I’ve always been intrigued by the way relationships morph from the joy of the wedding to the screams of anger and hatred of divorce. What causes a couple who once couldn’t keep their hands off each other to realise one day that they can easily go for days ignoring each other?
There is an old proverb that states: Familiarity breeds contempt. What this means is that people start taking each other for granted and then behave towards each other with a disrespect that can begin to border on contempt. After a time, they can go so far as to actively hate each other. It would seem from all that I’ve seen and heard that it all boils down to forgetting to do or say the little things that can make a big difference. Forgetting to say please and thank you, forgetting to apologise for spats, forgetting to treat your partner with respect, can lead gradually to hating each other. Conversely, remembering these simple things can keep a marriage going happily for decades. The interesting thing is that for familiarity to breed contempt is actually more of a choice than a foregone conclusion. There can be a certain amount of intimacy that comes from being close to someone. One doesn’t treat one’s best friend with contempt, or they wouldn’t be one’s best friend for long. We all seem to recognise this fact. Perhaps you might point out that best friends don’t live together, and families do. This is true, but families don’t begin despising each other until the core of the family, the couple in the centre, do. Caring and loving attitudes radiate from that core, as do hatred and disrespect. So, why do couples go sour when best friends can go happily on for decades, forging an ever stronger bond around shared experiences, stories about the kids, and gossip about the people we knew in school? What causes couples, who used to describe themselves as best friends, to become mortal enemies?
I’ve often heard it said that sex ruins a perfectly good friendship. I’ve actually known best friends who decided to get married, and then decided that they’d better get divorced so that they could remain best friends. However, I can’t give much credence to the statement that sex ruined their friendship. Or can I? Best friends from school who remain best friends for life don’t have sex. They have certain unspoken and untouched boundaries between them. They rarely if ever see each other naked, they don’t share a bed, and they don’t live together day in and day out, year after year. Even room-mates, who do live together day in and day out, have certain boundaries. They rarely if ever see each other naked and they don’t share the same bed. They may occasionally break wind, but they don’t do so without asking pardon for the infraction. I think that’s where the crux of the matter lies. Married couples, or those who consider themselves to be in a permanent partnership, sleep together, share the bathroom in the morning, and more importantly, consider themselves to be more than room-mates. However, if each of them went home to visit the parents they grew up with, they wouldn’t proceed to come out to the kitchen to pour a cup of morning brew in their underpants, farting and belching for England. Without it needing to be spoken, they would realise that this wouldn’t be courteous or respectful. Most of us were taught manners as children, and we were taught that manners were important in the home as well as out in the world. These family members aren’t seeing each other naked, and sex with them is forbidden. We don’t do it in normal society. It would almost seem, then, that there is a connection between the familiarity that exists between an intimate couple and the possibility of losing their respect and fondness for each other. There’s something different about the long-term sexual relationship and how it affects our view of each other.
What is it about living with someone as a couple that is different from living with our families? What is it that causes us to remember from our upbringing that we don’t fart in front of mum, but to forget such courtesy and respect when it comes to our wife? There might be a clue in the idea that the individuals seem in the collective mind of community and society to cease to exist and they become part of a couple, a whole. Two in one, or one split in half. Perhaps that idea can subconsciously translate into the idea that you’re not really in the presence of a family member….that’s just your wife. Without realising it, perhaps we begin to feel on some basic level that we and our partner are one and the same. We might then translate that into the concept of being two parts of one person living in the same house, which means that we don’t have to have manners. If you were the only person in the room, you wouldn’t be likely to apologise to the empty room for some discourtesy. It would seem to make some sense to move from there to the idea that perhaps as we consider our partner to be part of us (part-ner), then we don’t have to be courteous. Once the boundaries of courtesy and respectful behaviour and speech are done away with, we’re off. We feel without actually thinking about it that we can say whatever we like because it’s like talking to ourselves. Mind you, I think most of us wouldn’t talk to ourselves the way we’ve all heard some long-term couples talk to each other. So, we must dig a little deeper.
