She’s ready to dump him after eight years together because he doesn’t communicate. But when I ask what attracted her to him in the first place, she’s likely to say, “Oh, he was the first man I ever met who really listened to me!”

by Paul Freedman & John Cooney


“The honeymoon is over!” we say. And we don’t just mean a lovely, after-wedding holiday has come to an end. We’re usually referring to something more serious. The relationship is starting to fade. The joy, romance, excitement that two people felt when love first struck is on the way out. Their get-up-and-go has got up and gone, and the magic is blurring into boredom. Yes, they may not admit it, but they’re stalemates!

Why does it happen? Is it inevitable? What are the early warning signs? Can you guard against it? 

Stalemates. That’s what lots of couples become. Yet other couples seem to keep the zing alive … even into advanced old age. So what’s the secret? And how do you rescue a tired relationship?

We phoned an old friend, Clayton Barbeau – a husband, father-of-eight, marriage-therapist and top-selling author from California ...

GRAPEVINE: Stale marriages. Drifting relationships. How come so many couples yawn, get bored with each other and lose interest? 

CLAYTON: Well, it’s often because they have unrealistic hopes about what a relationship is or isn’t. For example, this woman I knew arrived at my front door one day. She excitedly introduced her new husband. They’d just got married after a six-month romance and were on their way home from the honeymoon. 

She took me aside to sing his praises – “He’s the ideal man for me!” she enthused, listing all the things they had in common: they both loved the theatre, picnics, dancing, and so on. She was radiant. 

But only a few weeks later she phoned me, wanting to know how to get an annulment. “An annulment?” I asked, amazed. “Why? I thought he was the ideal man?”

She replied, “When we got home from visiting you he opened a can of beer, sat down in front of the TV … and pretty much hasn’t moved since! When I suggest a movie or a dance or anything, he just says ‘Naaah – don’t feel like it – not interested’.”

Eventually she asked what was going on, reminding him that these were things he loved. And his reply was, “That’s over. That was romance – this is marriage!” He obviously had quite a different ‘script’ for marriage than he had for courtship.

Another way this ‘scripting’ shows up is when someone who’s been loving and attentive during courtship becomes abusive almost immediately after the ceremony. In most cases, the husband/wife ‘script’ they’re now following is related to the marriage they were born into and grew up with: Daddy hit Mummy, or Mummy threw dishes at Daddy.

GV: That scripting or modelling – it’s obviously very powerful. Is a relationship more likely to last if two people can get their expectations out in the open?

CLAYTON: Obviously. But most couples, when they marry, will tell you they do understand each other – even though they’ve never confronted some of these basic issues. 

I remember another couple who were referred to me. They’d done a pre-marriage course, but here they were, just months after marrying, seated in my office – sullen, withdrawn, like two sulking children. I asked them how I might help.

They said “it” wasn’t working – “it” was rotten. Which told me they’d made the usual mistake of thinking that marriage was an “it” – something you “got” at the altar or in front of a celebrant, which then transformed you.

I asked them what kind of a marriage they’d been designing during their three years prior to this. And they looked at me like I’d just landed from Mars. “But during those three years, you must’ve been preparing,” I suggested. “Surely you talked about what kind of husband or wife you were looking for?”  

But I might as well have asked them about rain-dancing! 

So I explained that a marriage is a mutual creation – not something one ‘got’ from a ceremony. The ceremony was just the contract which allowed the work to start. Since he was in the construction business, I suggested that maybe he’d been trying to put the swimming pool where she wanted the kitchen – images like that. Or they’d been trying to build a house without any floor plans. 

I gave them some homework: to continue discussing the kind of marriage and family life they wanted to create. And I sent them away.

Well, the next session was as different from the first as night from day. They’d made lots of progress. They were feeling great. There was open dialogue happening. And, as far as they were concerned, if they needed to see me again (which I doubted) they’d give me a call!

GV: It’s crazy, isn’t it? We’re talking about the biggest commitment most of us will ever make – and yet we drift into it assuming it’ll all just happen …

CLAYTON: You’re right – it is crazy! And it’s little wonder that, sooner or later, we end up stalemates.

I was doing a pre-marriage education course some time ago for people of all ages. About the only two things this diverse group had in common was that they’d set a date for the wedding – and they’d booked themselves into this course. 

I opened my session with the question: “How many of you have looked in the dictionary for a definition of ‘husband’?” In my 15 years of taking these courses, no one had ever done that!
“How many have looked up ‘wife’?” Nobody had done that either! 

