Does your love have longevity? We asked three Irish couples to audit their relationship with the F-Word test
How would your marriage score on the F-Word Test? (That's family, fighting, finances, familiarity, finding help and fooling around.) Arlene Harris asks three Irish couples to audit their relationship, with additional reporting by Suzanne Harrington
Why do people still get married?
It used to be a straightforward exchange of capital for labour, but now that we ladies earn our own capital, why do we still persist in being "given away", relinquishing our surnames, trading our autonomy? Does "love me forever" translate to "I'm terrified of being alone", which provides the real driver behind cultural ephemera like Love Island and Tinder? Or has marriage, now a choice rather than an inevitability, become a status symbol, the banner of a well-functioning private life?
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None of these are the questions asked in an enjoyable new book, Marriageology by Belinda Luscombe, a Sydney-born, New York-based Time journalist. Luscombe, married to an architect for 28 years ("like 35 in human years"), examines instead what it takes to stay coupled long term, pointing out that "any fool can be married for a year", and given how uncoupling is no longer culturally taboo ("modern marital splits feel more like euthanasia in a high-end veterinarian's office"), how it takes grit to stay together. Grit and emotional intelligence.
"This is the person," she reminds us, "whose hair will forever clog my drain."
Luscombe identifies six F-words that impact long-term relationships - family, fighting, finances, familiarity, finding help and fooling around. Working on the idea that marriage/long-term relationships are good for us in terms of body, bank and bed (although London School of Economics behavioural scientist Paul Dolan's new book, Happy Ever After, disputes this, saying that the happiest women alive are those who have never married or had children), Luscombe acknowledges how "we have built a culture of marriage that is heavily front-loaded" with the wedding as "the end-point, the culmination". And how a Harvard study showed that "living in a high-conflict marriage was akin to living in a war zone". Which nobody wants, and which is why so many of us either bail out, or remain blissfully unmarried.
Remaining happily married does not happen by accident; it requires luck (finding a compatible mate), a growth mindset (rather than an inflexible fixed outlook, given how humans change over time) and perseverance (not legging it when the Four Horsemen of marital doom - contempt, defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling - ride in.) She suggests several doable strategies to combat familiarity fatigue and the dreaded being-taken-for-granted: regularly expressing gratitude to your spouse; celebrating their victories; asking them to help you with stuff. And doing fun, exciting things together - adventures, travel, sport, and adrenaline-based activities create greater bonding between a couple than pizza in front of the telly (although that's nice too - just not all the time).
Crucially, Luscombe urges couples to seek help - couples therapy - before help is actually needed; typically, couples limp on for six years before making the first appointment. She very sensibly points out that like all health issues, physical, mental or emotional, prevention is better than cure - and it's far easier to have a safe, private, neutral forum in which to discuss your relationship issues constructively than assuming it will endlessly nurture itself, like some kind of self-watering plant.
It won't. It needs care and attention and input and innovation, the same as any other important venture. "We don't find soulmates," she writes. "We become them."
Luscombe thinks of the six F-words as challenges that all married or committed-for-life couples have to master... so we asked three couples to tell us how they're managing it.
The stress of losing our home took a slice out of our marriage
Artist Deborah Donnelly lives in Dún Laoghaire with her husband, John, and children, Evin (17), Franky (12) and Casey (11). They have been together for 15 years and she says relationships are all about compromise.
"In the beginning, I took on the traditional role even though I was also working. Of course I struggled doing it all and eventually we got an au pair, which worked well. I like cooking so that was always my role while the washing-up was John's - it took a long time to divide the housework."
"We had many screaming rows when the kids were younger as there was no time - too much housework and no time for each other or ourselves. It was a game of tag; when John came in from work, I headed out for a walk and some calm time."
"John was always the continuous wage earner and mine would swing in roundabouts. Everything goes into the one account and we both add to it every month. In boom times I was earning the most, but it has evened out."
"We try to keep a date night once a week - but with the school holidays, the schedule is all over the place. Getting out is important and it always takes us a while to unwind."
"We have seen therapists separately and are now in therapy together as it's where we can talk to each other. We went through an extremely stressful situation of losing our home, which took a slice out of our marriage, and I believe we wouldn't be together if our therapist hadn't intervened. We are in deep mourning after the loss of our home and we took it out on each other. We both feel so sad and shamed by the whole thing but are now on our second marriage to each other and can communicate much better. I can't imagine not having a therapist."
