The first challenge a couple faces is familiarity – when all the new relationship excitement has burned away like the boosters on a rocket, and you’ve moved into an orbit in which your spouse no longer surprises you much. How do we stop that familiarity from breeding contempt?

The art & science of staying together


by Tracy Carter

For those of us who are married or contemplating matrimony in the 21st century, the stats are sobering: roughly half of all marriages in the western world end in divorce. And even those who remain together over the years aren’t necessarily happy in their marriages. We all know couples who gripe and snipe more than they kiss and cuddle.

In the face of such grim facts, when a copy of the freshly-penned book Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together crossed our desk, we sat up and got interested! Here was another word on the subject, one that seemed both light-hearted and wise … and, even better, it seemed to offer couples some practical tools for succeeding in marriage. Before this new release hit the bookstore shelves, we snagged Marriageology’s author, Time magazine journalist Belinda Luscombe, for the inside scoop on the book’s best bits …

GRAPEVINE: So … what on earth motivated you to write a book on marriage?

BELINDA: Everybody says that the institution of marriage is out of date – that it’s boring and conservative. But I see it as just the opposite! Marriage is this radical public wealth and property-sharing institution. It’s actually the closest most people ever get to a sort of micro-socialism! 

I write about families for the magazine that employs me. I’d get three or four books on parenting every month and almost two books a week about inner happiness – but it was rare to get a book about marriage. The few books I did get (maybe two a year) tended to be very academic or very religious. I don’t have a problem with that, but marriage is like the sun: it shines on everyone – believers and non-believers alike! What’s more, they weren’t funny, and I thought I’d like to write something funny! Marriage, after all, provides some of our best comic material. 

GV: You mention that our expectations of marriage have changed – that, these days, “people want more from marriage than just a familiar face to come home to”. What do you mean by that?

BELINDA: Marriage used to be like the military draft – everybody did it! But now it’s more like belonging to a yacht club, where you have to meet certain standards in order to join. Also, in the past, there were reasons to get married that no longer exist: you had to be married if you wanted to have sex … if you wanted to have children … if you wanted to be respectable … if a woman wanted financial security. These days you can have all those things without being married. 

But although the old reasons for marriage have sort of faded away, as a species we still love to pair-bond. Even today, young kids will admit that they dream of being married when they’re grown up. However, the institution of marriage has changed – and we need to change the way we think about it a little. When marriage has become this completely optional thing, why do we stick at it … and how do we stick at it … and is it worth it? These were some of the questions I was looking to answer.

GV: You underline six challenges that all married or committed-for-life couples need to master, or at least grapple with, on their way to happily-ever-after. How about you run through those for us? 

BELINDA: Sure! They all begin with ‘F’, which is a complete coincidence! The first one is Familiarity – which is what you have when all the new relationship excitement has burned away like the boosters on a rocket, and you’ve moved into an orbit in which your spouse no longer surprises you much. How do we stop that familiarity from breeding contempt? 

Now, one of the strongest ideas I discovered is: you have to practice gratitude! We have a tendency to forget all the things that our spouses bring to us and take for granted the things that are good. That’s a human trait. It’s a feature, not a bug! But it means we have to look for things to be grateful about. 

Another thing I recommend is: refuse to become bored! Stay interested! I mean, boredom is a choice. If you can find new things to do with your spouse, do them. And if you have interests of your own, nurture them. You’ve got to keep brewing your own cups of tea.

GV: So maintaining separate interests from your partner is not a big mistake?

BELINDA: Of course not! Do you remember that movie, The Runaway Bride? Richard Gere eventually says to Julia Roberts that every time she orders eggs, she just orders whatever the guy she’s dating is ordering – and he tells her she needs to figure out how SHE likes eggs! He makes a good point. I think you DO need to find your own interests. 

I love comedy and all things funny – and my husband likes architecture and cycling. I know a little bit about those things, and he knows a tiny bit about comedy – but, generally, we pursue those interests independently of each other, as well as having other interests that we pursue together. It’s good to have both. 

