When you are cruising along smoothly in a relationship, it’s hard to imagine the road suddenly turning rocky or hitting a dead end. Yet virtually all long-term partnerships include periods of rough terrain that have to be negotiated or abandoned when insurmountable.
The good news is that key relationship “black spots” can be identified beforehand, allowing us to plan strategies to navigate when things get tough. With one in three Australian marriages ending in divorce, it’s clearly no plain sailing. But armed with the right preparation, experts say testing times have the potential to bring partners closer together.
You’ve enjoyed a perfect, champagne-soaked beach honeymoon following a fairytale white wedding – but then suddenly you’re both crashing back to the real world. Or perhaps the thrill of romance has worn off and you’re seeing your partner in the cold light of day for the first time.
“Love definitely can be measured as a chemical reaction – and that dissipates over time,” Philip Armstrong, CEO of the Australian Counselling Association, says. “Suddenly the rose-tinted glasses come off and the honeymoon period is over.” Replacing lustful excitement with comfortable predictability can be too much for some, who prefer to split rather than face a seemingly endless, drab lifetime together.
But it doesn’t have to be that way if we anticipate this stage and build on it with friendship and communication, says Anne Hollonds, national vice-president of Relationships Australia. “It all comes down to whether you can form a partnership out of the romantic love that got you together,” she says.
2. Having a baby
Having a baby can turn a relationship into a pressure cooker, says Hollonds. “When you ask people when they first started having problems, they will often point to that time,” she says.
Getting support and having contingency plans before baby arrives can help couples stay together. “You can work ahead, understand it’s a crisis and prepare for it, knowing it lasts about a year,” Hollonds says.
The consequences of broken sleep and a diminished sex life shouldn’t be underestimated, Armstrong warns. “A lot of males find it difficult to understand breastfeeding and the impact of sleep deprivation,” he says. “Put that on top of normal stresses and, if a relationship is not ready, it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” But if a relationship is beyond repair, staying together may not be in your child’s best interest. “You do more damage staying together in a dysfunctional relationship than splitting,” Armstrong says.
3. Financial troubles
Money troubles can slowly poison a relationship, as resentment builds between partners. “I don’t think we will feel the full impact of the financial crisis on relationships for another two years,” Hollonds says. “For example, someone may lose their job tomorrow, but they are not going to break up because they lose their job – it will be the icing on a bad cake. Maybe they had 10 years of poor communication, not getting enough support, not enough sex, and then that’s the trigger.”
Personal wealth, on the other hand, can make unhappy couples stay together, Armstrong says. “What I am seeing now is that people are staying together for assets rather than children. I know couples who live in different storeys of their house. If there are significant joint earnings, there’s potential for more effort to be made to stay together.”
Finding out your partner is having an affair is often the ultimate betrayal, with only a minority of people able to salvage their relationship after an infidelity. But much depends on the nature of the adultery, says Armstrong.
“There are a lot of women who say, ‘If it had been a prostitute, I would have forgiven him’, but it’s the emotional connection [that upsets them],” he says. “The opportunity to stay together is greater when it’s a one-night stand, particularly to the female partner.” The number one location for extramarital flings is the workplace, Armstrong says. “In this day and age, jobs mean people travel more and the more people you are exposed to, the more likely you are to meet someone you click with,” he says.
5. Changing jobs
Climbing the career ladder can shift the equilibrium in a relationship, leaving couples feeling wobbly about the future. “I’ve seen it where one partner will say, ‘I liked you better when you were a plumber, now you are a middle manager – that’s not who I married’,” Armstrong says.
“It also happens a lot with women who go back to the workplace after having children. There is a change in the power balance, particularly if the new career is more high-powered, and males can feel threatened.” With most of us switching careers several times in our lives, this black spot is becoming more significant. Hollonds says: “It’s always useful in these sort of events to do some ‘what-ifs’ – imagining worst-case scenarios and how you would deal with them.”
After more than 30 years of spending just evenings, weekends and holidays in each other’s company, the 24-hour intimacy of retirement can come as a rude shock. For couples who have stayed together for convenience or their children, this may seem like an opportune time to split. “Statistically, there are more mature-age females leaving marriages than mature-age men,” says Armstrong. “The children have grown up and women realise life has far more opportunities now.”
Retirees need to learn how to handle disagreement if they want to prevent their relationship souring, Hollonds says. “It’s the managing of disagreement in your relationship that can weaken it. In general, we are very bad at handling conflict.”
To have the best chance of your relationship going the distance, experts advise couples to plan ahead and constantly tend to a relationship to keep it healthy. “There are key times when couples need to renegotiate their contract,” Hollonds says. “What usually breaks up relationships is a slow erosion, a series of small things that eat away at respect and love.”
The good news is that investing in your relationship doesn’t have to be hard. “It doesn’t have to be a surprise trip to Paris. Every day, do small gestures that let the other person know how much you appreciate them. Small things add up to a positive effect,” says Hollonds.
(via Body and Soul)