"The physical side is very important and we start being extra-sarcastic when we don't get our 'special hugs'. How we manage to fit this in I have no idea - but we do."
If there’s a problem we sort it rather than letting it fester
Louise Feaheny from Wexford lives with her husband, Jack, and daughter, Fía (one), in Madrid. Having met at primary school, they have been a couple for 12 years. Jack is an English teacher while Louise works in customer support and as a dog trainer. With their hectic lives, Louise says they share most tasks equally.
"When I was pregnant I had hyperemesis gravidarum and sciatica so Jack took on the lion's share of the housework and shopping. I was extremely ill and most days didn't want to eat, but he always prepared food for me. He also took care of the animals, walked the dogs, made sure the house was clean and the laundry done.
As I breastfed Fía, Jack believed my job was to keep her going so he kept me going. These days I work from 8am-3.30pm at home doing customer support, then when Jack gets back he takes over with Fía and I go to a dog-training consultation. While I'm gone, he normally prepares dinner and puts Fía to bed."
"We sometimes bicker over small things but don't let stuff build up and explode. If something's annoying me, I'll say it and vice versa. It means that whenever there's a problem, we work on sorting it out straight away instead of letting it fester. We've been together for so long that we know each other pretty well and know when something is annoying the other. When we're really tired we snap a little more often than usual, but it's over stupid things which are easily fixed."
"Although we have two separate accounts (I'm self-employed so it makes things easier for tax reasons), we've always seen our finances as "our" money. Since I normally get paid first, the major bills come out of my account, then we use the money in Jack's account for day-to-day stuff."
"This is where we've struggled since Fía was born as we've only gone on two dates: once at Christmas while visiting my parents and once a couple of months ago when friends took Fía, but we ended up leaving at the interval because she was upset.
"We go to restaurants with Fía and try to do nice things for each other, like a few weeks ago Jack surprised me with flowers to say thanks for being a great mum and I've bought him little gifts from Fía when we're out and about.
"Next week we're going home for Fía's first birthday and we're staying in a hotel for a night while my parents babysit, but we're considering just ordering room service and enjoying a good night's sleep."
"If there were issues, we would speak to each other and if they got really bad, we'd consider speaking to someone else. The most important thing is to work through them together. We believe we're a partnership and need each other's help. It's not possible or fair for just one person to shoulder all the responsibility."
"Since having Fía I've felt extremely touched-out at times and some days can barely stand a kiss on the cheek. Jack understands this and is extremely respectful. If either of us ever decided to look elsewhere, it would absolutely be a deal-breaker. A relationship needs to be based on mutual trust and respect."
One thing we find really hard is getting time to ourselves
Jacqui Twohig lives in Kerry with her fiancé, John Paul O’Connor, and their son, Jack (4½ months). John Paul has three children from a previous relationship, Emily (13), Sean (seven) and Luke (six). Both work in the fitness industry and have their own businesses (Jacqui is also a life coach). The busy couple have been together for two years, and Jacqui says finding time together can be difficult.
"John Paul is really busy with work so can be gone from 5.30am until 10.15pm, so I do most of the cooking, laundry and housework as best I can with a small baby. But at weekends we share the tasks. I don't mind as he's super busy and once I get Jack down or playing happily on his mat, it's not a problem."
"We don't argue much as we just say what's bothering us and sort it out. I don't believe in blazing rows and like to have a calm energy in the house and set a lovely example for the kids. There will always be things that need to be addressed but it can be done in a calm way.
"But after a sleepless night, the smallest things set me off and I feel like crying, but generally I just need an hour to myself and once John Paul is available, he makes sure I have me-time."
"In terms of finances, we both work so it's equal enough. John Paul probably contributes more to the food shopping. But I don't see it as 'mine' and 'his' - it's ours. Our family is everything - we work for us as a unit so it doesn't matter either way."
"The one thing we find really hard is having time to ourselves. We talk about having a night out, listening to music and having a few drinks but it sounds like a dream. John Paul works late so usually I'm in bed before he gets home. Then at weekends we have the children so it's pretty hectic apart from Sunday evenings when we chill out together."
"If things got tough, we would take steps to work things out. I'm a huge believer in being in control of our thoughts and reactions and working through things. Communication is really important and, being a life coach, I work on this daily."
"The physical side is a way to express how we feel about each other and it's really important - not the most vital part of a relationship but it's important - although a little harder with a small baby."