“Do you know what your problem is?” I yelled at my husband from across the room, suffused with a white-hot rage. “You’re just so…you’re just so…” (flailing about for the killer accusation now) My slipper whizzed past his ear for pathetic emphasis. A pause, followed by a snort, then a mutual collapse into a hysterical laughter. Situation diffused, grovelling apologies from yours truly and the slipper handed back in an act of truce.
Extreme reasonableness is not something ever cited in the divorce courts. Nor is leaving an unwashed wineglass on the work surface, something that Matthew Fray writes about as marital a deal-breaker in his recent book This is How Your Marriage Ends.
Fray describes how it’s not the explosive arguments or seismic incidents that can end a marriage, but the quiet accumulation of small infractions. For Fray, it was leaving those dirty glasses in the kitchen, something that didn’t bother him, but did bother his wife. In a Love Island-obsessed world full of insta-couplings and splits, the challenges and rewards of long-term relationships don’t get much of a look-in.
This is set to change with a new upcoming BBC drama, Mariage, by Stefan Golaszewski and starring Nicola Walker and Sean Bean. It focuses on the ups and downs of a 30-year relationship.
While according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) there has been a 30 per cent decrease in the divorce rate since 2003, data from HM Courts and Tribunal Services reveals a surge in divorce applications by 50 per cent following the introduction of no-fault divorces in April.
So how do you prevent the washing-up from making your marriage or partnership implode? I consulted other couples in long-term relationships to find out what has worked for them.
Often the cause of the breakdown of so many relationships, this is the area that all the couples I spoke to mentioned first. Jo and David Blood have been together for 25 years and married for 20 of those. For the past 17 years they have run their business in Brighton together.
“One of the key things we’ve had to work on over the years is communication,” says Jo. “We’ve had the extra pressure of working out how to communicate with each other inside and outside of work. I used to store everything up, thinking Dave would notice I was upset. I’d end up having a huge meltdown and he stood by looking puzzled as to where it had all come from. I’ve worked out that assuming someone will notice you’re unhappy doesn’t work.”
Jo explains that they tend to wait until a moment of tension has passed and then they will have a conversation about it later when they are calmer. “We have a lot of mutual respect and we’ll both try and adapt if the other one really isn’t happy about something.”
Talking openly has contributed to Martyn and Christine Whittock’s happy 38-year marriage. “We chat about everything,” says Martin. “I think because we’re good talkers, we have a pretty fair idea where the other one is without having to sit down and explain it.” If there are disagreements, Martyn believes it’s damaging to start raking up incidents from a long time ago. “Keep short-term accounts,” he says. “Don’t let the debt build and build.”
Weathering life’s challenges together can make a couple stronger. Being able to look back on difficulties navigated together can give a couple confidence about how they might face future curveballs. Simon and Tina Elven have been married for 26 years. They have two children with additional needs and this has brought with it immense pressure over the years in finding the right support.
“You can either crumble or rise to the occasion,” says Tina. “We understand that no one will fully comprehend what life is like for us or our kids, but it has made us stronger as a couple. We are going through the same experience. We’re both problem solvers and proactive, so together we find a solution and move forward.”
Early on in their relationship, Simon agreed to commit to learning Tina’s native tongue, Danish. “Learning Danish is not an easy task, and it was at this point that I realised that he was in it for the long run.”
Jo and David Blood had to navigate David having life-saving surgery nine years ago to insert a mechanical aortic valve. At the time, their children were young and Jo and David were running a business together. “You’re in survival mode, but we did get through it. The thought of almost losing someone makes you appreciate what you have,” says Jo.
Her parents, John and Sue Mills, helped enormously during this time and Jo sees them as role models given their commitment to their marriage of 53 years. “If I had the definitive answer to a long and happy marriage, I would have written it up already and it would be on the bestseller lists!” Sue jokes.
Her own parents were together for more than 50 years. “I grew up with the idea that you didn’t give up on something just because it might be uncomfortable occasionally.”
