Last year, around 42% of marriages in the UK ended in divorce. In opposite sex marriages, nearly two-thirds of divorces were initiated by women. So, why do so many relationships fail? And is there anything we can do to save them before it’s too late?
Authors Matthew Fray and Joanna Harrison are trying to address why we so often struggle or fail in long-term relationships. We’re not talking about those major marriage crimes like infidelity, domestic abuse or gambling away the family savings. They’re focusing on those everyday relationship difficulties – from lack of intimacy to communication problems, lack of trust, or even just forgetting to empty the dishwasher – the things that almost every couple struggles with from time to time.
Matthew and Joanna joined Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss how unremarkable everyday behaviours can lead to the end of a marriage or long-term relationship, and crucially, what we can do to prevent this.
‘People fail to recognise how the so-called ‘little things’ in relationships add up over time’
Matthew Fray, relationship coach and author of This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships, split with his ex-wife a decade ago. He says that in his experience, it’s the smaller things that often have a big part to play.
“Most long-term relationship failure is not the result of people of poor character doing a bunch of obviously abhorrent things to their partners. The much more common – and much less publicised – condition is that people fail to recognise how the so-called ‘little things’ in relationships add up over time, and often communicate one of two ideas.
“Either it’s: My relationship partner loves me, and I can trust them because the things they do and say are constantly reinforcing that I’m seen, heard, respected, and cared for. My partner’s actions add up to the experience of feeling loved.
“Or it’s: While my relationship partner insists that I’m loved, respected, and that I can trust them over and over again, there’s evidence that they are either consistently doing things which hurt me out of malice, or they are consistently doing things which hurt me, and are unaware of it despite my many attempts to communicate it. Regardless, I can’t trust them to honour the things that matter to me. I can’t trust them to not hurt me. And I can’t trust them to hear me when I try to communicate that something is wrong.”
‘We can learn a lot from getting it wrong’
Joanna Harrison, author of Five Arguments All Couples (Need to) Have And Why The Washing Up Matters, says she has noticed five areas of conflict that come up time and time again in her work as a couple therapist.
“We can learn a lot from getting it wrong,” says Joanna. “Where we go wrong in our relationships is if our partner feels something and we tell them it’s not reasonable to feel that or don’t listen to it. Then we can grow more disconnected. The five arguments are communication, families, roles, comings and goings and sex and bodies.
“We need to understand our differences. Maybe tone or timing means more to one of us than the other. Maybe one of us has grown up with a reason to fear conflict or has been brought up to keep emotions hidden. If we can be curious about these aspects of each other, we can create a more bespoke way of communicating.”
So, how can we repair some of these relationship issues and potentially prevent the end of a long-term relationship?
1. Don’t be afraid of arguments
“See conflict (provided it’s not unsafe) as an opportunity to learn something important,” says Joanna. “The arguments we have are brilliant. “People think: ‘Oh, we must not have arguments or conflict.’ But actually, they are flags for saying: ‘OK, this is something that really needs addressing. If we keep having this argument again and again, what is that about?’
“Make time after an argument to sit down, look at it with a bird’s eye view and be curious about what you were both feeling. If we take this time after an argument, then we can develop and grow more intimate with each other. When you struggle to do this and are stuck blaming each other or thinking that it’s the other person’s fault, it’s a sign that you may need help.
“If you keep having the same argument again and again, even if it’s about the shoe on the floor, make sure you attend to it and try to understand what it’s really about. It may contain valuable information. Often it is when people give up trying this that they become indifferent to each other.”
2. Acknowledge the impact of your actions
“Acknowledging the impact you have on each other (even if you don’t agree with each other) can be powerful,” says Joanna. “It’s possible to say: ‘Sorry I upset you when I said that’ even if you think that what you said was the right thing to say.”
3. Give your partner validation in conversation
“Our relationship partners MUST be able to trust that they can tell us when something is wrong or when something hurts,” says Matthew. “And that we will seek to understand and cooperate in repairing whatever is wrong for them, if they’re ever going to be able to trust us and feel safe within the relationship.
“Relationship partners who consistently validate emotional experiences in conversation, and who consistently consider the individual needs and wants of their partner, are people who earn and retain trust, and who have long-lasting, fun, happy, intimate, and fully connected healthy relationships.”
4. Be considerate towards your partner
“Consideration means simply that someone NEVER forgets to account for the existence of their relationship partner and for that person’s individual needs and wants,” says Matthew. “If they love having freshly baked cookies on their birthday, perhaps you should bake or purchase cookies for them on their birthday, because not doing so might result in them feeling invisible or not important enough for us to remember and that feeling hurts the other person.
“However, if your relationship partner also has a severe nut allergy, you would take great care to ensure that no nuts, or peanut butter, or any type of nut derivative is being used in the preparation of the birthday cookies. Even when we do kind things like baking someone cookies, if we fail to account for that individual’s wants and needs, we are still a threat to hurt them.”
5. Be mindful of how you respond to feedback
“I really wish my male counterparts would stop think of thinking of negative feedback as a character attack to harm their ego,” says Matthew. “It’s an opportunity to protect the other person from a negative experience. This fundamental absence of need fulfilment in relationships is the actual problem.
“Every time my ex-wife tried to tell me about her needs, I rejected it and I didn’t let her. I took it as unfair criticism or judgement of me. I thought I was a good person. I thought it was a good relationship partner. And I didn’t allow any like feedback to the contrary. But someone is allowed to hurt, even though we don’t intend to hurt them.
“That was a shockingly simple but difficult lesson for me to learn – that my intentions do not equal the experiences of those around me. It’s not about character attacks, says Matthew. “It’s about awareness. It’s about habits. It’s about your behaviour.”