Romance: For better, for worse, and the bits in between
Staying married can be hard, and staying in love harder still. Emily Hourican admits that she doesn't have the answers, but she does have some ideas, beginning with definite suggestions of what not to do, and one top sex tip
Good old Confucius said, 'Choose a job you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.' Really, the same should be true about marriage or life-long commitment: 'Choose a person you love and you'll never have to work at your relationship.' Sadly though, happy-ever-after is only the beginning. You find, you marry, you walk off into the sunset, and then the really hard work begins.
How do you live with this person you have chosen? Spend every day and night with them? Put up with their various irritating quirks of personality and habit? Have sex only with them for the rest of your life? How do you prevent irritation, exhaustion and familiarity from grinding away at the love you thought would effortlessly last?
Good questions, and I don't have the answers. I am married 12 years now (or maybe 13, I never can quite remember), and added to the perfect union of two, there are now three children. I have no magic formula for marriage - anyone who says they do is living in a gossamer-thin glasshouse surrounded by rock-throwing giants - but I have, I think, worked out a few vital things.
Staying in love is a challenge; not falling out of love, in love with anyone else, or allowing love to be covered up by so many layers of indifference, boredom, resentment and irritation that it would take an archaeological dig to slowly brush them away and uncover the affection beneath.
Before the dos, there are some don'ts. First, don't expect marriage to be a bed of roses. It won't be, because Life will intervene. Children, if you have them, are almost harder again. They are, of course, the glue in many relationships, but they are also the Semtex; sometimes both at the same time. Love may well be deepened by the arrival of children, but so, often, is exasperation and a sense of grievance.
Don't - please! - expect your Significant Other to be your Significant Everything. It is not reasonable to believe that one person can be friend, lover, cheerleader, supporter, mentor, style adviser and bin-taker-out. That's what we have family, work colleagues, a whole variety of pals and paid help for.
I don't expect my husband to watch rom-coms with me (except ones with Sandra Bullock), or gossip about whether so-and-so has had work done. Neither do I feel disappointed when he fails to enter enthusiastically into schemes for redecorating the front room. However, I do expect him to be my ally, in life and in the home (if we are not an ostensibly united front against the children, we are sunk!).
I also expect him to honour the deal between us. Everyone makes a different deal - some want a partner to provide excitement, for others its financial security, order, whatever. I want what I have come to rely on from him: a long-sighted view of the world, even temper and an unshakable faith that everything is fine. That is the safe harbour against which my own, more immoderate, personality can batter. That and the ability to make me laugh even when everything seems deeply gloomy. If he fails to provide this, for whatever reason (because he is out of sorts, or I am more than usually unreasonable), I feel as if the ground has given way underneath me.
So, honour the deal, whatever it is, as long as it's healthy (you are not required to keep up the baby-talk just because you enjoyed it when you first met), and does not preclude personal growth. But be prepared to change the deal as circumstances require. Kindness, tolerance and a sense of humour are worth more than diamonds and pearls - I'm presuming. I don't know a whole lot about diamonds and pearls, but I do know that when the chips are down, believing that the person you live with will be a source of strength and silly jokes, is major.
All of that said, beyond the kind of foundation-laying stuff, there is a place for the odd cutesy show of romantic thoughtfulness too. Sending little cards, making favourite meals, offering lie-ins, afternoons off ... These things won't necessarily transform your life into something from a chocolate ad, but they will remind you of what lies beyond the scrum of domesticity.
Do work out the glue between you. Figure out what you enjoy doing together, something that works for both of you as opposed to one partner chivvying the other along - 'of course you love hill walking! What do you mean your feet are sore?' - and do it. Whether it's going to football matches, eating, sitting watching box sets - it doesn't really matter, as long as you both get the same kick out of it. Keep doing it. Even if it's time-consuming, even if the demands of work/ kids/ elderly parents/ social life are such that you feel inclined to let it slip - don't. You need that time, and that burst of enthusiasm, together.
Try not to do that thing of ignoring your partner's good qualities and focussing on the noisy way they eat soup, or the fact that they leave the towels on the bathroom floor. Remind yourself of the best that's in them. The fact they are an amazing parent, have a genius sense of direction, are a font of knowledge about 1980s pop songs, whatever it is. Play to their strengths.
It is probably impossible to stop having the odd crush - on a friend, a colleague, the guy in the local hipster coffee shop - but, as adults, we have a duty to look at the object of our crush with the wise, open eyes of experience, and not the giddy, hormonal gaze of teenage obsession. OK, so you quite fancy the new guy/girl in accounts, but apart from being good-looking, what are they actually like? A bit boastful? Boring? Self-obsessed? Come on, admit it, they aren't actually perfect. Focus on the feet of clay, the actual person rather than the shimmering mirage your mind has created from nothing more than a well-cut suit and good skin.
As for sex, well, I have a horribly pragmatic attitude to that. Just do it, is what I think. Stop thinking about how tired you are, how not in the mood or busy. Stop waiting until you feel like the Empress Josephine anticipating the arrival of Napoleon fresh from the battlefield, and just do it, same as you would any other domestic chore.
Yes, I know, that sounds about as romantic as a drawer full of cutlery. The thing is, if you wait for the mood to strike and a moment of irresistible desire to wash over you, sex might never happen at all. Such are the demands of life, plus the very likely chance that, when the lightning bolt strikes, you will be driving, or in the supermarket.
That said, the idea of regular date nights creeps me out. I don't even know why. Maybe it's the feeling that there should be some kind of spontaneity left? Or the fear of committing to an entire night, including dinner and gazing into each other's eyes, when secretly you'd both rather stay at home and watch Wolf Hall? 'Just do it' seems a more achievable goal, with the bonus of not being actually scheduled; more a sort of seize-the-moment thing.
And so, my advice is, think of a number, whether once a week, once a month, once a day - double it (that's my husband's contribution by the way, something for the men of Ireland) - and do it. You don't stop doing laundry because you're tired, or not in the mood. You plod on through, because otherwise no one would have clean clothes. Stop having sex because you're tired or not feeling it, and no one (well, you and your partner) will have goodwill. Have you noticed the way, when nothing is happening in the bedroom, every argument becomes secretly about that? You might think you're fighting about who did the washing up last, but actually, the subtext is resentment about not getting laid. So, just do it. You know you'll be the happier.
We all want to be that elderly couple who still hold hands as they walk to the shops, the ones who can cope when their children move out, because they are happy with each other. They are who we all have somewhere in mind when we say 'I do,' even if we hope for many years of swinging from chandeliers first. It isn't easy to be them, but it is worth the effort. Again, that's not romantic, but it is real.