(Mind you, it wouldn’t have helped them much. “A husband,” says my dictionary, “is the steward of a ship’s stores … a person who takes care of crops or looks after animals … a married person: male.” Look up ‘wife’ and it says: “Married person: female … spouse of husband.” Which doesn’t get you anywhere.)

“And yet,” I said to this group, “when you said, ‘I want to be your husband’ or ‘I want to be your wife’ – WOW! That was loaded with meaning wasn’t it?” And of course, it was!

So I asked them to volunteer where they got that meaning from. And only a few were aware that their expectations of what marriage would mean came from observing the marriage they grew up with.

GV: So, surely, one of the most important questions a couple can ask each other is: “Tell me about your parents’ marriage” – right? 

CLAYTON: Exactly. How did your parents handle conflict? How did they resolve arguments? How did you know they loved each other?”
And another good question is: “How did you get along with the parent of the opposite sex?”

Once two people each understand where their respective ideas about relationships come from, they can get a handle on the situation they’re in now. Their relationship isn’t going to be a duplication of the parents’ marriage, but it will have been heavily influenced.

Take the woman who’s telling me, “Every time I try to talk to him he just walks out of the room!” – and she’s screaming!

Her husband’s sitting there looking very tense, so I remark: “You look like you want to leave?”

“You bet your life I do!” he replies.

“When did you decide to leave the room if your wife screams at you?” I ask. He answers, “I suppose when I was three or four years old …” And his wife almost falls off her chair!

He explains: “That’s one of my earliest memories – Mum screaming at Dad, and Dad yelling back – chasing one another round the dining room table. I used to hide under the bed. And when I got old enough, I’d leave the house whenever they started. I promised myself that when I grew up and got married, I’d never yell back!”

He’d made a marriage-decision at age three … 

GV: Where does love fit in all this? After all, most couples begin a relationship head-over-heels in love. How come that early excitement degrades so easily into boredom?

CLAYTON: Well, you’re talking about ‘romantic love’ – which is nice, but unrealistic. That head-over-heels feeling is a kind of temporary insanity. It’s that state in which a lover gazes with longing at the beloved and says (really believing it) “You’re everything I ever wanted – you’re perfect!

I said that once to my wife. It was the third day after we’d met. And she looked at me very sternly and said, “Clay, if you ever say that to me again I’ll slap your face!”

What?” I cried.

So she explained, “I am not perfect. I’m an ordinary, everyday human being with all the usual faults and failings. Please don’t put me up on some idiotic pedestal of perfection, otherwise every time I step off (or fall off) you’ll be disappointed. Accept me as I am, warts-and-all, or get out of my life!”

GV: Ouch! She knew how to sort you out …

CLAYTON: She sure did! And I’m glad. Because another thing which happens in that head-over-heels state is ‘projection’. We project onto the beloved all the imagined virtues, and completely fail to see the reality – the vices, if you like. 

A woman comes to see me, complaining about her partner: “He never talks to me!”

She’s ready to dump him after eight years together because he doesn’t communicate. But when I ask what attracted her to him in the first place, she’s likely to say, “Oh, he was the first man I ever met who really listened to me!”

See how vices are often seen as virtues? 

Another woman complains: “My husband got a new job and bought a new house without even telling me, and now he expects me to uproot myself and fit in. He doesn’t even consult with me – can you believe that?”

She goes on and on. And I finally ask, “Well, what attracted you to him originally?” Her answer: “He was a strong, ambitious, decisive man who knew his own mind!!”

GV: Another thing we often say in that head-over-heels state is “I need you!” Is that also a form of ‘projection’?

CLAYTON: Yes, it is – the idea that “I need you, so I can be fulfilled.”

I made that mistake too, with my wife. I can still hear her reply when I announced, “I need you!” I’d been called up at that time for combat in Korea. She looked me in the eye and said very firmly: “Well, I don’t need you!” 

It was like getting a whack in the stomach!

She added, “I love you madly. I want to marry you. I want to have a large family with you, and spend the rest of my life with you. But I do not need you. If you get killed in Korea, I will still manage somehow to live a successful life.”

You see, there’s a huge difference between wanting and needing … 

GV: So how can two people stay ‘sane’ during that in-love courtship stage? 

CLAYTON: High school kids often ask me, “How do you know if you’re in love?” And my answer is: if you’re really in love, you ought to have made three or four new friends. 

