“I went to marriage school…” Writer and author Daisy Buchanan enrolled – and here’s what she learnt
Yes, that’s really a thing in 2018. Writer and author Daisy Buchanan enrolled – and here’s what she learnt.
last year, on a night out at our local bar, one of my friends asked my husband if being married was difficult. “I love it,” he beamed. “Marriage is a piece of cake!” Hours later, after too much rosé and some dropped chips, he fell off an escalator – and I fell onto him. I burst out laughing. He thought I was laughing at him when he was in pain and, when a stranger asked if we were OK, he said, “Fine – but probably getting a divorce.” I was furious at his tasteless joke, and we ended up having the biggest fight of our relationship. We’d made up by morning, but it was as if the universe was telling us that marriage isn’t easy: if we ever took it for granted, of course we’d trip up.
The thing is, we’re still new to marriage. Our wedding was in October 2015, with 120 guests and a Luther Vandross karaoke. It’s hard to explain how it’s affected our relationship, but it does feel different. Our intentions haven’t changed; they’ve become deeper. Marrying my husband is the best thing I’ve done; but it’s also the most optimistic. A study shows that 42% of marriages end in divorce and, statistically, we’re unlikely to stay with the same partner for a lifetime. Most relationships I’ve been in before have ended badly, so why do I think this could be different? Surely it’s naïve to think there never has, or will be, a love like this? Yet I do – because, together, the two of us are more than the sum of our parts.
Still, I believe relationships are like gardening: if you want healthy plants, you need to put in the effort, rather than leaving it to chance. Also, I’ve always been a nerd, so if there’s a chance to get 100% in marriage, I’ll be at the front of the class with my hand up. That’s why I was delighted to discover that Ada Calhoun, author of Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give ( WW Norton & Co; R341), was hosting a ‘marriage academy’, teaching how to make love last. I’m absolutely not talking about ’50s-style keep-yourhusband-happy tips, with martini recipes and surprising uses for household starch. I wanted advice that made sense in 2018, when, “Did you watch The Handmaid’s Tale without me?” is a greater source of conflict than not having dinner ready by 7pm. Here’s what I learnt:
Don’t keep score
It sounds like the most straightforward advice, but Ada says the key to making a marriage work is to be kind to each other. “Marriage is a game where the second you start keeping score, you’ve lost,” she explains. It reminds me of a quote I once read: “You can either be right or be married.” The point? Jumping at every stab of irritation and always needing to prove your point will not lead to lasting love.
This chimes with the advice of psychologist Dr Samantha Rodman, who suggests focusing on a small core of positivity when you’re struggling, and trying to notice one good, proactive thing your partner does. I despair at my husband’s inability to enter a room without switching on the radio or playing a vinyl record, then failing to turn them off even when he leaves the apartment. But then I remember his passion for music was one of the reasons I fell for him. I dig out some of the CDS he’s made me, and think about how, when he puts a record on, he’s sharing something he loves.
Scrap the ‘soulmate’ label
We all love the idea that there’s someone out there who’s meant for us. When you’ve found them, you can breathe out, order pizza and relax. And if it all goes wrong, The One is still out there, right? Ada tells me that’s nonsense. “Author JRR Tolkien described his relationship with his wife, Edith [to whom he was married for 55 years], as ‘companions in shipwreck’. Life is hard at times, and marriage is also about finding a friend to stand beside you. If you’re expecting a soulmate, you’re raising your expectations to an unreachable level. Instead, focus on having so much shared history with a partner that you understand each other profoundly. That’s worth staying married for.”
I think about when my husband and I moved into our new home, which was exciting but incredibly stressful – though there was plenty of shouting, we never shouted at each other. I remember how kind he was when my beloved grandmother died a few months ago – giving me space when I needed it. Grief is horribly grown-up, and finding someone who will help you endure it is, I now realise, much more important than having a partner who has the same favourite sandwich as you.
