Crunch times for relationships
When couples come to me for counselling, I often notice that they're going through one of the recognisable 'crunch times' that happen in relationships. Of course, relationships can face difficulties at any point, but there's no doubt that some stages in our lives together tend to be more accident-prone than others. It's as well to know when these are. Because if you know that you're going through one of these 'crunch' times, you may be able to acknowledge that what is happening to you happens to loads of other people, and you may then have the will to work out how to navigate your way through your current difficulties and out the other side. It won't be easy, but you may decide that what you have - including your family and all the infrastructure that you've built around you as a couple - is too good to discard, even though it's not running smoothly at the moment. In fact, sometimes when couples face up to the bumpy times and talk things through, or get some relationship counselling, they not only survive their difficulties but triumph over them and end up with an even better relationship than they had before. Let's look then at the most hazardous relationship phases:
1. The Settling Down Scenario
Typically, this happens when a couple are looking to put down roots and make babies. In our hectic, cosmopolitan world, it's common these days for young people to meet in a neutral location. This might be at university, or it could be later. Major cities such as London, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds, Cardiff, Edinburgh, York and Manchester are packed full of 'bright young things' who have gravitated there for work or study. When a couple meet in a location that has no history for either of them, they often lead a very charmed life for a while, and they carve out a romance that feels free and exciting and full of promise. Unfortunately, what can happen is that once they decide to make this relationship long-term and - hopefully - permanent, one or other of them may well feel that they want to move closer to their roots and their family. I remember counselling a young Italian woman who was deeply in love with a guy from India. They both worked in banking in the City of London, and had stratospheric salaries. They worked really hard but they had a fun and exciting existence, and they were well-suited, and happy. But as she became broody, she longed to return to Italy. And she told me in no uncertain terms that her family would never accept the man she had chosen. His family were equally opposed to the match. In fact, they wanted him to have an arranged marriage with a distant cousin and were appalled to learn that he had an Italian girlfriend. I am afraid that their relationship was only tenable for as long as they were well away from both families. Once they tried to bring these disparate peoples together, the whole thing fell apart.
2. New baby, new problems
I always hate writing about this because I loathe being a kill-joy. But it has to be done! The birth of a new baby - particularly a first child - is a seriously dangerous time in a relationship. This is sad, isn't it? Because so often this baby has been longed for and eagerly anticipated. But I remember talking to my friend and mentor Dr Jack Dominian about this. Now retired, Jack was not only an eminent psychiatrist but he also founded the really marvellous research charity One Plus One. He told me that even when couples divorce in their 50s or 60s, they can often trace the start of their troubles back to when their first child was small. The thing is that it's really hard for women to get the balance right between focusing on this new and wondrous babe and giving her partner sufficient attention. Unfortunately, men are not always as natural a parent as most women are. And when they are deprived of sex during the latter stages of pregnancy and up till about six weeks after the birth of their child, they often really resent the lack of physical closeness. And after that, when the mum is tired all the time, which she frequently is, the man tends to feel even more left out. And he often feels anxious that he does not sense any significant bond with the child. It's at this point that women can become seriously fed up. Despite believing that having the child was a joint decision, they come to feel that they're doing the bulk of the baby-care alone. And sometimes they find being at home with their son or daughter is not all it's cracked up to be - and they may well feel un-stimulated, exhausted and ignored. Sadly, it's all too easy at this point in a relationship for sex and closeness to be put on the back burner and sometimes - very unfortunately - the relationship never recovers. Of course there are loads of men who are brilliant fathers and who relish being a dad and who more than help their partners. But even some of them find the infrequency of sex and the changes to their love lives very hard to deal with. So, this is a tough time.
3. The anniversary shake-up
There is something about a big-number anniversary that causes people to reflect on their lives. There's little worse in a relationship than trying to gear yourself up to celebrate so many glorious years - in front of all your nearest and dearest - when basically you feel that the relationship has become a lie. Somehow you can often hold things together by not thinking too much about your situation. But when other people - including your spouse - want to make a big fuss because you've been together for 10, 15, 20 years or more, and you feel there's nothing much to celebrate, then a crisis can ensue. Many women do actually go through with the celebration, in the hope of feeling more positive afterwards. They also often simply don't want to rock the boat and decide it's better to let everyone 'party' rather than upset so many people. But very frequently the landmark anniversary does sound the death knell in the marriage and force that moment when the difficulties in the marriage can no longer be ignored.