The art of taking stock
Julie Macken has been married to husband Ross for 24 years but they’ve been together for 28 years. They run a family business inspired by their daughter’s love of bees. As their children became more independent, they realised that they had been lost in the routine of kids’ activities and spending less time together, so they put together an action plan.
“We took ourselves to our local pub with a laptop, notebook and pens. We brainstormed what we both enjoyed doing and what other adventures we wanted to do. We created a Venn diagram of things we both liked doing in the middle and the things we like doing individually on the edge.”
As a result, they’re involved in a myriad of outdoor pursuits together along with space to pursue their own interests. Both kids have now left home for university. We’re empty nesters and loving it!”
The Elvens have Saturday morning “meetings” together where they plot and plan. “Our weekly meeting is a great platform for us to turn things over, give different opinions and see things from another perspective and, of course, accepting that compromise is often necessary,” says Tina.
The greener grass also fades
In a long-term relationship, romance can take a nosedive when partners take on the familiarity of a worn-in slipper. The excitement of “the other” causes many relationships to founder. As Martyn Whittock so succinctly puts it: “If you leave x to be with y, there will come a time with y when the toilet will get blocked.” The dopamine hit of being with a new person is unsustainable. At some point, the discussion about whose turn it is to take the bins out will happen.
Martyn advocates reaffirming your love for your partner by telling them on a regular basis. “A relationship is a marathon,” he says. “It won’t be the same all the time and it’s important to be prepared for that. Loving becomes more tender; it doesn’t have to be fireworks all the time. It’s important to be friends who enjoy each other’s company, not just lovers.”
John and Sue Mills agree that a similar attitude to money can save a lot of stress in a relationship. “If you didn’t have the cash, you didn’t do it,” says Sue. “We tailored our expectations to our means. If we had to stay at home, John would still take the time off work and we had staycations before they were fashionable. We discussed the availability of money with the children.”
Daughter Jo clearly listened. She and David have a number of different bank accounts. “We have two joint ones, one for bills and one for day-to-day spending. Then we each have our own accounts to spend on what we like without judgment. I’m a big believer in being financially independent from each other. Stay because you want to, not because you have to.”
Aretha Franklin saw its importance and so did all the couples I spoke to. Respect for each other means not making assumptions on the other’s behalf and an ability to still be able to apologise and not regard it as a weakness.
When children are in the picture, this mutual respect means not criticizing each other in front of them, or “being united in the face of the enemy” as Sue Mills puts it.
Martyn points out that it’s learning to have patience with each other and taking an interest in those things that interest your partner. It doesn’t mean you have to train for a triathlon if that’s not your bag, but having no interest at all in your partner’s passions can be the slippery slope to becoming that couple who sit in not-so companionable silence at a restaurant.
Relationships are a millefeuille of complexity. While this is far from an exhaustive list, they are the key points that kept cropping up. We’re always looking for the novelty answer, the quirky solution. It’s perhaps because we overlook these tried and tested elements that we sometimes fail. Let’s hope no wine glasses are lurking on counters.
And the expert’s view…
“I think it’s down to still having fiery arguments and lots of sex,” says therapist Sally Baker. “When I work with clients whose marriages are in trouble, they often co-exist in a polite but barely-interested-in-each-other vortex with sex as nothing more than a distant memory.
“Two warning signs that indicate a relationship is on the skids is not sharing an evening meal together and lack of a shared bedtime. The very act of cooking, eating and breaking bread together is primaeval and helps unite a couple to return to each other after a demanding day.
“If your partner regularly falls asleep on the sofa and joins you hours after you’ve gone to bed, something is definitely out of kilter. What is happening is the avoidance of intimacy.
“Over the course of a relationship, the importance of sex and shared pleasure waxes and wanes, but when it completely drops off the radar, the relationship slides into the companion zone which for me would feel like death’s waiting room.”