Kate Figes book “Couples: How we make love last” is out now in paperback. The book is a synthesis of academic literature and in depth interviews with couples. It is not a guide or a ‘how to’, rather it is an attempt to place personal experiences of marriage within a wider historical and sociological context, and what emerges is a very realistic portrayal of the ups and downs of long-term commitment. Last week I spoke to Kate Figes on the phone and managed to extract the top ten most important things she had learned after four years of researching this exhaustive and endlessly fascinating subject.
1.Respect each other’s individuality.
“People seem to think that if couples are not stuck together like glue they are not in a bona fide relationship. Not true. You don’t have to do everything together all the time and the most important thing is to respect each other’s individuality and autonomy. You need to do things independently so that you are your own person. As Esther Perel has previously pointed out, seeing each other as individuals is also much more erotic.”
2. Don’t feel pressurised to have movie sex
“There is an enormous pressure on couples to behave in a certain type of way when it comes to sex. There is an assumption in society that if you are not having sex three times a week you are in a sexless relationship. Society seems so sexually permissive, but how many people actually talk to each other within their relationship about what turns them on? Very few. And it’s only with a lot of confidence and trust over time that sex gets good and intimacy is more profound. In fact it is better than anything you might encounter in single life. The advantage of married sex in a cosy relationship is that you can be yourself and you don’t have to worry about being perfect.”
3. Keep your expectations realistic
“We have terribly romantic expectations about what love is, and how it should be so happy and rosy, but finding your soul mate, or your perfect match, is actually about difference, and how you negotiate difference. Do not expect your partner to have the same picture of what a long and loving relationship is about. You may have different ideas about everything: children, money, politics, art even, but how you navigate those differences will determine the strength of your relationship.”
4. Develop a shared narrative
“The longer you stay together, the more you will build a shared story of your life together, but you will each have a different perspective of that narrative.”
5. Be reflective and talk a lot
“People say they welcome talking to me because it makes them realise that the only time they take the opportunity to stand back from their relationship and reflect on what is going on is when something is going wrong. In fact talking regularly about what makes your relationship work, is as important as talking about the stuff that does not work. Communication is key and you need to be able to be completely honest. It can get quite dark and it can even go to hate at times, but you need to be able to talk about those things without causing offence.”
6. Expect difficulties.
“You will have difficulties, big difficulties, but when you hit a crisis in your marriage it can mark the end, or it can mark the rebirth. It can be the point where you realise that there is more, or enough, about the person that you like for you not to want to lose them. A lot of people give up as soon as there are minuses, but what you discover about yourselves, and how you cope in extreme situations, can teach you about tolerance and forgiveness.”
7. Understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict
“Healthy conflict means being able to say what you think. Unhealthy conflict means humiliating the other person. It is a sign that there is real resentment building within the relationship.”
8. Peer Marriages
“Sharing things as equally as possible, and approaching everything as a shared partnership, is key to a happy relationship. Pepper Schwarz reckons that a 60/40 childcare split builds a more lasting love for several interesting reasons. Fathers who do more with, and for, the family have more investment in their home and their kids. It makes it harder for them to leave, and harder for their wives to throw them out.
Negotiating who does what, and who spends what, can be difficult, but women need to give up on the notion that they are bad mothers if they don’t do everything for everyone. Being able to negotiate effectively is important for sex too. Research seems to show that the traditional gender split fosters more traditional sex, whereas couples in peer marriages who share chores and responsibilities are more likely to be honest about what they want sexually.”
“Treat each other with the same respect you would show to anyone you care for. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ and asking your partner how they are, is a basic courtesy.”
10 . Accept each others flaws.
“Don’t try and change your partner into someone that they are not. Nagging won’t tame a man into being a cleaner. You have to accept people in their totality, but what is interesting is that people do change as a result of being in a relationship. Solid relationships have the power to heal childhood hurts and help people who are anxious or insecure get over their early attachment issues. When you are in a really intimate relationship it is like having someone hold a mirror to you. It can help you to come to terms with things in yourself, and in your partner, and if you can accept yourself and accept your partner, then you can live life to the full, rather than hoping for unattainable perfection.”