Let’s face it: we’re in a challenging era for relationships. We have ready-made entertainment provided by screens – it takes so little effort to just sit and watch Netflix or YouTube. In a marriage you have to make an effort to stay interested and interesting. 

GV: I notice your second ‘F’ is Fighting … and the challenge here, I guess, is that conflict is inevitable in a marriage, right? So how do couples deal with conflict in a way that doesn’t destroy them?

BELINDA: The easiest way is to avoid starting a sentence with “YOU …” It’s such a simple thing, but it does make a huge difference. Don’t say “You always …” or “You never …” or “You’re just like your mother …” because that sounds like an accusation, and it makes your spouse defensive. Instead, start with “I” – “I have a problem with …” or “I’m having trouble with …” or “I’ve noticed that we …” or “I’m finding this difficult …” 

It seems like such a tiny change – but it avoids making the other person feel attacked. When you say “You …” you’re not making the problem the problem – you’re making the PERSON the problem. 

Also, don’t be an idiot! Don’t fight when one of you is hungry, or thirsty, or hot, or tired! Of course, all this is easier said than done. When we’re worked up about something, it’s really hard to remember to stay calm … I mean, if it wasn’t a stressful problem, you wouldn’t be fighting! So you really have to get good at apologising and forgiving each other. 

What people don’t always realise is that fighting is natural. And it actually can be constructive, because you really grow from it. And sometimes conflict helps explain who the other person is. 

Just remember to fight fair – don’t make it personal.

GV: What’s next in your list after Fighting?

BELINDA: After Fighting come three things couples might fight about: Finances … Family … and Fooling Around. (I always joke that Fooling Around wasn’t my first choice of ‘F’ word for that one …) And then, if you’ve failed to get through those, you get to the final ‘F’, which is Finding Help.

GV: Okay, so what’s the best way to grapple with money issues?

BELINDA: Finances are tough. We can’t always control our financial situation – and money is such an emotive issue! We need to understand that we all have views about money. And many couples go into marriage without ever having articulated these views to one another, or even to themselves. 

Money means different things to different people – but whatever it means, it’s usually quite important. So, when you’re dealing with money you should be as up-front with your spouse as possible. And don’t assume that you know what’s going on. You can’t assume that your spouse is completely on top of things – nor, in fact, that they’re totally trustworthy with money. So that’s something to keep your eyes on as well. 

GV: Okay. Next comes Family – woohoo! Raising kids is one of the most rewarding things we can do with our partners, but it can also be a huge source of stress – right? Is it inevitable – all the extra strain that comes with kids? 

BELINDA: Yeah, sorry! And there’s no way around the time-suck. Before kids, you have this autonomy – you can do whatever you want when you wake up in the morning. But once you’ve got kids, there are other people to consider. And it’s natural that this often leads to a dip in marital satisfaction, because all of a sudden you have to put effort and intention into finding time for each other – and that’s not easy! What’s more, kids are also a huge money-suck – another thing that can lead to a dip in happiness. 

But, on the other hand, there’s really nothing – hardly anything that I know of – that’s as fun to do with your partner as watching the ‘kind of joint-project that is your child’ grow up and go through all these life stages. It’s incredibly satisfying!
Whether that kid is your biological child or one you’ve adopted, the nurturing of them is a uniquely human activity. Other mammals nurture their young, too, but not with the same kind of brain-power. So really, parenting is ‘the best of times and the worst of times’! 

GV: Kids are obviously deeply affected by their parents’ relationship – so caring for our marriages as best we can is essential for our family’s health as well. Don’t you agree?

BELINDA: I do. And this is a tricky one, because sometimes marriages don’t work out. Sometimes, if there are lots of conflicts that can’t be solved, then it’s better for the kids if you separate – because for them to watch that and to be afraid is not healthy. And those children of divorce are often fine. 