They’re confused, because they think ‘love’ is mainly gazing into one another’s eyes. So I explain: real love goes outward. You become friendly to everybody. Others should notice the change in you, and be complimenting you on how helpful you’re being. 

People who are truly in love, in the best sense, are overflowing with positive energy.

GV: We tend to measure love by the feelings and emotions it generates … 

CLAYTON: But that’s superficial. Love isn’t emotions. If you feel sad, does that mean love has evaporated? If you’re upset or angry, what then? Does this cancel love?

Confusing love with emotion is like trying to plant a tree on top of the ocean. There’s no foundation. However, once we realise that love is mainly rooted in the will, we can get somewhere. We have some control.

You might be irritating me badly, or making me angry … but I can still love you!

GV: Staleness is something that creeps up on couples – right? They may not even realise it’s happening. But all of a sudden a crisis looms – health problems, the loss of a job, maybe a death in the family – and now the relationship is under real strain … 

CLAYTON: When I talk about this I use a diagram showing two circles just touching at the outside rim. This is a stalemated relationship – I call it the ‘marriage of strangers’. The glue that holds them together is more routine than deep commitment. Their love-making has become routine (if there is any love-making). Looking after the kids is routine. They’re both really living alone – alone together.

And when a big calamity strikes, one of them may decide to leave. The love that was supposed to hold them together is simply not strong enough. 

They’re also prime candidates for an affair. Somebody else comes along, and one of the bored partners grabs what promises to be new life, excitement, intimacy. Of course, the reality is usually quite different.

But here’s the interesting thing. If this happens – and if both husband and wife are willing to ask for help (when only one comes you can’t achieve much) … you very often have the chance to re-create a brand new marriage. The affair’s been the dynamite that’s blown away all the sham and pretence. Now they’re beginning (maybe for the first time) to communicate on the most intimate level about the things that truly matter. 

GV: What do you say to a couple who are doing okay – not yet bored, not yet stalemates? What are the warning signs they should watch out for?

CLAYTON: Well, important things can easily stop happening when two people ‘settle down together’. They can find themselves getting too busy … not caring as much about each other … forgetting the little kindnesses … taking their relationship for granted. 

We’ve got to work at those things to keep love alive!

Giving your partner small surprises: flowers, a meal out, a phone call to or from the office, a favourite treat at home, jobs done around the home – these are good ways to keep saying “I love you!” And they’re appropriate always – not just during courtship.

The danger-zone in any marriage is where routine degenerates into a rut. Because a rut is a hole in the ground. And if you put ends on a rut, you’ve got a grave. It’s deadening, in other words!

GV: How about when kids come along? Is it even easier now for the romance to fade – for couples to stay together mostly “because of the children”?

CLAYTON: Yes. The ‘father/mother’ relationship takes over. When our children were little, we tried to combat that by having at least some time each week exclusively for ourselves. Part of an afternoon … or sometimes a Saturday. 

A healthy marriage is absolutely the greatest, most wondrous gift you can give your kids. So you’ve got to make time to be with each other, however difficult it is. And don’t be shy about hugging and kissing each other in front of them. Let them see the physical attraction you have for each other.

A friend of mine died recently – his wife died about 10 years earlier. But I’ll never forget how Jack would always pull out the chair for her as they sat down to dine, how he’d give her a little peck on the cheek, those little courtesies that showed he wasn’t ignoring her or taking her for granted. His kids saw that love every day. 

GV: We call those courtesies ‘old fashioned’, don’t we?

CLAYTON: Exactly. And we write them off as trivial little extras. But they’re actually very important. They point to something much deeper, and they really help prevent the boredom that might otherwise creep up on us.

GV: Speaking of things that creep up on us … where does ageing, menopause and midlife crises connect with this business of keeping romance alive?

CLAYTON: Well, when a man looks in the mirror and sees his father, or when younger men are overtaking him at work – that can trigger an emotional setback. And the same goes for women. But if they’ve been nurturing those caring, loving routines throughout their relationship, that’ll help them withstand the pressures that come later.

And remember: we go on discovering each other as time goes by. 

There’s no single day on which I totally ‘know’ you. I don’t even totally know myself. And if that’s true, how much more so for the mysterious person I live with! We need to never stop getting to know each other better. 

GV: How about sex? Is that part of the problem – or part of the cure – when it comes to stalemates?

