I always get a bit perplexed when people ask me for relationship advice. I mean, what would I know? I never really did any dating (not even quite sure I understand how that works), know nothing about casual relationships (don’t get that at all, either we’re crazy about each other or we’re not, in which case go away) and I’m not experienced enough to know much about marriage. And yet people have told me that by some miracle I have been able, on occasion, to give good advice. Maybe that’s simply because I’m interested, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it both for myself and for people I care about. I don’t make any claims to being an expert, I really don’t. The most I can say is that I have lived with someone for thirteen years and we haven’t managed to kill each other yet.
So, what is the secret to a happy, lasting relationship? I have seen a lot of strong relationships and no two are the same, so maybe there isn’t one thing that makes the difference, just as I’m pretty sure there isn’t that one soulmate out there for all of us. However, as our fifth anniversary approaches, and by way of marking the occasion, I am going to note down my musings on the subject, just so that everybody who knows about all this much better than I do can smile at my charming ignorance, and wait for the day when it all goes horribly wrong.
1. A Fine Romance
How important is romance to the success of a marriage? In my opinion, not very. Heidi Klum and Seal are proof of that. I love celebrity gossip, I’m a glutton for it. I have had OK, Heat and Hello magazine posted out to every corner of the world as regularly as possible for the last five years just so I can keep up with what’s happening (thanks Dad) and so the marriage of Heidi Klum and Seal has been on my radar for a while. We were always being shown pictures of them blissfully draped over each other, cuddling happy children and beaming on a beach having just renewed their wedding vows. They do this every year on their anniversary – they throw a big party, get all dressed up and stand up in front of everyone they know and declare undying love for each all over again. Romantic, right? Except they’re now dragging each other through the divorce court. So somewhere behind all that front, all those hearts and flowers, there were some pretty serious problems.
That’s the thing with romantic gestures, often they are just that – a gesture. And I’m not saying that romantic relationships are not lasting relationships as often, of course, they are, but all I’m saying is that it’s not a dealbreaker. In the long run it doesn’t actually make too much difference if it’s there or it’s not. But that could just be my bitterness talking – I mean, I am married to The Least Romantic Man in History. The man who doesn’t buy me cut flowers because ‘they just die’, and who chose a particular style of engagement ring based on the fact that ‘it wouldn’t snag on jumpers’. But the thing is, I do agree with his reasoning in these matters, and I can’t claim to be very good at romance myself. In any case, a lot of our story as a couple has been extremely romantic (albeit unintentionally) and, to give him his due, he has had a few little stabs at romance (piece of tanzanite for my thirtieth birthday anyone? New years’ proposal on a windswept Northumberland beach?) and on these rare occasions I have been all the more bowled over simply because it is rare and unexpected. One thing I really appreciate about his lack of romantic gestures is that, from what I’ve heard, a lot of them involve surprises, and I hate, TRULY HATE, being surprised. He knows this about me and so therefore doesn’t do it. In some ways someone having that insight about you is the most romantic thing of all.
Now this IS a dealbreaker. No-one should even consider marrying someone they wouldn’t be friends with. You should enjoy the simple act of hanging out together; after all, that’s what you’re going to be doing for THE REST OF YOUR LIVES. I’ve actually heard people saying on more than one occasion – “I love So-and-so, I just don’t like him very much.” There’s only one answer to this – “Tell So-and-so to get stepping, because the things that drive you nuts about him now are only going to drive you more nuts down the line.” Enjoying doing things together, good communication, honesty, having some shared interests – these are the building blocks of any friendship, and certainly should be of the uber-friendship that is a marriage.
Most of all though – laughter. Most good friends laugh together a lot, and so do most happily married couples. After all, a lot of life is silly and ridiculous and laughable, especially when you’re raising kids, and sometimes if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. Oh but laughing is so much more fun, and I love how much I laugh these days, even when I shouldn’t. A case in point being the other morning when H fell up the stairs, removing part of a banister and splitting his toenail in the process. OK, it doesn’t sound that funny now I’ve written it down, but the girls and I (and even the victim) were in creases. I guess you had to be there.
3. Walking on Sunshine?
Your relationship should be one of the best things that ever happened to you, sure, but it is unrealistic to believe that you’re going to float through life in a pink bubble of happiness. Of course you’re not, nobody does; there are tough times for everyone in this world. What is important in a marriage is that you stick together even when life isn’t the proverbial cherry bowl. And in some ways making it through something together actually strengthens your bond. When you find yourself in stormy waters, the extreme stress can threaten to tear you apart, but if you hold fast, and haul each other up out of the freezing waves, you can feel proud that you made it through together, that you were truly tested, and that you passed. After all, that’s the only way to feel sure that you can face whatever else may lie ahead.
