How to stay married: the psychotherapist’s guide

  • December 5, 2016

With 42 per cent of marriages failing, according to the Office for National Statistics, we need to pose the serious question: how can we make our long-term relationships better?

In addition, a new report by Relate says that one in five couples are living in “distressed relationships” where they feel at breaking point: lonely, desperately unhappy, and often wishing they were single. My experience as a psychotherapist is that the couples who survive and thrive are the ones who communicate well. When problems arise, which they will, honest communication is key. This sounds simple, but it is difficult even in the most loving relationships. We have to face the idea that to make a relationship succeed, we have to do something that none of us likes to do: talk about very painful things. This takes work, but the rewards are immeasurable.

How to get past the 11-year itch without breaking up
The average length of British marriages that end in divorce is 11 and a half years (according to the Office for National Statistics). When a couple have been together for more than a decade, roles and routines within a relationship are well established, but that rigidity can cause you to disconnect; she cooks, he takes the car for a service. I often see couples with young children or teens who have each unintentionally forged a separate road. Often, both partners work. There’s fatigue plus child and career-related anxieties. Each partner becomes polarised, which leads to minimal daily communication, which can lead to less trust.

One couple I counselled had 18 sessions before the woman talked about her affair

Even if both work full time, it seems that women tend to do the bulk of childcare. If he is the “weekend parent”, who spoils the kids or can’t be bothered, she is then forced to be the ogre disciplinarian. No one wants to be the sensible bore in a marriage. Unspoken resentment can quickly affect the physical side of the relationship. Men particularly are prone to emotional disengagement. Women in my clinic often say they feel as if they’re standing outside, knocking on a window, to be let in.

If your partner makes no attempt to communicate, share or explore life with you, you inevitably lose respect for them. If your needs haven’t been met for years, your anger and resentment will reach critical point; who wouldn’t want to run? No matter how rewarding it is to be a parent, deprived of adult company (or living with a childish adult), one can become mind-numbingly bored. If your partner is never available emotionally, you may seek more enthusiastic company elsewhere.

Yet it is possible to recover what has been lost. Make a phone call to check in with your partner during the day. Rather than drift, work at becoming good friends. Get back to that thrilling position where you’d talk for hours or, realistically, turn off screens and try 40 minutes. The foundation of a solid relationship is knowing that you can count on each other. Emotional intimacy fosters physical intimacy. Your partner’s rambling office stories may be boring, but so what? Put down your phone and pay attention — she’s sharing her life.

Take care to make your partner feel secure; show you value them and communicate through good and bad. Cultivate the habit of talking to listen rather than to answer or solve a problem. Don’t allow yourselves to stagnate verbally or behaviourally. Creating excitement requires effort. Take turns to organise a date night — even if it’s just pizza and a film after the kids are in bed. It’s considerate thought, not grand gestures — the sense of being nurtured — that you crave in a romantic relationship.

Managing a midlife crisis
In your forties, but particularly in your fifties, you’re forced to relinquish certain dreams. You feel your mortality — hence the ubiquity of the midlife crisis. If you have shed the responsibility of intense day-to-day parenting, you may also sense the whiff of possibility, that you might still be young enough to do certain things. There’s often more financial ease at this stage. You’re more assertive in what you don’t want. This is where I often see the biggest divergence between couples.

When the kids leave, it’s a frightening but wildly exciting time. You must make plans

It is around this time that many people have affairs. When you realise you’re not going to achieve your childhood ambitions, you re-evaluate what you don’t have, rather than what you do. In that moment of loss you look for the easy solution — what you can actually get. And in today’s world, finding sex is easy.

Still, an affair is an endeavour requiring energy and effort. If only you made that same effort at home — employed wit, listening skills and maintained good hygiene — you’d feel less of a need to look elsewhere, because your attention and kindness would rejuvenate the relationship. In midlife, men are often shockingly careless about their appearance. This isn’t about getting a hair transplant, it’s about looking after your teeth, bothering to make yourself attractive. This is not only about considering the woman’s physical desire (or what might contribute to a lack thereof), it strongly relates to self-pride.