So I don’t want to go on record as saying that you should stay together for the kids. However, if you are together, and you’re going to stay together, then BE together! Don’t become roommates who just happen to be raising children – work as a team.
There are several practical ways of doing that, such as prioritising your spouse over your children. Of course, when kids are really young, they have to come first because they can’t do things for themselves, so obviously you have to expend a lot of energy on them and devote yourselves to them. But you can’t exclude your spouse or begin to think that they’re not a part of the team – or that somehow it’s you and the kids against them. 

It’s not hard to love our kids: we’re biologically programmed to do that – but we have to choose to love our spouse. And we have to keep making that choice. 

There are other practical things you can do: I’m a big fan of budgeting for a babysitter so that you can go out and spend time together without the kids. I also often try to side with my spouse: if you don’t agree with something they’re doing as a parent, it’s far better to have a discussion about that away from the kids. 

Think of parenting like lifting a very heavy sofa – you both have to take an end of it, bear the weight together, deal with the awkwardness of carrying it around, and figure out how to put it down in the right way.

GV: Another ‘F’ in your list is Fooling Around – and despite all the fun it offers, you suggest that sex is one the chief sources of pain, estrangement, and bewilderment within couples. How come?

BELINDA: Well, I think as a culture we’ve painted this image of sex as an eternally erotic, exhilarating, novel experience that should always take us to the end of ecstasy. And sure, sex can be that – it certainly has done that for me. Sex is a fantastic, wonderful, amazing gift, but it’s one that we sort of expect to happen to us – like gravity – without having to do anything. 

In marriage, too, sex plays lots of roles. Sometimes it’s not erotic – sometimes sex is something that’s a bit more mundane; it’s an act of love, but it’s not always about fireworks and mind-blowing pleasure! 

Couples therapist Esther Perel writes about this really well. She says that the things we value in spouses – caregiving, reliability, responsibility, being there for everyone – are not very erotic. Nobody goes, “Brad Pitt is so hot – he’s so reliable!” or, “What I really love about Jason Momoa is that he’s a fantastic cook!” Also, we don’t talk about sex very well, but we need to get comfortable with having conversations around the subject. In our society we’ve got porn at one end of the spectrum – and just “Let’s not talk about it at all” at the other end. It’s hard to have a real, vulnerable discussion about what your fantasies might be, or what you really want – we leave so much to guesswork. 

Another thing is that people are tired – between work, kids, and other demands, we’re all exhausted. Studies show that people are having sex less now than in previous decades – we’re in the middle of a huge sex recession. Even married people are having less sex than they used to – and maybe it’s that Netflix effect; maybe it’s tiredness; maybe it’s porn (because porn’s so much easier as a method of arousal than actually having to sit down and talk to your spouse, or to see what you can do that’s interesting) … 

I don’t have any easy answers, except for each person to try and be more vulnerable and try talking with their spouses about what might really work.

GV: The last ‘F’ is Finding Help. What kind of help are you suggesting?

BELINDA: One thing that can be really beneficial is finding a marriage course to do together. Those are often run by churches, and a lot of people are allergic to churches! But if they can get past that, a marriage course can be helpful. 

Another thing is therapy. I’m a fan of therapy, but I’m a recent convert – I didn’t ever consider going into therapy until my own marriage was in a bit of a crisis. As I describe in the book, we had these demanding lives and suddenly we felt like, “What are we doing? I hardly know you anymore!” 

I think it’s very helpful to have a third person in the room to whom you can explain things and who can sort of referee. People usually wait too late to seek help. It would be good to treat your marriage like your body and have regular check-ups – and yet I say that with some reluctance, because sometimes you go to therapy and you uncork some problems for which there’s no easy fix – and it can definitely feel like it makes things worse before they get better! 

A large percentage of people end up in therapy after infidelity, which is something that’s very difficult to recover from without therapy, because infidelity doesn’t usually happen in a vacuum – there are usually pre-existing conditions. Not to say that it’s not the cheating partner’s fault, but just that it generally doesn’t come totally out of the blue. 

