Why bother maintaining a just bearable relationship?
We all know couples who cling together like two trees in a gale force wind, yet seem unhappy but why settle for nothing special?
It is often said that when you meet “the one”, you know it. Some deep part of you responds on a profound level, basically that your Soulmate-ometer goes off.
We have put romance on such a pedestal that we value it above all love. When two people begin a romance we say, “I hope it works out”, which generally means “I hope they get married and live happily ever after, forever”. So, does that in turn mean that only marriages that end in death count as having worked out?
A marriage is taken more seriously, legally and generally, than a non-legally contracted relationship no matter how long that has lasted, it’s the gold standard of “working out”.
A good marriage is generally perceived to be one where it ticks along nicely, it’s civil, companionable, no-one thumps anyone and both parties are faithful. If the marker of a relationship having ‘worked out’ is that it endures for all our lives, surely it skews the standards by which we assess what a good relationship is.
If the standard is longevity, that means that the lovely relationship that made you happy and taught you lots but just ran out of magic is worth less than a fairly unhappy, boring, lacklustre marriage that lasts for 50 years.
It’s often lamented that marriage is changing, that people don’t take it so seriously anymore or see the real meaning, as in the religious one, but marriage is first and foremost a legal contract.
When it was invented thousands of years ago it was basically as a property contract to regulate inheritance, romance was not a big feature.
Even if people believe marriage was invented by God, it remains true that at the time average life expectancy was about 30, thanks to the perils of childbirth, plague and poor work health and safety standards.
For most of the time that people were married the husband was off on crusade or discovering America or down a mine while the wife was living in godawful conditions worrying about very literally life or death issues.
In short, the plan never was that people would come home to each other every day at six for 50 years wondering what to make for tea and if tomorrow is green-bin day.
Before Christianity became the dominant force in Ireland, forever was not a major factor in marriage either.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, according to Donnchadh O’Corrain’s book Marriage in Early Ireland, marriage was a complex set of arrangements for the main part.
“A woman could divorce her husband for many reasons: sterility, impotence, being a churchman (whether in holy orders or not), blabbing about the marriage bed, calumniation, wife-beating, repudiation (including taking a secondary wife), homosexuality, failure of maintenance.
“A man could divorce his wife for abortion, infanticide, flagrant infidelity, infertility and bad management. Insanity, chronic illness, a wound that was incurable in the opinion of a judge, leech or lord, retirement to a monastery or going abroad on pilgrimage were adequate grounds for terminating a marriage.”
It was only when Christianity took firm hold that the terms “marriage” and “sacred” became related and divorce became against the rules. Still, the new habits took a few centuries to be accepted, according to historyofireland.com “Pilib Mag Uidhir, lord of Fermanagh (d. 1395), had 20 sons by eight mothers and Toirdhealbach O Domhnaill, lord of Tir Conaill had 18 sons by ten different women.” And we can assume a few daughters too.
Yet for most of the most recent century people were supposed to stay married no matter what.
Marital rape was not considered a crime, how could a husband rape a wife? Gardai would not intervene in domestic matters, so if a husband was beating his wife senseless on a regular basis she had nowhere to go, it was not even considered that a wife might be abusive to a husband.
To be separated was shameful, to be divorced was impossible until 1997.
So it is under a weight of conflicting history and influences, a mix of Hollywood, tradition, porn, religion and the mythology of “the one” and soulmates that we arrive at what we are told is the most important thing ever, romance.
To top it off we bring all our own personal baggage about what we want from a relationship, what we need, what we consider acceptable or desirable. Love, that purest of emotions ends up being the most complex thing.
Clare* suffered from bad depression in her early twenties. “I knew I was gay early on but I was too afraid to come out so that was a stress, I just didn’t want to be gay. So I had a couple of long-term relationships with boys, nice boys, and then started seeing girls.
