Have you been shocked to hear good friends are suddenly splitting up? We ask the experts if there’s anything couples can do to keep love alive and avoid divorce…
Every marriage goes through phases. One reader explains, “When Jonathan – my husband of nearly 20 years – and I first met, many of our weekends were spent attending weddings. We shared their joy when our couple friends got pregnant and, over subsequent years, summer weekends were spent at christenings or birthday parties. Now our children are older (aged 11, 13 and 16), and it looks as if we’re about to enter a whole new phase in our married live. The divorce years are apparently upon us.
Virtually every week we get the news that another couple close to us is in trouble. Whether it’s neighbours, work colleagues or the parents of our children’s friends, there seems to be a lot of splitting up going on. It’s enough to make even the happiest couple nervous. I find myself wondering, who’s next? Could it be us?
A respected American divorce specialist called John Gottman claims he can predict “with 91% accuracy” the couples who will eventually separate. He warns to watch out for what he calls ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’. “These four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.”
Happily, we’re a long way off that, but I’m keen to know if there’s anything I can do to ensure we stay together. Here’s what three top experts said, and what happened when we tried out their ideas.”
Divorce danger zone 1
Several experts agree that “midlife malaise” is a real danger point. “Couples need to watch out for the transition times such as early parenthood, the teenage years, empty-nest syndrome – these are classic points when a marriage can become unstuck,” says Susanna Abse, a consultant couple psychoanalytical therapist.
She says that the antidote is to recognise the positives in your relationship but also, crucially, not to allow yearnings for a glossier, more exciting and, in fact, entirely different relationship eat away at what you have. “You may have to face giving up the longings you might have had for a different kind of partner, or a different kind of life,” she says. “Although you might mourn that loss, it’s important to focus instead on what you have now.”
What we tried
She told us to write down a list of the positives about our partner and about our relationship, and then to share the lists with one another.
This isn’t as easy as it seems. First off, when’s a good time to do it? At certain times the potential list of negatives would flow freely, but I find an evening when we’re both feeling quite chilled. I end up with a decent set of adjectives (safe, reliable, trustworthy, strong, comforting, protective and supportive…). Jonathan’s list turned out to be a little more visceral and I have to remind him that the physical characteristics (high praise for my ample chest), while flattering, don’t really count. The kids overhear him reading his list aloud and skulk off, muttering, “Get a room!”
It’s remarkable what a powerful effect such a simple exercise can have. I’m stunned by the lovely sentiments on his list (respect for me as a career woman, mother , proud to be my marriage partner – he also says I’m considerate, but not afraid to stand up for myself), which makes me feel valued and respected. That’ s new. Jon says I make him sound like a real softie (it’s not something he would have aspired to 20 years ago – he’d rather be thought of as more edgy and dynamic, so I challenge him to prove it). This does make us both feel as if we’ve been showered with compliments, though. We should do it more often.
Divorce danger zone 2
Who does the chores at home?
There are certain factors that, in studies, consistently appear to protect a long-term marriage from failure, says health psychology professor Jane Ogden. These factors include having a career before you get married, being older, and having time alone together before having children (all of which apply to us), but also having clear expectations of roles (which doesn’t apply). If Jon and I are going to bicker, it will be when I feel myself drowning and resenting him swinging off to work each morning to sit at a desk and chat with his work friends. He clearly sees his role as bringing home the bacon (even though my full-time, home-based job pulls in more than a few rashers every month).
What we tried
Sit opposite each other and take it in turns to speak (without interruption), using “I” and not “you” (too accusatory).
It’s really awkward to start with (neither of us likes confrontation). When I’m rushing around, worrying about everyone and everything in the family while also facing tight deadlines at work, I find my jaw really starts to clench at his apparently blissful oblivion. But he reminds me of the coffee mornings, tennis sessions and bike rides I often manage to squeeze in to my “working” day.
At first, I find it impossible to avoid the word “you”, let alone stop myself from waving an accusatory pointy finger, but a bottle of wine loosens us up. To my surprise, Jon says plate-spinning is my speciality (it’s true), and observes that I use energy from the motherhood side of my role to fire up my working life (he’s right, but I hadn’t realised that). He also says that he’s more than willing to step in when/if those plates start to fall, and helpfully reminds me of the roast he cooked, the floor he mopped and the teenage tantrums he’s calmed this week. I genuinely hadn’t credited him with that kind of insight.
This may sound like a silly process, but it did highlight the importance of airing frustrations, instead of fuming silently . More than that, we both feel valued and appreciative of one another .
Divorce danger zone 3
Sex-and-relationships expert Tracey Cox reassures me that long-term married couples are usually only tempted by a sexual dalliance outside of the relationship if one of them has a much stronger sex drive than the other. Luckily, that doesn’t apply to us: we both peak and trough on the libido front – just not necessarily at the same time.
“It takes a lot of effort to keep a good sex life going for 20 years!” says Cox. “Often, the better your relationship, the worse your sex life because after years together, a strong bond can become rather sibling-like.” She certainly knows her stuff.
I was braced for a prescription of sex toys (no!) and diarised sex events (far too structured and formal), but she surprised me by suggesting that we ask our GP to check our testosterone levels. Apparently, it’s common for women, as well as men, to be deficient at this stage in our lives, and a daily dab of “Testo gel”, she says, might just kick things into gear. I’ve made an appointment – can’ t wait!
But, in the meantime, Tracey suggests that we try to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and do something slightly uncomfortable that might create a bit of distance between the two of us. It sounds counter-intuitive, but this, she says, can trick your brain into thinking that you’re with a different person.
What we tried
Get a bit naughty and move out of your comfort zone.
I’m not the sort to shimmy into the bedroom wearing a PVC nurse’s outfit, but spurred on by Tracey’s enthusiasm, I grab the TV remote control with dominatrix-like zeal and feverishly search through the channels to find something a little fruity for us to “watch” together. Jon got over his initial reluctance to peel himself away from the televised rugby when he realised that there might be “gourmet” sex on offer rather than the “beans-on-toast” snack he’d been resigned to lately. Finding something that worked for both of us was tricky and it is so tempting to simply skulk off to bed with a good book to read, instead. But it did serve to remind me how much more satisfying proper sex is when you’ve been snacking for so long.
Spurred on by my enthusiasm, Jon has now drawn up a mental list of new locations for our romantic liaisons (including the garden shed and our open-plan staircase!). It’s nothing that we haven’t done in the past, but – how exciting! – it’s something to look forward to. More crucially , it brought a sexier feel back to the way we see each other . It feels good.
Did it work?
Trying these three simple exercises did force us to stop, take a break from the everyday hurly-burly of family life, and focus on our relationship. It also gave us permission to rekindle some of the exciting dynamics that brought us together in the first place.
- We realise we put a lot on hold during our childrearing years, and we could now be on the brink of a new and potentially exciting stage in our marriage.
- We both seem more relaxed and self-assured around each other: less prickly, and more bonded.
- It turned out to be a really useful exercise. Why don’t you try it too?