Being in lockdown with my husband for the last four months has been a good test of our relationship and caused me to wonder whether there are key things that keep couples happily together.
I don’t usually presume to offer anyone relationship advice, because I truly believe that there is a lot of luck involved in maintaining long-term relationships. As human beings, we are bound to change over the years as we go through various experiences and challenges. It is unsurprising that, as a result, we may not be as compatible with our partners as we once thought.
Statistically, couples who marry at a young age are more likely to get divorced than those who marry when they’re older, and so, after 40 years of marriage, hubby and I have managed to buck that trend. Of course, there are many reasons that relationships don’t work out; some to do with personal circumstance and challenges, and sometimes couples just drift apart.
Despite high divorce rates, we know that most of us do still believe in coupledom and we will go to great lengths to find the ideal partner. Although the rates of marriage in the UK have declined in recent years, marriage is still an important institution and the decline doesn’t reflect the number of couples who stay together in partnerships.
Until now, I have never taken time to reflect on why our relationship has worked so well over the years. We have just experienced four months in isolation and we’re still smiling — that has to say something!
One of the things that started me thinking was that my husband cut my hair recently. With the enforced closure of hair salons, my hair was inevitably looking a little ragged. Early on in lockdown he bought himself some hair clippers and has been keeping his own hair looking good, so I eventually asked him to cut mine, too — which he did, quite well.
Now I just thought this a caring thing to do, because despite his assurances that my hair looked fine, it was bothering me. He didn’t trivialise the issue and he was willing to do what he could to help.
Lisa Appignanesi is the author of ‘All About Love.’ In the chapter on love and marriage, she reflects that “gauging the ‘happiness’ of a partnership through the peaks and pitfalls that time brings may bear more of a kinship with determining what makes up a good life…than a mood or gratification chart”.
I agree with this sentiment because we cannot, and usually don’t, expect to be happy all the time. If we were, we’d be unable to discriminate between the peaks and troughs and, anyway, life isn’t like that. Stuff, good and bad, just happens. The major distinction, however, maybe that it is our homes and our partnerships that we expect to be a safe haven from the stresses of the outside world.
Perhaps it is too much of a strain on a partnership when we don’t have this haven. Maybe thinking about what makes a good life before we consider what makes a good relationship would be helpful.
The ability to compromise is often cited as being crucial in partnerships. But compromise is not always easy and relies on a good balance of give and take over time. This also requires us to be mindful of whose needs are greater in the moment, which is something that I think has become easier for the two of us personally as work and family commitments have lessened in recent years.
The British philosopher Alain de Botton has said that the greatest danger to the relationship with our partners is the myth of romanticism. That is, the idea that you will meet the ideal partner for life and that you will understand each other intuitively. From this point of view, nothing in the relationship will ever need to change throughout the ups and downs of life because you will naturally be an ideal couple. He suggests that this fallacy results in a lot of sulking and resentment because we often expect our partners to understand us without telling them what it is they should understand. I hold up my hand as I have certainly been guilty of that!
Our perception of romantic love is very much reinforced by the books we read and the drama we watch on tv and film. Those stories usually end at the beginning of relationships in the traditional ‘happily ever after’ scenario. They don’t often show the messiness of everyday life.
The main suggestion that resonates with me is to treat our partners as lovable idiots and to be as generous in our judgments of them as we usually are with our children. When they are grumpy maybe it’s not about you, maybe they are just tired or hungry.
So, what have I gleaned from this? What might be working for the two of us? Well, we share the same priorities and interests in life. Our outlooks have converged because we have learned from each other over the years. We don’t always agree but rarely argue and we always agree on the trivial stuff — we manage not to make mountains out of molehills.
We are far from perfect but usually kind and respectful to each other in words and deeds. We listen to each other and acknowledge our vulnerabilities — neither of us is afraid to say ‘I may have got that wrong’. We have learned to trust each other’s opinion and support the decisions that we make as individuals, even on the big stuff.
Over the years, I know that I wouldn’t have made such positive career changes without his encouragement and his firm belief that we always have choices. Things may not always pan out the way you hope but you learn from the experience and move on.
Maintaining our relationship has not always been easy. There have been, and will be, many ups and downs and challenges to face but I believe we have maintained an ‘equal devotion to the life of the partnership’. And that has got to worth celebrating.