“It was just drunken flings first off but then I fell for someone really hard even though I knew straight off she was a complete b*tch. But maybe that was the appeal. I felt guilty and full of shame so in my head bad treatment was what I deserved.”
Lots of people stay in abusive relationships because their own self-esteem is low, because on some level they feel that that is what they deserve.
Despite how bad the relationship was, Clare felt even worse when it was over. “I completely fell to pieces when it ended and went to a counsellor, we worked out that being in a crappy relationship had been like a distraction from other things I didn’t want to think about.
“As long as I had drama around my ex I didn’t have to focus on other things that were really bothering me. It’s funny how the mind works.”
A difficult relationship can be a distraction from other issues.
Helen* hasn’t had sex with her husband for, she thinks, about seven years. Gynaecological issues for Helen caused problems but she said she was glad of the excuse.
“I hadn’t fancied him for years and I just did it the odd time because I felt bad saying no,” she says. Their sex life never resumed when she got well.
“He’s not the kind to raise issues so we have actually never discussed it. We’ve been married for 27 years and we get on very well, it’s what lots of people would call a great marriage, but sexually it’s been a huge let down for both of us. I never did anything about it.
“I wasn’t brave enough. I feel like I missed out on a big part of being a woman.”
Marjorie* has been married for over 50 years and tells me: “My husband never talks to me, we don’t chat, we don’t discuss anything, I have great friends and I chat to them, I don’t really know if he talks to anyone, I doubt it.”
Is he her best friend?
“I’m not sure that he’s my friend at all. He’s just my husband.”
Marjorie says that it would never have occurred to her to end her marriage.
“There was nothing wrong with it, my husband provided, we had a nice life, he’s a Pioneer and he wasn’t violent but anyway, I made a promise before God.”
Some people simply do not believe in divorce, others find themselves trapped by circumstances, leaving a cohabiting relationship can be an expensive business.
Fiona* says that she would love to leave her relationship.
“It hasn’t made me happy for years but there are five people in my family, we have three kids, and I left to make myself happy, I’d be making four other people unhappy so I can’t justify that.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that married men are much less likely to leave a long-term relationship unless they have met someone else, while women are more likely to leave if they just aren’t happy. Still, we associate being in a couple with a certain success, being single with a certain failure.
The Bridget Jones character (inset, left) capitalised on that perception and there is a huge fear of loneliness, but being lonely within a bad relationship is often more difficult than being lonely alone.
The 80-20 principle is a mathematical probability that has been applied to business, economics, science and eating amongst other things.
As a nutrition principle it is that 80pc of the diet should be healthy and 20pc treats. Do we have a barometer for relationships.
Each person will have a different definition of what constitutes a good relationship.
Is an absence of maltreatment, good treatment? Is not being unhappy, happy? Should your life partner also be your best friend? Does sex matter?
What are the deal breakers? It’s rumoured that Melanie Griffith has filed for divorce from Antonio Banderas because he had “developed a closeness” to an Indian actress in Cannes two years ago.
But is infidelity the deal-breaker we assume it to be?
Fiona deals with her emotional impasse by having flings.
“For years I felt really hard done by, like I was trapped by other people’s needs, then I went on a girls’ holiday abroad and met a man in a bar and had a one-night stand. I felt really guilty that first time, guilty but so alive.
“I do it the odd time now and I don’t feel guilty but would hate to get caught. Little flings are exciting and enable me to stay in my marriage and keep everyone happy.”
The popularity of marital infidelity websites suggests Fiona is not alone. It is certainly worth wondering if a partner is kind and makes you feel good but occasionally dabbles elsewhere, is that really worse than a partner who is faithful for 20 years but is frequently mean and inconsiderate and makes you feel bad?
Relationships go through different phases and sometimes negotiate tough external factors that alter the dynamics for a time. But what is the tipping point?
If the 80-20 principle works for eating practices, business, criminology and marketing should we not also have some scale for relationships? Or should we expect less from the love of our lives?
*Names have been changed