I counselled a couple in their fifties; the husband’s anger about his father’s death had exacerbated his weight problem. His physical and emotional state affected the couple’s love life. He accused his wife of having a low libido. He confessed he was noticing other women. She furiously told him the truth. He was hurt, but she’d done their relationship a favour. Honesty risks conflict — but it can be necessary for positive change. The French have a wonderful saying: “The truth sometimes hurts, but it is the lies and what is not said that is the root cause of all pain.”

As the husband processed his grief, he stopped comfort eating and lost weight. He was able to invest more in himself and the person who’d stood by him. He looked better, but importantly, he felt better — and the sex was better. When a difficulty arises, it’s easy to stop communicating. And that’s when affairs happen. Whenever a client says, “My wife/husband doesn’t understand me”, I always respond: “I hear what you say — but what have you done to make yourself understood?”

Yes, a relationship can survive an affair, but you must be prepared to make a monumental effort for your partner
One couple I counselled had 18 sessions before I prompted the woman to acknowledge her affair. Humans do not wish to talk about painful things. Yet brushing things under the carpet creates a huge obstruction that will eventually trip you up. The betrayed partner has to acknowledge directly their pain, anger and resentment (and have it acknowledged) or it will seep out in angry outbursts or passive aggression — a slow poison.

It can take years for the betrayed partner to trust again. For the relationship to flourish, tough as it is, it’s crucial that he or she genuinely understands why their partner cheated, and to recognise their own part in it, however small. Affairs happen for a reason, often because of resentment, of feeling shut out or sidelined. Many betrayed partners become too comfortable in victimhood. Yet if the relationship is to heal rather than stagnate, the temptation to wallow must be resisted.

Meanwhile, the other partner needs to accept graciously that their every move will be forensically examined. To discuss your feelings about the affair (though not constantly, set aside adequate but limited time) and offer reassurance requires courage. If both sides are willing, it shows great strength in the relationship.

Communication is vital and couples can communicate only if they’re not petrified of each other. Often, people struggle to explain their feelings and needs, feel rage, but transfer this anger and resentment on to their partner, telling themselves: “I can’t possibly talk about that, he’ll go crazy.” A relationship can recover, even improve, after an affair if both partners can admit why it happened, what was lacking for each and are willing to work to find their way back to togetherness. However, honesty is key.

Bereavement, redundancy, illness . . . sometimes, one partner just has to give more
Understanding, compassion and decency are necessary aspects of any relationship. Both partners in a satisfying long-term relationship understand that there’s give and take, that sometimes you are in a position to give more.

In the aftermath of a crisis, such as a parent dying, redundancy and money worries, or one partner having serious health problems, I advise couples to set aside 20 minutes to an hour of uninterrupted talking time each day.

It’s important that the person in crisis feels able to voice their fears. Feeling understood reduces anger, sadness and anxiety. When you’re vulnerable you need to feel that you are in a partnership. It helps to combat the shame and guilt that people often feel in such situations.

No one escapes bereavement, yet how little we understand grief. If you can’t talk to your partner about your real emotions, you are at increased risk of depression. If your partner listens and supports you without glossing over your emotions or suggesting, even implicitly, that you should hurry up and cheer up, you feel less isolated.

If you’re unsure how to help, ask. Say: “Would you like to talk? I am here.” Don’t just say it once. Allow them to express the full breadth of their emotions. The intensity of grief is uncomfortable and painful to witness, but its full, agonising expression is a natural, normal and necessary part of healing. Avoiding the subject for fear of creating upset (or because it’s inconvenient) is usually far more distressing to the bereaved.

You mustn’t neglect one another when you have children
Parenthood tests even the most egalitarian and loving relationships. Becoming a mother, in particular, can be all-encompassing — in those first frenetic months most women require their partner’s support in raising their amazing creation, and most fathers want to be involved as much as possible. The man’s needs are relegated to third place.

It can create jealousy and resentment — and shame, because these are not feelings that men are proud of. The problem is that both sides are often too afraid to tell the other how they feel. As a consequence of the inability to discuss unwelcome feelings, you retreat.

Typically, both partners become defensive and tensions are exacerbated by tiredness and the fact that sex isn’t a priority. If you talk, share your worries and actually feel listened to, compromise is possible. You learn not to speak the truth, so as to maintain the peace. However, just trying to keep the peace means you deprive yourself of the chance to reach an agreement that’s genuinely acceptable, rather than a sticking plaster that peels off after five minutes. It might not be the perfect compromise, but you cope better when you feel understood than when you shove your anger and disappointment down into that dark pit.

