Monday 20 January 2014

Why Relationships Succeed


Why Relationships Succeed?

Elderly hands holding.
Through it all the things we had and did in common were vital in keeping our focus on family life.

Until now, research into marriage and relationships has mainly focused on what goes wrong: why do so many couples who signed on for a happy union end up in savagery and despair?

This week, Britain's Economic and Social Research Council released the findings of the Enduring Love project, its large-scale survey intended to help us understand how relationships can sustain and reward couples.

What it is that partners do and don't do; what makes for pleasure, appreciation and a willingness to work on the relationship when it hits trouble; how do couples cope with different sexual needs and diverse feelings about children? And a good deal more that deconstructs the nitty gritty of negotiating life with the chosen one.

I have lived with my husband Olly for 41 years (he's had the best years of my life, I remind him), navigating four decades during which we grew from a couple of childlike young adults living on the hoof, to become parents and matured adults. And looking back on our time, I see how many of the Enduring Love findings have resonance for us.

For all the good stuff, ours was a meeting of very different minds, backgrounds and life experiences, and we have been a frequently volatile alchemy of opposites.

I met Olly after three years working as a freelance journalist in his native Amsterdam. He was the son of a shipyard worker, a free-spirited character who had gone to sea aged 15.

He had seen the world and I liked his sharp mind and askance way of viewing things many of us take for granted. Neither of us had envisaged more than a casual fling. But when I chose to return to England for work, Olly came, too.

By this time I had seen a good heart: on our second date he picked me up from the home of a friend who had just been ditched by her lover and was in bits; he didn't hesitate before inviting us both to dinner. It is these gestures, frequently small, that show a partner's kindness and appreciation of the relationship and were cited far more frequently in the ESRC survey than grand romantic gestures.

The pregnancy when I was 32 was a ''Freudian slip'' and both of us, nervous about the unexpected change to our life, argued relentlessly. I seriously thought once I had the baby I'd give Olly his marching orders. But my heart melted at the sight of him cradling our just-born infant and that love has been there for both of our sons unwaveringly.

But around other issues we were often enough on opposite tracks. During a mid-life period (common enough, the Enduring Love research shows), I found myself turbulently discontented, wondering how much more fulfilled I might have been with the person I had always envisaged - an earnest intellectual who would lie back on the pillows and read me T.S. Eliot poems.

Through it all the things we had and did in common were vital in keeping our focus on family life, and I am one with the survey in finding that domesticity and relaxing, home-based activities - watching DVD box sets together rated highly - are superglue for intimacy.

We were like empty vessels, mourning our loss, and seeing nothing in each other to compensate. When we did talk, it invariably turned to aggravation over some small matter and we could not resurrect the rhythm of domestic life that had been so supportive. We began to discuss selling up, living apart and joining the ranks of parents who see their grown-up children separately.

The enormity of this hit us: we would lose the home we had created together, the place which had our family life embedded in its bones. So we decided on separate togetherness.

Olly made his home on one floor with its own kitchen and bathroom. I had the floor above with the same arrangement. It was a way to get breathing space before making any definitive decision.

Unhooked from our state of emotional stasis we began inviting each other for a meal, suggesting a trip to the cinema, an evening in Olly's flat where the TV was, a glass of wine with our books in mine. We invited each other for sleepovers. And out of all this came a refreshed intimacy; we saw the children as family for weekend visits, and most importantly realised we could go on happily like this. Clearly not everyone can create private space this way, but interviewees in the study spoke often of their need for their own time and space.

Things changed for us again three years ago when my elder son's wife became pregnant and wanted to live close to family - ideally in our home on Olly's floor, our son murmured.

We adore our granddaughter, who spends much time with us; we have spontaneous family meals and my younger son visits often and comments on how good it feels to be part of it all.

But how very, very different things would have been if we had decided to separate and ditch our joint history. Of course there are relationships where, for all sorts of reasons, love cannot endure. But what I know now is that it's worth giving it the best shot.

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