by Hayley Doyle
It’s a thing.
It’s been labelled as the slump. As scientific. Even, a phenomenon.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), most divorces kick in around the seven year mark. Experts believe that it’s not huge problems that cause this itch, but the small consistent niggles that crack into your relationship’s foundation until it completely erodes. Taking each other for granted, leading separate lives, keeping secrets and having the same fight over and over again are common hurdles for all couples to overcome. Feeling that you’re not on the same page - whether it’s where to go for dinner or how to manage your mortgage - can create deep tension and resentment. All recipes for disaster.
Okay, okay… Let’s not wallow in a broken marriage before it’s broken. In researching this article, I got catapulted down a rabbit hole of divorce statistics and the numbers were soul destroying. You see, my husband and I are fast approaching our seventh wedding anniversary. On one hand, it’s no fairytale romance. It can be an effort to hold hands on the odd-occasion date-night if the kids have run us ragged all day. Our mornings are a series of military commands to one another. And on the other hand, I still see him as my new man. My boyfriend. He’s still the one I want to impress. When we hit seven years, will this change? Will we… itch?
Rather than look at what could go wrong, I’d like to focus on what we might be doing right. Seven years should be celebrated, not approached with anxiety. I mean, it will be the first time in two years we can actually go out to celebrate instead of attempting a romantic lockdown restaurant in our kitchen with dimmed lights and Ikea candles. And if one of us starts to get itchy, maybe we should just scratch, then re-read the seven tips below.
1. Stay Young
Move over expensive creams and botox; they won’t light a fire in your relationship. A youthful spirit, however, just might. My husband and I don’t take life too seriously and - this is perhaps, delusional - think of ourselves as young. While many of our friends complain about getting old and feeling “past it”, we choose not to think that way. We aren’t old. We have lots to forward to. Yes, we have to discuss our finances and constantly work out mundane logistics, but we also try not to think too far ahead. We know people who like to have long-term plans, and as much as it works for some, I’ve seen it make others rigid and bored. I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that we’re amazing at living in the moment, but as a couple, we try to find a child-like excitement in our life together and sarcastically roll our eyes at how “grown up” we are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were still doing that in 30 years time?
2. Shift Focus
If my husband and I are feeling disconnected from each other, it’s usually a reason outside of our relationship causing it. But do we recognise that? Nope. If I’ve had a particularly slow week with work, do I take out this frustration on that client who dragged their tail and threw my plans out of the window? Of course not! I breathe, send a well meaning reply making me seem super chilled and ever so understanding, then on a knife edge, I snap at my husband as he enters the kitchen to make a cup of tea (oh, the joys of working-from-home). This is how micro arguments start, petty picking at each other. Now, you might kiss and make up quickly. However if this behaviour is repetitive, it’s going to cause small cracks that eventually become big holes. So try to flag those moments, the knife edge of which way your focus can go. Shift that negative energy away from your partner because it’s likely they don’t deserve it; they just happen to be in the firing line. It’s not always easy in practice, but it’s definitely the easier option when it comes to keeping my relationship healthy.
3. Talk & Listen
It’s safe to say that I do most of the talking and my husband does the listening. That’s us. I’m a massive chatterbox and he’s a laid-back observer. We are what we are. But over the years, we have become better at talking out our problems when things get tough. I admit, I’ve taken the lead on this. Laid-back observers don’t get the urge to offload, whereas it comes all too naturally to me. You might be familiar with this common scenario;
“What’s the matter?”
Without being aggressive, it’s important to prod, to push that button and get to the root of what “nothing” truly means. If you approach this before the tension crescendos into an explosive argument, the creases might be ironed out more smoothly. The conversation will be tough and you’ll no doubt hear things you don’t like, but if the mood is calm and you haven’t reached breaking point, the blow will end up a lot softer. What’s more, we’re more likely to listen if we’re not screaming at one another.
4. It’s the Little Things…
They say chocolate is the way to a girl’s heart. Well many years ago, on a date, I was given a Toblerone as a little surprise. Sweet. But it didn’t work. Instead of devouring it with pleasure, I felt a bit flat. It wasn’t from the right guy.
