Wouldn't it be nice if couples rode off into the sunset and lived happily ever after. No dramas, no arguments, no bickering over whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher. But the reality is not all relationships last the distance and the number one reason is not infidelity or anything earth-shattering; it's because we slowly but surely disconnect.
Relationship counsellor Steven Dromgool from Relate Counselling believes too many of us buy into a 'happily ever after' myth and don't invest enough time and effort into staying connected and understanding one another.
Typically, for the first six to 18 months couples are focused on making one another happy. In falling in love, we produce a neurotransmitter called phenylethlamine (PEA) which gives us a kind of chemically enhanced view of the world and makes us obsessive (in a good way) over our new partner. But once we feel secure we stop producing PEA and, consciously or unconsciously, invest less in the relationship.
Over the next few years we become increasingly disenchanted with our partner.
"We realise that it's kind of annoying that they snore; they're inconsiderate; they don't talk about their feelings very much. And so then what we tend to do is to try and use a series of behaviours to force them to behave well in the relationship. But because this is an unconscious strategy that we used when we were younger our behaviour can be quite childlike," Dromgool explains.
"So you usually end up with one person who tends to be more emotional in the relationship – it's often, but not always, the woman. And then the other person kind of freaks out when their partner gets upset, and shuts down and tries to be more logical. This makes the more emotional partner feel unheard and even more emotional.
"You end up not addressing what the issue is, but the way that you fight."
Over time you feel more and more disconnected.
"The more emotional one starts thinking, 'Well this is crap - why am I in this relationship? I can't see any future for us and everything that I've tried hasn't worked.'
"This is the point (it's usually around the six to 10-year mark) where people seek counselling, and if they haven't waited too long in this phase it's something we can shift fairly quickly just by teaching them to how to communicate differently."
The key is if they haven't waited too long. If contempt or a marked loss of respect has set in there is no going back, he warns.
"You can bring couples to understand what their part in the relationship was and how the two of them wove themselves into this mess. It helps them forgive themselves and their partner. But they've essentially shattered that sense of liking and safety and security.
"There's a grief process and it's pretty common for one person to say 'let's just try'. In these scenarios we can create a space for the person who has struggled to express how they feel and give them some help to have some words. The other person then generally says, 'I really needed to hear that years ago - that you love me or that you do care about me, or that the reason you go silent is that you don't know what to say and you're trying to get it right.'
"There can still be a shift. But sometimes they've waited too long, or in that process of grieving they've already mapped out a new life for themselves, or an attachment somewhere else has formed."
Couples need to invest in learning what each partner needs and how to best communicate with one another while their relationship is still young, Dromgool claims.
"When you're in that honeymoon phase you're quite malleable, you feel safe, so it's the ideal time in the relationship to talk to one another about what you need when you feel sad or happy or annoyed: 'I've had a really bad day, I just want you to give me a hug. This makes me feel connected to you and less overwhelmed.'
"Knowing this is great for someone who's not a talker or who likes to 'fix' problems. If they know that all they have to do is give a hug, they're learning how to be successful in that relationship."
This video, It's Not About The Nail, sums up perfectly how men and women get it wrong with one another:
Dromgool and his team run evening dinner series, Relate With Gustos, to help couples nurture their relationship. The series is comprised of three dinner talks about the science of relationships, the cycle of relationships and the five relationship traps.
Couples can find them hugely helpful, Dromgool says.
But whether you choose to have professional help or not, the key is to take care of your partner as you do your friends.
"The couples that are happy and make it work take care of the relationship like they do with their friends. And they've done it the whole way through and it's just how it is," Dromgool says.
"When people get into that pattern and then take into account the fact we fall in love with people who are incompatible with us - because that's what holds our curiosity - there is every chance of success.
"That's when you can have those conversations: 'So when you feel bad you don't want to come home and talk about stuff?' 'I want to talk about anything except what happened at work today.' 'So you're not asking me to fix it?' 'Well no, it's not your fault. I just want to talk to you like my friend.'
Something that might surprise people is that arranged relationships have a high chance of success.
"The one advantage that people in arranged marriages have is that there are no assumptions that this is going to be wonderful," says Dromgool. " So they go into it like they would a work relationship or a long-term flatting scenario where they know they have to make it work and they know there will be some work to do.
"Having that mentality sets them up to hold that sense of curiosity and there are no expectations that the partner will just automatically adjust.
"Those relationships are characterised by a lot of thoughtfulness, a lot of care, and over time there's a sense of love and a powerful bond.
"They often have a honeymoon experience a few years down the line. They've had kids, weathered a few years together and then there's this sense of 'wow you're a good husband and you're a good wife'.
"They come and talk to me about the problems they're having with their teenage children."
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