Becoming part of a long-term couple, sharing a bed and each other’s bodies, causes the couple to feel like a unit. This is natural. The people around them see them as a unit, as well. They’re no longer considered to be single individuals. They even refer to their mate as their other half or their better half. However, in reality, they are still two individuals. They are unique, and they each bring a certain amount of baggage into the mix. They also have little ways and habits that don’t really show up until they live together. If in their subconscious minds, they’re thinking of themselves as one unit, with each one being the “other half” of the other, it stands to reason that they would feel, on a very subconscious level, that the other half should be the same as they are. Hence, the little ways and habits that are different become annoying. Over the years, couples that have come to me have confirmed that the reason that first year is the hardest is because they’re two individuals learning to live together as one unit. Room-mates accept that they’re going to be different, and even though they might occasionally have a row over something, they don’t usually have a problem accepting that they’re two different people. As Prince once said, marriage changes expectations. He was spot on. Somehow, after a couple become a genuine, committed couple, they stop being two people and become one, which means that they’re both supposed to do everything in exactly the same way, and there shouldn’t be any courtesy or formality because we’re a unit, two parts of the whole. It’s a feeling, not a thought. It’s not recognised as a construct, because no one even recognises it as existing. It is more like an unexplained condition that happens to married people. The problem with trying to cure something that has gone wrong is that you can’t really cure the symptom unless you know the cause. We can teach people to communicate better, but wouldn’t it be great if we could actually help them to understand what went wrong to begin with? If couples were able to understand before they committed to each other that they were still two different individuals, and that this is actually okay, I believe that we would see far fewer of these problems. Room-mates understand that they’re going to have different ways of doing things. So, when it’s room-mate A’s turn to do the washing-up, he does it his way, and when it’s room-mate B’s turn, he does it his way. There’s no question of one moaning about the other one not holding the sponge correctly. Chores are divided out, with each one taking turns doing each thing, and there’s no argument between them about how the chores should be done. Things are organised, the bills are paid, even free time is organised so that each one gets to do something that they want to do on different evenings. Couples don’t do that. They should. Couples should remember that even though they’re now a family unit, they’re also two individuals who deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy. If they remembered to talk to each other the same way they did before moving in together, no one would be tempted to move out. What sex does to ruin a good friendship is change the construct in the subconscious mind. Sex changes the two into one in the subconscious mind, and that’s when it all falls down. To make the point, it isn’t actually sex that ruins the friendship. It’s the subconscious idea that the couple are now one unit, which means the same person, which means more liberties can be taken than are actually acceptable. Over time, that lack of respect wears the individuals in the couple down and turns them on each other, so that they so begin to resent each other that they do nothing but row, and they begin to hate each other. The gap between them grows as they become more self-focused. They each think more and more about what they perceive the other person doing, what wrongs they feel have been done them, and how this is unbearable. We start seeing more extreme blame, where every little infraction leads to full-on war. Suddenly, slights from years gone by are remembered in minute detail and brought out for air, and they actually begin to try to destroy each other.
When they come for marriage counselling, we treat the symptoms by teaching them how to communicate, and how to have constructive disagreements. What we don’t do is teach them what went wrong so that they can make sure it doesn’t go wrong again. If we have headaches because our glasses are out of date, we don’t just take pills. The pills might help the headache to go away, but it will come back if we don’t get new glasses. In the same way, helping the couple to get through this rough patch and start communicating again will make things better for now. However, we fail to remember that they were communicating well at the beginning of their relationship, and that soured. We need to add another layer to it by helping them to understand the underlying viewpoints that brought them to that place to begin with. Otherwise, it can happen again. They might sit down and try to remember what we taught them in the counselling, but what they won’t be able to do is figure out why they “let” it happen again. I think part of marriage counselling should be helping them to realise why they got to this point, and then talk about how to rearrange their lives and attitudes toward each other so that they can show and receive respect. Being intimate, close friends, and partners all rolled into one is possible. It’s not some idyllic dream. However, we have to be clear with ourselves about what we want to achieve and how to go about it. We have to remember that if two room-mates are going to need to talk about a lot of stuff in a negotiating manner in order to fully respect one another, married couples need even more to do so. We need to be fully cognisant of each other’s need for respect, space, and dignity. We can still be playful in the bedroom, and in fact, couples might realise that allowing their relationship to die because of the subtle shift in attitude toward each other is what caused the death of their sex life to begin with. It’s a vicious circle….the sex causes the attitude shift, which kills the sex, which kills the marriage. It would be amazing if people had marriage courses to go to before they got married which would teach them how to stay married. Having an annual marital health check as an anniversary gift probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, simply because daily life can make us take things a bit for granted, and we can start slipping. We accept that we have to take our cars for servicing every year to pass the MOT. We should do no less for our marriage. Perhaps marriage counselling has been going at it the wrong way round. Perhaps we should give marriage counselling before the marriage instead of when divorce is on the horizon. It could shave years off the war and save millions of lives.