4. After the Affair
Some people believe that you can have an affair despite having a very happy marital relationship. I beg to differ. I think that affairs are almost always a symptom of unease in the marriage. By the way, I'm not talking about an opportunistic one-night stand when away on business. I'm talking about a coupling which is not just about lust, but which involves caring and companionship. Nowadays, women have nearly as much freedom to have an affair as men do. But whichever partner has the affair, the fall-out can be huge if the clandestine romance is confessed to, or found out. Sometimes a spouse can forgive. Forgetting is rarely on the cards! Different people have different breaking points. Men are more territorial about their wives' bodies and find it hard to accept physical infidelity. A woman can sometimes tolerate the fact that their husband has enjoyed another woman's favours. But her breaking point may well be that he expressed real fondness for his clandestine lover. Or that they laughed a lot together. Or that they were great companions. These things feel like a betrayal to many women. Sometimes a wife doesn't even mind too much that her husband has had full sex with someone else, but she can feel desperately sad that her man enjoyed kissing the other woman. So, can a man and woman ever re-connect and have a happy marriage after one of them has strayed? Yes, they can. But in my experience they rarely manage to work things out effectively unless they are both prepared to look very honestly at what led up to the affair. And I also believe that very few people get over such a scenario without expert relationship counselling. It's amazing though how many couples do retreat from the idea of splitting once they've had a sane think about everything they've built up together. Sometimes the thought of what a divorce will cost - in terms of lost savings and property - will keep a man and woman together. Sometimes it's little things like how they enjoy certain holidays together, or how they love to celebrate Christmas with the whole family. Often, if they're older, they don't want to cause trouble and upset for their adult children or their grandchildren. People have all sorts of reasons for staying. But there's no doubt that an affair is a crisis, and frequently it's a crisis that couples are unable to put behind them.
5. Is this all there is?
You can be any age when you look around at what you have and wonder: Is this it, then? Is this all I can look forward to? Is this all there is? But most commonly this thought seems to hit people around about 10 to 15 years after they got together. Nowadays many couples gravitate towards each other because they meet at university. Frequently too, they live together in Hall or in mixed gender flat-shares. It's a time of sexual freedom and discovery but also a time when many people want to experience what 'belonging' feels like. So it's quite a usual phenomenon for a young man and a woman who like each other to find themselves in bed together, and to forge a relationship. Often these relationships are potent and good and supportive. Usually, there is a lot of common ground in what they're studying and what they're learning about life. And while some of these romances do fall by the wayside after university when real life intervenes, vast numbers of them survive and turn into long-term live-in relationships or even marriages. For years, such a couple can feel really blessed and delighted that they found each other. But then it dawns on one of them that they've not had much sex in their lives. Or that they are more good friends than lovers. Or that they now feel rather hamstrung by this relationship and want to do different things and be free to meet someone new, and to form a more grown up romance. This can obviously be a painful time all round - especially when there are children involved. In fact, the whole extended family can feel a real sense of bereavement that something they thought was secure for life has turned out to be fragile after all.
6. Retirement nightmare
You'd be amazed how many women sidle up to me at parties, or in the gym, or in meetings and say: 'I know you write about sex and relationships in mid-life women. Have you got any advice about dealing with husbands when they retire?' The advice they want is not usually about how to liven up their sex lives. It's rather more about how to get through the next week without murdering their man! I don't have many men come to me and complain that they simply can't hack their life at home now that 'the little woman' has retired. But it seems that the disquiet of women in this situation has reached epidemic proportions. Most women say that they no longer feel that they have any independence. One friend said that she is being driven mad by her newly-retired husband asking her why she is going out, and when she'll be back. Another says that her man is getting old and doddery before her eyes. Far from the lively, adventurous time she had envisaged when he finally gave up work, all he seems to do now is complain about the cost of things, get up late, watch Sky Sports and start drinking early. She is in despair. Another woman - a client - told me how when she had a migraine recently and retired to bed, her husband insisted on joining her. He seemed to think that a spot of sex would put her right - when all she wanted to do was to put a cold compress on her head, close the curtains and sleep. A lot of women tell me too that they feel their men aren't looking after themselves and seem to have endless ailments - and they worry that if they don't get out of the relationship now, they'll end up as a nursemaid till he dies, or they do. I'm quite sure that those of us who are in very happy marriages accept that if our husbands become ill we'll look after them. We probably feel equally confident that if we are poorly our men will willingly care for us. But it's clear to me that people in unhappy marriages dread the onset of illness and cannot abide the idea of caring for a spouse. Most women feel that they have done a lot of looking after of people through their lives - and what has kept them going often has been the thought that one day, they'd have some time to themselves. So it can hit them very hard indeed if they suddenly realise that they are hitched to someone who is infirm, or increasingly clingy, or whose idea of excitement is to go to the Golf Club Dance once a year.