Saturday 17 March 2018

The truth about couples

Picture posed.
Picture posed.

Anna Carey

We may live in an age in which celebrities tell the public everything about their relationships, but when it comes to ordinary people, do we really know what goes on behind closed doors?

Katie Price may not be able to go on a date without sharing her feelings about it in a lavish photoshoot, but most of us think our private lives should be, well, private. This is, in general, a good thing (would any sane person really want to talk about their marital woes or joys on the cover of OK! magazine?). But it also means that most of us have no idea how our own relationships compare with those of others. Are our relationships normal? And what is normal anyway?

Kate Figes has been happily married for 22 years and decided it was time to find out. Her new book Couples: The Truth (Virago, £14.99stg) is a fascinating look at modern relationships. As well as examining the existing research on long-term relationships, Figes talked to more than 120 people -- straight, cohabiting, married, divorced -- about their experiences in couplehood. And what she discovered about modern romance may surprise you. Many of today's romantic notions of what a happy relationship should be are actively damaging our love lives.

But, on a happier note, many of our grim ideas about modern marriage are not based in reality. So perhaps it's time to take a look at the truth behind some of today's most persistent relationship myths ...


In the past, few people even expected to love their spouses -- marriage was more about property and inheritance than romance. These days, however, we expect our partner to be everything to us: lover, friend, counsellor, constant companion, someone who sees the world exactly as we do. Figes believes that this idea does more harm than good.

"The modern romantic idea of a soulmate is so destructive," she says. "Instead of choosing someone they like, people feel they have to find the perfect fit." Figes thinks that the idea that there's one person out there who is your perfect match "is rubbish".

"In the first place, there are hundreds of people you could be happy with, and in the second, in some ways it's the differences, the things that mark you apart, that are more interesting. It's the unknown things that make a relationship magical, that change you over time, because through them you understand your own sense of self."


Believing you've got to find the perfect partner with whom you'll want to spend every waking moment not only hampers the quest to find a potential boy or girlfriend, it can also damage an existing relationship. "If you feel you have to be everything to each other and you have to do everything together, there's no space in your relationship," says Figes. "But you need space so you can come together." Happy couples are happy to spend time apart.


Conservative commentators are keen to blame feminism and the rise of working women for a supposed decline in functional heterosexual relationships. But research indicates that women who consider themselves to be feminists actually enjoy more positive romantic relationships with men than women who believe in more traditional gender roles. And equality in a relationship makes both men and women happier in general.

"Less traditional roles work better," says Figes. "You have more that you [can] share as a couple." Sharing childcare and domestic duties is particularly important for marital harmony -- research shows that men pulling their

weight around the house affected women's happiness more than any other factor.


We're constantly told by everyone from the Church to magazines that people give up on relationships too easily, that they abandon partners without a care and move on to their next conquest, that marriage is no longer taken seriously. But when a marriage is in trouble, today's couples are much more likely to seek counselling. Indeed, many people are so reluctant to end a relationship that they stay in it even when all hope is gone.

"It's hard to know where the line is between irretrievable breakdown, when you have to move on, and something that is really workable," says Figes. Extricating oneself from a relationship is as painful and heartbreaking today as it ever was, and today's couples seem willing to try harder than ever before to avoid that.

"People are co-habiting more, which is a sign of valuing marriage as an institution," says Figes. "They don't want to get married until they're sure [the marriage] stands a chance of working, because they don't want to get divorced."


It seems that in a world in which many of the taboos surrounding sexuality have been overcome, we put even greater value on fidelity. But Figes says that while fidelity is very important in her own marriage, she doesn't think it should be an automatic deal-breaker for everyone. Every relationship goes through bad patches. Does a partner's one-night stand, for example, cancel out all the good elements of your relationship? "If you understand that this is common or normal you can work through it to a better understanding," says Figes. "Couples who do work through these issues find their relationship is more positive as a result. With infidelity, trust is destroyed, which is painful. But when you think about other, positive things you have with that person, it could be a new beginning."


While the initial rush is never going to last forever, Figes discovered that for many people, sex just gets better the longer a couple stays together. And that's partly because they feel comfortable with each other. "You don't have to perform, you're not being judged, you know each other. To me, that seems much more sexy and liberating than anything you could ever get on [the] singles market."


These days, the classic nuclear family -- mammy and daddy and children living together -- is not the only sort of family around. People are defining 'family' in new ways, from loving gay and lesbian households to extended stepfamilies. Does this mean that the family as we know it is under threat? "Family life is not broken, but it's changing," says Figes. "We're going through a social revolution, but it's a good one." The modern nuclear family is a very recent development. In the past, families relied on networks of family and friends to raise children, so our modern 'chosen' families may be more traditional than we think.


The ball-and-chain idea that getting married or committing to a long-term partner means a loss of freedom is an old one. But is it valid today? Figes thinks not -- and we have feminism to thank for that. When men are no longer tied down to the classic provider role, and women are no longer chained to the kitchen sink, marriage doesn't have to mean being trapped. "There's an idea that you give up something huge in exchange for this commitment," she says. "But if you're in a happy relationship where you respect each other as individuals, I don't think you do give up anything; I think you gain."

Figes's book is a refreshing reminder that, with the right outlook, everyone can have a happy long-term relationship, one that will change and evolve over the years. "There's an idea that you don't have just one marriage, there are several different marriages within one marriage because it changes so much over time," says Figes. "If you think about it that way it's quite liberating."

And she says her own marriage has benefited from her work on the book.

"I felt much more positive about my own relationship. I always knew it was a good marriage but I didn't know how good it was until I looked at other people's. I think that's the message of the book -- we need to look at other relationships to assess our own."

Couples: The Truth by Kate Figes is published by Virago, £14.99 (€16.60)

Irish Independent

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