Secrets of living happily ever after
Our expert guide to keeping the magic in your marriage.
Published 02/04/2014 | 02:30
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have decided to 'uncouple' after 10 years of marriage, Halle Berry has been spotted out without her wedding ring after just eight months wed to Olivier Martinez and Justin Timberlake's granny is worried about how much time he's spending with his new wife Jessica Biel.
If the beautiful, rich and successful folks of Hollywood can't make it work – what hope is there for the rest of us?
We live in an era of marital strife with separation increasing six-fold in Ireland since 1986.
Despite spending more and more time trying to find love – signing up to dating apps like Tinder and online matchmaking sites – many of us find it hard to hold on to once the 'I dos' are over and the fairytale ending fails to materialise.
So what goes wrong? What mistakes do we make and how can we fix them?
We asked some of Ireland's top relationship experts for their insight into what makes a marriage fizzle ... and how to get it sizzling again.
WHAT GOES WRONG?
We lose the look of love
When you first meet your partner we see them with what psychologist Allison Keating, founder of Dublin's bWell clinic (bwell.ie), refers to as "beginner's eyes".
She explains: "At the beginning of a relationship the beautiful love hormone – oxytocin – can block our senses to potentially annoying or irritating aspects of our partner. But when the oxytocin wears away, we can swing the other way and only see the bad."
You let the negatives outweigh the positives
According to psychologist and mathematician, John Gottman, the magic ratio is 5:1 – for every one negative you say to your spouse you need five positive statements to counter-act the damage. "This is a hefty ratio," says Keating. "One that requires major commitment to adding to your marriage rather than picking at it."
You feel you've too much to lose by rocking the boat
The more time couples have invested in the relationship the more vulnerable they can feel about bringing up a difficult conversation.
Keating explains: "Psychologist Ziyad Marar's book Intimacy uses the example of the film Lost in Translation – that it's because Bob and Charlotte are unencumbered by knowing each other that their intimacy is created." They have nothing to lose by being honest with each other, unlike couples with a shared history who might fear hurting their partner by vocalising their concerns.
When you first met, you could have stayed up until 4am talking about anything. But now you go days without exchanging little more than a 'did you remember to put the bin out'.
"A big reason relationships lose their lustre is because couples find they have nothing to say to each other," explains consultant psychologist and marriage and family therapist Owen Connolly (counsellor.ie).
Sex loses its spark
Whilst issues in the bedroom can cause other problems, a waning sex life is generally a symptom of poor communication. "Often couples don't talk about how regularly they might want to be intimate or what form this might take," says sex therapist and psychotherapist Teresa Bergin (mindandbodyworks.com).
You're relying on your partner to make you happy
"A lot of relationships fail when one person puts themselves in the care of the other depending on them for their happiness," says Connolly.
"This suggests that they have not completed the emotional development stage that helps them to love who they are and share the love with a meaningful other."
"Sometimes couples drift apart and lead separate but parallel lives," explains Bergin. "They function adequately in the relationship but can find themselves five or 10 years down the road wondering who the other person is."
The relationship buffer gets worn away
According to sex and relationship therapist Tony Duffy (tonyduffy.com), every relationship needs a protective padding of honesty, trust and respect.
He explains: "Love is the glue that holds these elements together but if the glue starts to melt, the other elements fall away."
There is no fun any more
Life – children, work, financial problems – get in the way. "The relationship loses its priority and there is simply no 'together' time, no time just to talk, have fun or be sexually intimate," says Bergin.
WHAT ARE THE WRONG WAYS COUPLES TACKLE THESE PROBLEMS?
With the boom in social media forums and extra-marital affair websites, it's become ever easier to try and 'fix' the lack of excitement in your relationship by looking elsewhere.
"But the fun is short-lived and the aftershock of an affair can be devastating, leaving the marriage with far greater and more damaging problems than those one tried to escape from," warns Bergin.
You're not happy so you become destructive using, what Gottman refers to as 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' in a marriage: criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt.
Keating says: "Numbing out through alcohol, food, work, social media or porn anaesthetises the pain away ... but only temporarily."
Denial and delaying
"Most people tend to ignore the problem before looking for help, particularly if communication is an issue to begin with," explains Bergin. "There's an unspoken hope that the problem will just go away or improve with time."
Couples often will problems away by making promises to help around the house more or to be more attentive, "but the changes are short-lived and lead to further breakdown in the relationship", says Duffy.
Trying to block out the bad
"I often see couples who have suppressed their feelings about their marriage over a long period of time," reveals Bergin.
"They focus on what they perceive as the positive aspects of the relationship in an attempt to manage their disappointments in what might be missing but suppression doesn't work and the feelings leak out."
WHAT SHOULD COUPLES DO?
"Talk, talk, talk," says Duffy. "Talk about how you feel, what is going on for you, what you need from your partner and what you want – sexually and non-sexually."
Bergin agrees: "Turn off the TV, phones and tablets and have your dinner together once the children have gone to bed."
Get back to basics
"Look at your spouse with 'beginner's eyes'," advises Keating. "Really hear what they are saying, don't assume you already know."
Don't take the positives for granted ... and let some things go
Practise the 5:1 rule and show your spouse you appreciate what they do, rather than only pointing out what they don't do.
Duffy adds: "Ask yourself what is important, being right all the time or being happy some of the time? Don't let stubbornness or pride get in the way."
Prioritise the relationship
"Make a plan to put time aside on a regular basis to nurture your marriage," says Bergin.
"Validate your partner, take responsibility for your own behaviour and what changes you can make to your attitude."
Consider professional help
"Seek the help of a professional who understands the emotional need in the relationship and the measure of emotional need they have been missing," says Connolly.
Don't dismiss the importance of fun (together or apart)
Bergin explains: "It might mean rediscovering things you used to enjoy but let drift. It could mean trying out something completely new and fresh together. It's very easy to get into the habit of sitting in front of the television together night after night but this can make a marriage inert and stale and the couple devoid of enthusiasm and energy."
Schedule intimacy and talk about sexual needs
"The fact is spontaneity is a challenge in our busy lives and if we rely on that to ensure regular sexual closeness we're taking a risk," says Bergin.
"Timetabling can work particularly well for women who are concerned about a drop in their libido and get anxious if spontaneous desire doesn't happen."
Sexual relationships change over a lifetime and it's important to talk to each other about finding a way to be sexual that works for you.