Like most things in life, beginnings are easy. While many marriages start with starry-eyed, hearts-and-flowers optimism, it’s not always easy to feel that sense of honeymoon-style elation when we’re tested during those ‘until death do us part’ moments including illness, financial difficulties, depression, anxiety, a loss of sexual drive, disappointment, not connecting with each other and so on.
And when the author of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, announced her divorce from her husband, Jose Nunes, the man known as Felipe in the book – as she has recently – you know we may all need a “refresher” in the best ways to try and achieve wedded bliss.
So, what are the most constructive ways to tackle those moments that don’t reflect the “happily ever after” elements when you’re living with and loving someone? Here are 10 things nobody tells you about being married.
1. Your partner is not responsible for your happiness
We may all love watching rom-coms, but real-life is not like those soppy lines where someone might say that they’re a ‘whole’ because of the other person. Romance is a wonderful thing, but we need to maintain our responsibility for our own emotional wellbeing and not expect our partner to rescue us emotionally or develop an increasingly needy dependence on them.
“Our own sense of purpose is achieved only by the choices we make,” says Sydney-based relationship psychologist, Elizabeth Neal.
“Having individual separateness is often the very thing that our partners find attractive in us – in a healthy relationship, partners find us most attractive when they see us honing a particular skill, like playing a musical instrument. If we abandon these pursuits and rely on the other for our happiness, we run the risk of unhealthy enmeshment.”
2. You won’t always feel attracted to your partner
This can be a highly contentious area between couples, especially if there is a feeling that after many years, the other person is no longer making an effort to look their best for their partner, whether it be in the way they dress, the way they eat nosily or even a lack of personal hygiene, for example.
“Attraction is complex and in long-term relationships, physical attraction is balanced by the balance between positive and negative interactions,” says Neal. “A lack of sexual attraction often happens with couples who feel there has been a long experience of harshness, unfair criticism and unfair accusations in the relationship.
“People who are wanting to keep having fun with each other, still enjoy getting dressed up and having ‘date nights’, it’s known as the ‘ritual of connection’: couples who have this have usually been married for a long time. They do things that create a sense of attraction to each other: it’s the little things like making a cup of tea every morning or going for a walk every night. The key is to foster a culture of appreciation and keep contempt at bay.”
3. You won’t always like your partner
We are human, we do make mistakes, we can be thoughtless and take our partner for granted, and perhaps having ‘that piece of paper’ that says you’re married, may sometimes mean you step over the line and your partner is not pleased with what you’ve said or done. “If there are more frequent positive interactions and a culture of appreciation (Neal says to try for five a day), we can tolerate the things we dislike about our partner far better.”
4. Being in love doesn’t last forever
Sorry, all you romantics out there but there is science to back this. Neal says love has three distinct phases. They are:
a) Limerence – Also called infatuated love, it usually lasts for around nine months at the start of the relationship or marriage and is marked by hormonal changes.
b) Trust – “Are you there for me?” This means being there for the other person, being empathetic, and when one person needs support being responded to in a way that does not include defensiveness or hostility: this creates that sense of trust.
c) Commitment – Loyalty vs betrayal. “This has to do with the acceptance, long-term, of the other person,” says Neal. “If constant comparisons are being made to another person outside of the relationship this can show signs of an affair potentially happening.”
No one said it was going to be easy, marriages take work
5. Marriage takes hard work and you’ll be sorely tested
It definitely takes work. Living with anyone is difficult and marriages will see many highs, lows, changes, boredom(!), and evolutions. Managing to find a calm way to communicate that doesn’t leave you in gridlock is one vital element to relieving those rollercoaster moments. Dealing with conflict can be a real challenge. “Every time you need to talk about something with your partner, choose the way you say it carefully,” advises Neal. “Every time you say ‘you’ in a blaming way, for example, can be like a slap in the face for the other person. They feel attacked. Just describe your own feelings, not the other person’s behaviour. Timing is important and so is the tone of your voice.”
6. Sex is about giving and receiving, and keeping it interesting!
We all know the saying ‘happy wife, happy life’ but perhaps another saying ought to be ‘happy sex life, happy marriage’, especially in long-term unions.
“Sex is symbolic of how couples are faring in the relationship,” says Neal. “Non-emotional sex is telling. The absence of sex is telling. We are evolved animals. Beyond the physical urge in a long-term relationship is the message of acceptance of the other.”
“Having the freedom and confidence to explore, enjoy and experience can only happen when both partners feel accepting and accepted by the other. Long histories of sexual awkwardness can get in the way of this and can perpetuate other issues. Also important, is how initiation acceptance/refusal (rejection) is dealt with and what one partner hears in subtext.”
7. Enduring love requires attention and care – and a sense of humour!
“Enduring love requires regular, daily interaction, to be approaching all of life’s stressors as a team, respect in partnership,” says Neal. “Humour is great; it symbolises shared meaning. It means that couples have a unique dialogue that connects them in an uplifting way. It doesn’t work however if the humour revolves around sarcasm or other passive form of contempt.”
Learning how to communicate your frustrations with your partner is an important step to a healthy relationship
8. You may both change and end up no longer having the same dreams and goals
“This is fine for strong couples,” says Neal. The marriage can still survive, as long as your partner is supportive of these things. “Otherwise, this will likely symbolise the disengaging of the two people. Often, the search and pursuit of dreams and goals that aren’t being shared and worked towards together are the initial indications of a loss of commitment.”
9. Communication is key – if you’ve always been able to talk to each other as equals and with respect, this will hold you in good stead
Communication, both overt and symbolic, predicts how likely a marriage will last. Communication full of criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling predicts divorce. Although couples who repair well after conflict are far more likely to stay married than those who don’t, says Neal.
“Those who have a good basic friendship and express intimacy can tolerate conflict as long as the moments of fondness outweigh the hostile ones. Empathy plays an enormous role.”
10. If you’ve had a ‘bad’ marriage, you can have a healthier and happier new relationship
Sure can, especially if you’ve reflected on your broken relationship and have taken responsibility for your part in its demise. What life lessons did you learn? Are you ready to go forward with an open heart and mind? Do you understand what makes a good marriage now? “Being aware of what constitutes good, respectful communication is the first step,” says Neal.
“Dealing with your own triggers and having effective ways to bring down your own stress levels when you feel ‘flooded’ is key. Being able to say ‘I’m feeling quite defensive, would you be able to say that in a different way’ can help you manage your own self-protective coping methods, which can otherwise lead to saying or doing regrettable things.”
What do you do to keep romance alive and your marriage strong?