You won’t have sex all the time, and that ’s OK
Let’s be real: sometimes you want to rip your partner’s clothes off, and sometimes you’d prefer to pull on your PJS. More than once, I’ve worried about my period being late, then I realised I can’t even remember the last time we had sex. “Forget the pressure to do it all the time, and acknowledge when you just want cosy companionship,” says Ada. “It makes it easier to feel sexy again when you’re ready.” She’s right – worrying about whether we’re being sufficiently sexy is the world’s biggest passion-killer. “It’s rare that your sex life will follow a routine, and worrying about it will only cause tension,” she adds.
Last month, I was in a posh hotel, with a suitcase full of unworn sexy lingerie thinking, ‘If we don’t do it right now, we’ve failed as a couple.’ But all I wanted to do was wait for my pasta bloat to go down as I watched The Real Housewives. Then, a few nights later,
“The key to a happy marriage is to remember yours is no better – or worse – than anyone else’s.” – Ada Calhoun
while watching a repeat episode of Law & Order at home, a peck turned into a passionate kiss, which turned into an upholstery-wrecking session. I realise that our sex life isn’t routine and, nearly five years in, I should embrace the fact that we’re not predictable. Sex, like everything else, stops being fun when you feel as though there’s a ‘right’ way to do it. So don’t overthink it.
Marriage can survive infidelity
For many of us, cheating is the ultimate betrayal and the biggest deal-breaker. But if you’re making a permanent commitment to a partner, is it unrealistic to expect them never to look at anyone else for the rest of your lives? Ada admits both she and her husband have been unfaithful but, because they had similar attitudes and were open to discussing their feelings, the marriage stayed strong. “Just as a tall building falls down if it doesn’t have room to expand and contract – to sway – a marriage that’s too rigid crumbles at the first tremor.” She suggests rating our attitude to monogamy from zero to five, with zero meaning we’d never flirt with anyone else, and five indicating we’d be open to sleeping with another person. “If you’re a zero who considers even a flirty Instagram comment unfaithful, you need to make sure you’re not dating a four – someone who would happily make out with a stranger in a bar.”
It’s hard to put this one into practice, but I start to think about how it would feel if my husband had sex with someone else, and whether I take him for granted. “A marriage is not made up of years of faithful service, but moments of grace,” says Ada. Thinking about how we’d survive a cheating crisis makes me grateful. We talk about the fact that we’re both at the lower end of Ada’s scale and agree that, if our feelings ever change, we’ll discuss it first before acting on anything. It’s brought us together and made us remember we’re both human. And, instead of assuming we’re on the same page, we need to keep checking in with each other.
No one has it all figured out
As a member of generation Compare and Despair, I often wonder how other people make their marriages work, and whether they’re better at it than I am. But Ada shut that down. “They key to a happy marriage is to remember yours is no better – or worse – than anyone else’s,” she says. “We do newlyweds disservice by not admitting that everyone faces rough patches. That couple in their 70s, holding hands in the park? Ask them about the worst bit of their marriage, and they’ll probably tell you that, when their business failed, they lived apart for a year.”
It’s deeply comforting to know there isn’t a trick that will future-proof a marriage. To test her theory, I make a list of the most successful couples I know. My parents have been married for 35 years and adore each other, but I know they’ve struggled. I think of the friend whose marriage I envied when I was single but, sadly, she’s now getting divorced. It’s a powerful reminder that outside of social media, the perfect partnership doesn’t exist and striving for it can be damaging.
The final lesson
In 2015, we promised that we would do our best for each other, every single day. Part of that promise is acknowledging that a day may come when we can’t do that unless we’re apart. Going to marriage academy isn’t like taking a driving test – I don’t feel as though I’ve passed and proved my suitability for marriage. However, my perspective has changed. I don’t want a failure-proof marriage, but one in which my husband and I are as kind as we can possibly be to each other – and to ourselves.