The other night, my husband came home from the local supermarket with a few essentials plus a bar of Lindt chocolate for us to share after dinner. But as I unpacked the bag, I had to ask, “Where’s the Lindt?” Confusion splattered across his face. I watched as he mentally retraced his steps, gently miming his actions at an imaginary self-checkout. Uh-oh. It was still in the bagging area. “WHAT?!” I couldn’t understand how the most important (and least essential) item could be so carelessly left behind. He was half expecting me to march him back to the shop, but it was raining and freezing and… just, no. Instead, I realised something pretty cool. The reason I was so disappointed in not getting four big squares of dark salted caramel is because I simply love that part of our day. Watching an episode of something bingey. Cup of tea. Pjs. Honestly, eating chocolate - with him - is one of my favourite things to do. Once upon a time it was checking out a new rooftop bar in a faraway cosmopolitan metropolis. But we need to be realistic in terms of what can make us happy. I believe in the little things. And long may they keep coming (even if they do sometimes get left in Sainsbury’s).
5. Romancing Change
You know that old photo of yourself looking slim? Don’t you remember thinking you were fat when it was taken? The same can be said of your relationship if you choose not to embrace its current stage. Life is going to change over the course of seven years, even if it’s felt stagnant and monotonous for a while. You look back and think, “we used to be fun…” or “we used to dance more…” but nostalgia can paint a rose-tinted memory. You probably had problems then, but problems worth solving and sticking together through. So instead of dwelling on what you don’t have anymore, look at what you do have.
Last year, as I put the kids to bed on our sixth wedding anniversary, my husband was cooking a meal. We couldn’t go out because of lockdown, and even if restrictions had been lifted, our baby wasn’t sleeping well and getting a babysitter wouldn’t have been the best idea. It took me by surprise when I walked into the kitchen to see my husband wearing a smart suit and a playlist of our favourite songs began. I actually shed a tear, overwhelmed by such a simple gesture. And seriously, after pregnancies, births, leaking boobs, lockdowns and homeschooling, this was enough romance to see me through the next seven years!
When we commit to a longterm relationship, we need to accept that we can’t fundamentally change the person we’re with or go back in time to the person they were. But we can make a decision to change ourselves and our mindset, remembering why we’re sticking this whole thing out together.
6. Try Something New
At the beginning of a relationship, everything has a new aura about it. Suddenly the pub you’ve been to a hundred times with your mates feels different. The cinema… wow. Back when my husband was my possible-boyfriend, trying new activities and seeking out new places was how we got to know each other. Desert spas, comedy nights, and hey, he even convinced me to go to the Rugby 7s. Fast forward a few years and the new things become more intense and emotionally draining, like parenthood. You journey down unknown paths together and hope you don’t get lost. You only venture to and from familiar places and trusted spaces because your children are highly unpredictable. Gone are the days of trying out kayaking just for the fun of it…
Until recently! I took my husband to a cheese and fizz pairing experience at a tiny French deli in Covent Garden for his birthday (two years late, thanks to the pandemic). Neither of us had done anything like this before and it was such a thrill to be doing something out of the ordinary together AND learning about the delicious tastes at the same time. It gave us a real boost and something fresh to talk and reminisce about.
7. A Hug Goes a Long Way
Or a gentle squeeze. Feet resting on your partner’s legs during Ozark. The importance of physical human connection is second to none. As our responsibilities multiply, there are periods when my husband and I barely touch for days. One child will wake and climb into bed with us, followed shortly after by the other. There is giggling, then fighting, and my husband will get up and give them some cereal while I shower. I take over getting them dressed as he showers. We tag team, without the tag. Occasionally, we bump shoulders, but this is accidental. We might say, sorry. The longer we go without being intimate, the more that lack of intimacy feels normal. Until it doesn’t. When the distance is no longer be acceptable. It’s not normal! So we hug and acknowledge how we haven’t hugged for a while. Sometimes one of us isn’t fully committed to the hug because we’re in the middle of hanging clothes out to dry or picking up Lego. Or we’re not quite ready to let go of a grudge. But physically touching is a good start. And when we both meet in a clear moment and fall into each other, we’re reminded that we fit. We’re good. We might even kiss. And we always wonder why, oh why, it took us so long to reach out in the first place.