When that tiny, yet magnificent, new person is wreaking havoc with the status quo, small, thoughtful gestures can foster closeness between a couple: a cup of tea, the offer to let your partner sleep, nobly conceding that the other is more tired. Adults too need to feel nurtured, although if the woman is the prime care-giver, her part in this exchange may be unequal. While no one should be a martyr in a relationship, which equates to living a lie, men should be able to bear some disappointment at this time and feel the intrinsic value of just giving.

People are, though, resistant to change, and men especially are prone to think: why can’t I have what I had before? When the problem of making your relationship better is addressed by a good therapist, the key is not so much tea and sympathy as encouraging each individual to take responsibility. Only by communicating can you convey your own needs and understand your partner’s. And if you’re too afraid to talk about a problem, be brave; talk about that: “I’m scared even to raise this because I’m frightened of your reaction. Maybe you can reassure me that I shouldn’t be, and we can discuss what’s going on.”

The empty-nest couple: make sure you have plans for when the kids have gone
Parents know that at 17 or 18 their children will vanish into the wide world, yet the tremendous impact of this change is rarely discussed in advance. Couples don’t talk about expectations, worries and how they think it will affect them. They adopt the ostrich policy. Often, this is because they’re secretly afraid: of loneliness, awkwardness, of the charred remains of their relationship being exposed when their one shared interest and main subject of conversation is no longer the focus. So when it happens, everyone seems taken by surprise.

Many parents, particularly mothers, feel bereft. There’s shock, emptiness, loss of purpose, even depression. The emotional void needs to be filled. They may attempt to mother their partner, who tends to regard this as an imposition and panics. That said, often women see this as a chance to reinvent themselves. And if they don’t feel supported by their husband they often create a female support network and go off. Without friendship, life together alone will be toe-curlingly awkward. Your disparate hobbies double as avoidance techniques.

It’s understandable. After 30 years or so of daily drudgery and a quarterly fumble, the thought of recovering intimacy with your partner can feel like a Herculean, if not Sisyphean, task. People ask “Do you still love me?” when they’re too afraid to ask “Are you still in love with me?” because they fear the answer will be “No”.

Complacency is the death of any relationship, but this is truly a chance to rediscover what you have as a couple. Sweep the ashes from the hearth and poke the embers (so to speak). Do they still glow? Does your relationship require rekindling? This is a frightening but wildly exciting time. Finding your way back to your partner may require many painful conversations, but only then will you discover what’s possible.

Discuss what are you looking forward to — what are your joint goals? If your children are yet to leave home, start talking now. What will life be like as a couple again? What do you want to avoid? What dreams can you fulfil? If possible, plan a month of travel, where each one of you sees the world anew and has the chance to re-engage with the other. Spend days apart. When we step out of dependency we breathe air and life into ourselves as individuals and, if the will is there, into the relationship.

The couple in retirement: your relationship after 60
The sixties present new challenges — one or both of you may retire. Men in particular can struggle to adjust — not least to the fact that their partners aren’t their mothers or PAs. This time can feel frightening, full of empty space, so discuss joint plans and goals. Even if they don’t work out, shared decisions are bonding. If you feel understood, you feel connected. If you don’t invest in your relationship, you’ll find your balance at zero; one partner will get bored and bail out. When one has life experience, good and bad, there’s less fear in making a radical decision.

I advise couples in my clinic to regard their sixties as a chance to step outside their comfort zone; to seize the day — travel, explore, engage in a good cause. I’m not talking about the church parish newsletter (although, by all means), but about taking on challenges that make you feel alive, that remind you that you matter. If you can do that as a couple, you can renew the energy in your relationship for a further 20 years. It makes you more interesting — to each other and to your grandchildren. You have more to say than “What’s for dinner?” and “What’s on the news?”

A big complaint at this age is that a spouse has become parochial, dull or stuck in their ways. Engagement with younger people is vital in every sense. It’s likely that you have family, even grandchildren, but regardless of that, work with your partner to go beyond your comfort zone. You have knowledge, wisdom, financial capacity, although this is not about giving money, but a part of yourselves. Grasp the opportunity to be an inspiration. Contribute to the world in ways that will renew you as a person. If you can do that as couple, you have it made.