnings that ‘marriage is hard work’, it’s clear any relationship needs investment to stay rooted. I can’t help but think that taking time to connect with, listen to, prioritise and make the person I love laugh may not always be easy, but it’s not ‘hard work’.