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Could These Six Words Save Your Relationship?

Grazia logo Grazia 11/06/2019 Sofia Tindall
a close up of a tattoo: Marriage rules © Provided by Bauer Consumer Media Limited Marriage rules

When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m always at a loss. I usually end up saying ‘I tell stories about humans’ – but more accurately, I write about human relations. And what I’ve noticed is that our species spends a lot of time thinking about how to raise happy kids, and how to make ourselves happy – but marriage, the trickiest of relationships because it’s the one you choose to have, gets short shrift.

I’ve been writing about and researching marriage for more than a decade for Time magazine. I’ve always found the subject fascinating, because nearly everybody has a story about the institution that is central to their lives – whether it’s their own marriage, their parents’, their children’s, their best friend’s or even their lover’s. Marriage – by which I mean any exclusive lifetime commitment to one other soul, whether made official by the state or church or not – pushes people to the extremes: humans can become their best selves, capable of great empathy and sacrifice. Or they can transform from nice neighbours into people capable of spectacularly petty and vengeful behaviour.

When the latest official figures show 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce, how do you make sure you end up in, or at least reasonably near, the first category? As I researched, I realised there are six places that marriages come unstuck – six skills that people have to master to become good at marriage.

Totally coincidentally, they all begin with F: familiarity, or not letting the completely natural irritation you occasionally have with the person you live with slip into contempt; fighting, or figuring out how to disagree without making each other feel under attack; finances, or how to manage your relationship with each other and money; fooling around (not my original F-word), or how to keep the spark alive; family, or how to protect your love for each other after you have kids; and finding help, or what to do when the first five go wrong.

There’s no one way to get better at all those things. But the research suggests that a combination of refocusing the lens of your life and making small adjustments to break some patterns can make a big difference. Some of the studies on how to stay in love suggest it requires a wholesale shift in focus, like seeing your partner as a teammate in a tricky undertaking, rather than just someone who’s there to make you happy or look after you. Other research suggests that some really simple shifts in behaviour have a revolutionary effect, especially when fighting.

Gallery: 50 bad habits that affect your relationship (Espresso)

For instance, don’t fight over text (too easy to be misunderstood). Don’t fight while driving (we primates are alarmed by things in our peripheral vision). Don’t fight while anyone is hungry or just before bed (feel free to go to bed angry). Remember to avoid noxious phrases like ‘You always...' (try, ‘I find it difficult when...’) – and never, for the love of mercy, follow the words ‘I’m sorry’ with the words ‘if ’ or ‘but’.

It’s an insult. It’s patronising. Nobody who has explained to you what is upsetting them is going to be satisfied by that response, because it lacks the prime apology ingredient: remorse. When you add an ‘if ’ or a ‘but’ to your apology, you are declining to acknowledge any fault. Stuff like that was actually really helpful to my marriage (especially after I explained it to my spouse).

The questions people most want answered, I’ve found, are about sex. And of course, these are the trickiest. Studies suggest that we have actually been in something of a worldwide sex recession since the year 2000, roughly when broadband internet became widely available. 

But generally, sex therapists note, people are too focused on quantity when it comes to their bedroom activities. ‘People come to my office and say to me, “Tell me how often people have sex,” and I won’t do that,’ says therapist and author Marty Klein. Instead of focusing on how much sex you’re having, experts say, spend a bit more time worrying about how much you talk about sex. (Complaining doesn’t count.) What do you understand about each other’s fantasies? And, by the way, someone did a study on the optimal amount of sex and came up with a number, for what it’s worth: once a week.

One of my favourite discoveries, and the one I most easily put into practice with my own spouse, was the research that suggested that celebrating your spouse’s victories was as important as bearing his or her burdens and troubles.

One researcher got an email that his wife’s paper had been accepted into a prestigious journal, and he printed it out large and hung it on the front door so she could see it when she got home. My husband and I are not really in the prestigious journal business – he’s an architect – but we celebrate every small triumph we can: ‘The electrician showed up today!!!!!!’

Here’s the other thing about working on your marriage. It has a ripple effect. As I’ve learned how to make my spouse happy, I’ve also learned to make others happier as well. Charity, it turns out, really does begin at home.

MSN are empowering Women In Sport this summer. Find out more about our campaign and the charity fighting to promote the transformational and lifelong rewards of exercise for women and girls in the UK here.

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