GV: So when should a couple consider going to therapy? 

BELINDA: As soon as one of them wants to! And we should get away from the idea that it’s only something that couples do when there’s a crisis. We should be aware enough that when an issue seems to be recurring a lot in our relationship, we talk to someone about it. 

People shouldn’t be afraid to go to therapy; it doesn’t mean that your relationship’s on its last legs. 

GV: More than 20% of all marriages don’t make it to 10 years, and you suggest that one of the reasons for this is that marriages are heavily ‘front-loaded’. What do you mean by this?

BELINDA: What I mean is that we would never baulk at bringing in a wedding consultant to plan the wedding day. We spend so much money and so much time, attention, and energy figuring out every single detail – but we don’t spend a fraction of that time thinking about how we’re going to STAY married! It’s like paying $5,000 to join a high-stakes poker game without actually knowing how to play – just plonking the money down, then saying, “So, what’s the deal? Does a straight beat a flush?” 

We have this idea that the wedding is the finish line – but, in reality, the wedding is the starting block! You’ve got a marathon ahead of you, and you should be carb-loading before you go. We’ve got it all wrong. William Shakespeare ended his plays with a wedding; and that’s how all our romantic comedies end, too – we don’t necessarily celebrate the marriage in the same way.

GV: Okay, for someone who is about to get married, what do you recommend they do to stay married?

BELINDA: I think it’s useful to go and see someone or do a course before you get married, to get a bit prepared for what marriage entails. My husband and I had pre-marital counselling before our wedding, and it was amazing how accurately it nailed some of the things that would be issues for us later – like, we didn’t know how to fight, for instance. So I’d encourage people to do some pre-marital counselling. 

Interestingly, living together before marriage doesn’t seem to be a good predictor of success in a marriage. That’s counter-intuitive, because you’d think that people who’d already co-habited would be more rehearsed at making that relationship work; and yet the statistics are clear that it’s not beneficial. I don’t know why that is, and maybe it’ll change over time, but for now I can’t recommend it. 

Another thing to consider when you get married is that you haven’t found your ‘soulmate’ – but, rather, that you’ve found somebody who you’re going to become the soulmate of. Realise that you’ve made a choice to be with that person, and that choice isn’t over the day you say ‘I do’ – you have to keep making that choice day by day. 

To love somebody isn’t just to feel a certain way about them – because you won’t always feel that way! It’s to choose to behave in a loving way towards that person every day.

GV: So it helps to have the right mindset about marriage?

BELINDA: Absolutely. Carol Dweck talks about how there are two types of mindsets. One is fixed, or set – the idea that we have certain abilities or talents, and we’ll either be good at something or we won’t. And then there’s the growth mindset – which says we can learn; things can change; we can become better at something; if we’re one type of person we can become a different kind of person … 

Marriage requires a growth mindset. It requires us to accept that things aren’t fixed; things can change; you can become better with practice. Of course it helps if you have a talent for something – it helps if you’re attracted to and like the person you’re married to! 

I personally could never play the piano, because I’m profoundly unmusical. I could practice 12 hours a day and get okay at it, but I’m never going to be great at piano or singing. But joke-telling I have a facility for! And over time I’ve got better at it. I’ve understood the timing better; I’ve learned how to write a joke as opposed to how to tell one; I’ve learned more jokes – so you can become funnier. 

With marriage, the problems you have and the person you are aren’t fixed. They can be improved. We can always work on ourselves – what’s that old saying? Men marry women hoping they’ll never change, and women marry men hoping they will change; neither of them gets what they want! 

We can’t really change our partners – but hopefully they’ll grow and change because they love you and they want to get on with you. It’s like in cricket – you’ve got bowlers and batters, and you can make the bowlers better at batting and the batters better at bowling, but they’ll never be superstars at those roles; what you can do is help them to shine at what they do best.