And will you always feel as lovesick as a pair of teenagers? Probably not. There are ebbs and flows to a marriage – times when you’re more Al and Peg Bundy than Tom and Barbara Goode – but I think as long as you’re still friends, you’ll know the next episode of The Good Life is probably just about to start.
4. We’re All Part of the Masterplan
Having the same ideas about where you want to steer this ship of life is completely and utterly essential. If your dreams are completely different, how are you going to pull together to make them a reality? If one of you dreams of having a view of the Manhattan skyline and the other one wants to herd yaks on the Russian Steppe, one of two things is likely to happen: either one of you will end up having to sacrifice your dream, or you’ll end up apart.
One thing really baffles me though – how can anyone end up in a relationship with someone when one of them wants to have kids and the other doesn’t? I may reveal myself to be something of a bunny boiler here, but I have always managed to introduce this topic of conversation pretty early on in a relationship. I think everyone should have this discussion, and others about what your goals are, right away – after all, there’s really no point in getting involved with someone if you’re not headed in the same general direction.
5. Anything You Can Do, I Can’t Do Better
Any effective team utilises the strengths of its members to become greater than the sum of its parts, and this is equally true of a marriage. For example, in my marriage, I’m Head of Communications (I should add that I have a few other titles as well but this is the one I’m most proud of). My husband doesn’t believe in sending emails you see. Some of his friends wouldn’t be sure from year to year whether he was still alive if it weren’t for the sporadic photographic evidence on Facebook. Should they ever need to get in touch with him they do so through me since I, unlike him, actually reply. Unfortunately this seems to be a family trait – the only communication H and his brother have done in the last five years has been effected through me and his brother’s girlfriend, with whom I communicate every few days.
The same goes for the telephone. Should anyone call, the phone is generally hastily thrust in my direction, more often than not because the person on the other end is speaking Spanish, and translation comes under my remit. Congratulations on your wedding, new baby welcomes, condolences – look no further, this is all in my job description.
And this is totally fine, because I’ll admit this definitely suits my skill set, and there are many, many things that H handles that I would be likely to fail at (driving, anything involving money, DIY – yes, that’s right, it’s still 1957 chez Davies).
So that’s my big five, the top five ingredients for a marriage that has the potential to go the distance. But even if you have all these great building blocks going into it, it’s still unlikely to be all plain sailing. Sometimes it feels like you’re suffering with the same frustrations over and over again, and this is probably because you are. The best thing I’ve learned in the past 13 years is that the quicker you realise what you are unlikely to be able to change about your partner and learn to love (or at least live with) it the happier you will be. And one of the things I’ve had to learn to love (live with) about H is a real classic and may be a universal truth. Now listen I’m not a big exponent of the whole Men are from Mars thing – I hate the whole idea of stereotypes – but there are truly are certain differences between men and women. H, like all men, thinks the correct response to being told about a problem is to try and solve it. Most men reading this are probably thinking – yes, of course, what’s wrong with that? What most men don’t realise is that us women like to just be able to talk through our issues just so that through sharing them, through vocalising them, we are able to figure out what we feel about them. Men hate this. They hate it. They just want to get it sorted ASAP, and move on. And after ending up arguing about this more times than I can count, we finally figured this out. We’re just different. And listen, sometimes what I need is a problem solver; sometimes what I really need is to cut the crap and get it sorted. When that isn’t what I want I chat to a female friend.
We didn’t write our own wedding vows. It seemed an impossible task when we’d never been married before and therefore really had no idea what it was all about. Now, even though it’s only been five years, I think I could have a go. Maybe if one day we get round to renewing our vows, like Heidi Klum and Seal (maybe not), they could go something like this:
“I do solemnly promise to be your best friend. I will know you; I will understand things about you that no-one else does. I promise always to talk to you, to tell you the truth about you and about me. I promise to challenge you when I don’t agree with what you’re doing or thinking. I promise to push you to be the best person you can be. I promise to make plans with you, to always be excited about our future, to believe that there is nothing we cannot achieve together. I will take you on adventures. I will make you laugh. I promise to keep you guessing. I promise to enjoy life just as much as you do. I promise to be a tender, enthusiastic, loving parent; to feel as passionately about our children and our family life as you do. I promise to share the work, to work better as a team than we do alone. I will make you proud, and will be proud of you. When things go wrong, I promise to be there; we’ll get through the hard times and smile again. I won’t expect you to be perfect or to always know what to say or do. I will never let you down. I promise to remember every day how lucky and glad I am to have you in my life…
…even when you’re driving me nuts.”
That last bit is an optional codicil.
So since I’ll be eleven thousand miles away on the day, I will get in a little early and say thanks to my best friend in the world for a hilariously funny, thoroughly unromantic, sometimes tough, but always amazing first five years of marriage. Here’s to many, many more.