Published in Woman and Home November 2006
When I tell people Annie and I have been together for decades, I’m not the only one
who looks impressed – she does too. Although we’re both therapists with our heads
full of coping strategies, we both remember the dodgy moments when we thought
we’d never speak to each other again.
Turn back the clock – I’m 29 and asking myself why my world has just shattered.
Last year, it consisted of work and lots of play. Now it consists of work and two
young step-sons I can hardly relate to. They seem to me to come from the planet
Zog. Even for aliens, they’ve been badly brought up. I find them crude and grabby.
They bicker all day. The younger teases the elder into bashing him then screams for
justice before he’s really been touched and his increasingly frazzled mother doesn’t
seem to me to DEAL with it – there should be a system with painful punishment, I
And as I contemplate the pros and cons of sending her little darlings to borstal, I feel
myself getting increasingly exasperated with US. This isn’t what I signed up for. I
know I promised to take her children on; three people, one package deal. But I didn’t
expect the package to contain two bits of such irritating small print. I confess, now, it
did cross my mind that I should bale out but how was I going to decide whether this
was truly The End or we were just experiencing a Rough Patch?
Very fortunately, my partner knew how to handle the child in me just as expertly as I
began to realise she handled her perfectly normal three and five-year olds. The
remedy was this. She let me sound off about the boys privately as much as I wanted
provided I promised never, ever to dump any of these rejecting feelings on them.
She could do this because she cared enough to look at things from my perspective,
as I did from hers. And it worked. It took me five years to love these children fully –
having a son of my own also helped. I began to realise that most kids are difficult!
But now they are grown up, I cannot imagine what all the fuss was about. Ours
definitely turned out to be just a bad patch. What saved us was the ability of our
relationship to find a solution that took into account everyone’s emotional insecurity.
A friend, Margie, was also lucky enough to discover that her marriage was equally
strong. For several months she’d believed that her husband was having an affair.
This was a reasonable suspicion because he had stopped having sex with her.
Margie was in her mid-30s, growing a little plump and feeling insecure about her
looks. She told me her husband had suddenly started ignoring all the usual
indications in bed that she would welcome his attentions. When we talked it through,
however, it turned out he was trying to keep a family business afloat that employed
no less than five of his relatives. Coping with this had nearly driven him into a
nervous breakdown. This in turn explained why his sex drive had vanished since
excessive stress reduces testosterone levels in men and depression in most cases
lowers their libido.
But because these two were best friends as well as partners, Margie could
understand why her husband had got himself into this difficulty. Her constructive
response was to be far more understanding of the context within which she was
feeling upset. Instead of going for sex on demand, she helped him draw up a
business rescue plan for the family firm. She even charmed the bank manager
personally into extending further credit. This enabled her husband to take a little
more personal time off and guess what they decided to do in a private room at the ‘Plume of Feathers’ after a gourmet meal not too long afterwards? A bad patch
suddenly turned into a rather good patch indeed.
What, then, distinguishes this sort of marriage – capable of surviving the dips and
blips of fortune – from one that is practically entering its death throes? Well, let me
ask you a different question – what’s the normal level of friction in a good
The truth is that all good relationships include conflict. Healthy individuals will
naturally disagree about their wants and wishes – anything less is a recipe for a
coma. People who claim they’ve never had a cross word in 40 years are either lying,
have low blood pressure or in terror of their own shadows. Extensive research by Dr
John Gottman (author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, And How You Can Make
Yours Last) shows that if you want to enjoy a long-lasting relationship it’s not whether
you have rows that matters: it’s how you manage them (see Box).
Box – DO YOU PRAISE EACH OTHER ENOUGH?
Dr Gottman’s research looks at the number of positive things you say or do to your
partner each day versus the number of negative ones. After reviewing thousands
of cases, he concludes that every healthy relationship needs to be in a 5:1 profit of
praise over blame. In other words, it’s not enough to apologise. To get back to
level par, you need to be extra thoughtful and loving by carrying out another four
good, kind actions. Gottman warns that if your ratio of positives to negatives falls
to just 3 to 1, your marriage is probably in trouble. If it drops to 2 to 1 you are
highly likely to split up. His message is that verbal abuse is a prime indicator of a
It follows therefore that marriages differ not in whether they have blips and dips but
how they respond to conflicts. That in turn depends on whether the basic
relationship contains sufficient elements of mutual respect, friendship and
compatibility. It’s a bit like asking whether a car has air bags or whether a lifeboat is
self-righting. Good relationships survive bad accidents; otherwise bad accidents kill
the passengers. And although opposites may attract, good relationships are best
made between people who share basic values.
One story I came across illustrates the tragic opposite. Like many couples, Joan and
Peter got married without discussing how they would manage their cash. Financially,
they turned out to be opposites: he was a spendthrift borrower; she was a thrifty
saver. Suddenly these two different financial animals found themselves chained
together in a single household. They started out with a traditional relationship – he
went out to work; she did not. But Peter refused to give Joan regular housekeeping
money. Instead he forced her to pay bills by overdrawing her personal account. It
was not till she was severely in debt that he would refund any of the outlay and then
not always in full.
He’d been brought up during a time of high inflation to think it was always better to
spend other people’s resources. She’d been raised by a family that hated to get into
debt only buying things when they had the cash to hand. This ensuing contest about
borrowing – especially when the mortgage became unmanageable – played a huge
rule in Joan and Peter’s divorce. She became convinced he chose to give her
unnecessary grief and that was emblematic of disliking who she was. He lost respect
for somebody whom he eventually came to regard as ‘too suburban’. By not being
emotionally similar enough, Joan and Peter were unable to negotiate any of these
differences, so their bad patch turned into a crash. How can you avoid following in their footsteps? My first suggestion is to remember
that marriage is a question not an answer. If you cannot get what you want, can you
want more of what you can get? Second, stay in physical touch; reserve one
evening a week to go out together if you possibly can. Third, in a conflict give your
partner choices: “You can either talk this through with me or I will start to lose my
interest in us? Is that what you want? You decide”. Fourth, be loyal to the
relationship – if you two won’t, who will? But realise that what actually matters is
Anyone can be filled with fine words of love but what people ‘mean’ is what they do.
If you keep calling someone ‘sweetheart’ but are generally bitter, you do not mean
what you say. If your partner says he loves you but continues to belittle or
undermine your confidence, it is more likely he dislikes or even hates you. Love is
NOT really expressed in fantastic acts of financial generosity but in small, consistent,
daily gestures of affectionate respect. A touch on the cheek; a small passing caress.
These alone can ‘purchase’ love; these alone will let you survive the inevitable bad
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and