CLAYTON: Well, it can be both. Sex can easily degenerate into a routine – just another boring chore. Far too many couples are ‘having sex’ – not ‘making love’. And more marriages than you might imagine have no sexual activity at all.

We need to remember that the sexual act – in itself – has no meaning. Intercourse isn’t necessarily a vehicle of love-making. Prostitutes do it all the time, and they’re not making love – they’re making money.

At a pre-marriage course on sex I once pointed out that the period of abstinence that’s enforced on some couples, through ill health, for example, or when one partner’s away on long business trips, can actually be a gift. (Yes, there are some people who use this long separation as an excuse for infidelity. “A man’s gotta have his release, y’know!” – like he’s a cow that has to be ‘milked’ regularly!)

But when a couple have to endure that kind of abstinence, if they use every other means – short of sexual intercourse – to express their intimacy and show each other their love, they’ll discover something wonderful. They’ll move to a love that surpasses even the fullest possible physical expression. Because, during that time, they’re saying to each other: “I love you beyond any ‘use’ I can put you to … I love you beyond the physical … I love you for YOU, the person you are!

That’s a treasure. And after this, the sexual expression that resumes later is more satisfying and electric than it’s ever been before, even on their honeymoon – and totally unifying.

GV: Do you have any tips for partners who know they’re stalemated, who realise their relationship’s in a rut, and want to do something about it?

CLAYTON: The most realistic thing we can all do is to take time to talk. And if you can’t talk without being interrupted, then think about writing a letter. In it you express your ideals and your hopes. You tell your partner how you’d like to see your relationship improve. And then you exchange the letters – and make some time to talk about it. 

What happens, too often, is that people feel wounded, and they don’t (or can’t) tell their partner what’s hurting them. They nurse those hurts, instead of bringing them out into the open where they can heal. The result? They get buried deep down where they go septic. 

GV: Forgetting to do stuff together – is that something else that gives the stalemate disease a foothold in our relationships? 

CLAYTON: Yes. This couple comes to see me – they’ve hardly talked for months because they’re both revolving in their own worlds. They’re both looking pretty glum and bored. So I ask them, “When was the last time you had any fun together?” 

They pull a blank. “Fun? What’s that?”

So I then suggest that we try a little brain storming. I hand him a pad and a pen. I tell them to take the next 10 minutes and each throw out one suggestion after another of fun things they would like to do. They’re not to debate them or discuss them, just write them down on a list. I then leave the room.

After 10 minutes I come back, and they’ve usually got 20 or 30 suggestions. Then I tell them to ‘piggy-back’ those that can be combined. Like “go to the beach” and “have a picnic”. I leave the room again, and after five minutes I come back and check. Then I tell them I’ll be leaving the room for another five minutes while they decide which three of those items on the list they could do in the next couple of months – and I leave the room again. 

I come back and say, “Now I want you to choose one you can do this coming week. … and nail down the day and the time!” I leave the room again, and they do that.

I come back and say, “Okay, now you’ve got this list. No.1 is happening this week … you’ve got the next two ready, just choose the dates … and you’ve also got this extra list of fun possibilities for the future. Go for it!”

GV: Does it work?

CLAYTON: Oh, yeah – it’s very effective, very helpful. I’ve had couples tell me they stuck the list on the refrigerator and chose dates way into the future.

GV: So giving first-aid to a stalemated relationship isn’t rocket science – right? 

CLAYTON: Right! When you were first in love, you couldn’t wait to spend time together. So why not keep doing the things that helped you bond and care back then in the beginning?
One of the things I used to do with my wife that worked really well was plan a special day. I’d tell her to book a babysitter for, say, Thursday (at this time we had eight children!) – and we’d go off and do something fun together. Maybe visit the local museum and have a picnic in the grounds. Or go walking on the beach after a nice lunch together. It doesn’t matter what, exactly, so long as you both enjoy it. 

People often say “We can’t find the time …” But those people need to schedule, to make time – because making time for their relationship is making love.

I never talk about ‘happy’ marriages. I talk about ‘successful’ ones. There are lots of good people out there who aren’t especially ‘happy’. They’ve lost a child, maybe, or they’re battling severe ill-health, or they’ve suffered a job-loss. They’re not ‘happy’ in the shallow sense of that word. But they are, nevertheless, sustaining one another and building successful, life-giving relationships.
We can all aim at this, with confidence. But it requires care … and planning … and communication …