It’s what newlyweds hope for when they tie the knot: a long and happy marriage.
And there are some who get it right – those elderly couples you see still holding hands after decades together.
They may bicker now and then but still look at each other with eyes filled with love.
So what do you need in your arsenal to make it through the marriage trenches and navigate the inevitable obstacles that come with a staying together for the duration?
It seems fewer and fewer people know because the divorce rate in South Africa continues to soar – the number of civil divorces increased by 20,4% from 2011 to 2015.
We asked a team of relationship experts – with a combined 50 years’ experience in counselling couples – to share important things that make a relationship last.
1. Beware great expectations
Don’t allow your expectations of what marriage should be like to ruin the actual marriage, warns Pretoria counselling psychologist Olga Molebatsi.
“Maybe you expected your spouse to wake up every morning and make breakfast for you and when this doesn’t hap-pen you feel resentful,” she says.
The advent of social media has compounded this problem as couples flaunt their seemingly perfect relationships online, leaving you feeling short-changed and unhappy, adds Johannesburg-based psychologist Tamara Zanella.
But remember, even those seemingly perfect couples on Facebook have their issues. Making sure you have realistic expec-tations of your partner and your marriage – and being clear about these with each other – is vital if you’re going to keep your relationship healthy and happy.
2. Cultivate intimacy
“Intimacy – and sex – is important to maintain a sense of connection,” Zanella says.
“At the start of a relationship these come naturally and spontaneously but often as a relationship matures and goes through phases there’s an ebb and flow in intimacy. That’s when couples need to make an effort to revive that spark.”
It’s about more than sex – it’s about remembering why you fell in love in the first place.
Couples need to have a special shared context that’s separate from the rest of their lives, says Larissa Ernst, a South African clinical psychologist based in Belgium. “We fulfil various roles – parent, employee, daughter, son – and often leave little space for the partner role because the others take priority,” she says.
“Couples should create a space that’s purely about their relationship. Perhaps special email accounts where you share thoughts, wishes and photos – where you can flirt with each other.”
Conversations about the kids, the grocery list and other domestic arrangements should be banned from this chat.
3. Don’t be afraid to forgive and forget
One thing successful marriages have in common is a capacity for starting over, Cape Town psychologist Robert Boulle says.
Couples who are able to thrash things out, then let them go and move on, tend to be happier because they allow their relationship to change and grow, he explains.
Molebatsi agrees and adds that, although issues need to be addressed when they arise, couples should also engage in constant acts of forgiveness.
“People hurt each other knowingly or unknowingly, people have misconceptions, and sometimes they don’t have good intentions. The only way to move forward is to master the art of forgiveness.”
4. It’s how you say it
“Approach is everything,” Molebatsi says. “How you say things can make your spouse feel safe or it can make them defensive.”
It’s difficult to remember this in the heat of the moment but it will make a huge difference to your communication if you can master this one thing. It’s also important to stick to the matter at hand and tell your partner exactly what’s bothering you as specifically as possible – which of course means you have to know what it is.
“Couples have a tendency to deviate from the root issue. They’ll be having disagreements about the chores when the real issue is that one of them doesn’t feel valued or they haven’t had sex in a few weeks.”
5. Forget the scoresheet
Always wanting to be right is a quick route to not having a constructive conversation. Couples often become combative and try to score points when having an argument, Zanella says.
“But if you want a happy relationship it’s more important that both parties feel they’ve been heard – because then hopefully they’ll both feel they’ve ‘won’ in a way.”
6. Have each other’s back
As much as each partner needs to have their own life, couples also need to know how to work together as a team, Boulle says. Being supportive of each other every day – by watching the kids so your partner can go for a run, for example – is important for maintaining a healthy partnership, Zanella says.
“But support isn’t only about practical things, it’s also about the emotional stuff.”
If, for example, your partner is going through a tough time at work and there isn’t really anything you can do to help, just being there for them emotionally – allowing them to vent or taking their mind off it, if that’s what’s needed – will do wonders.
7. Have regular audits
Molebatsi suggests thinking of your marriage as an institution that needs regular audits.
“Check how you’re doing as a couple. If you’ve been in a good space lately, think about what’s contributed to that. How are your finances? What needs to be improved? What should stay the same? What needs to change completely?”
If you find it difficult to talk about these things or aren’t able to agree on them, consider having counselling. “Keep in mind you don’t service a car after it’s stopped moving – you service a car while it’s still going so it keeps going.”
8. Be clear and specific about your needs
“Most people tend to express their needs indirectly or in a way that blames the other – ‘You never buy me flowers,’ for example,” Ernst says.
“Others expect their partner to know what they want – this is usually expressed as ‘If he loves me he should know what I like/want’. ” If you want your needs fulfilled, you have to express them clearly, she says. An effective expression of a need has three components: what you want, why it’s important to you, and how you’ll feel if it’s fulfilled.
“For example, ‘I’d appreciate it if you’d make dinner one evening a week. I feel overwhelmed with all the household chores and it would give me a chance to sort out the washing a bit earlier’. ”
9. Go with the flow
Accept there’s a natural ebb and flow that exists in a marriage, Boulle says.
When things aren’t going so well, trust that they’ll improve. There will be times when you don’t feel so close and it’s not the end of the world. Allow your partner space when they need it and accept that sometimes they’re working through something on their own.
“There’s a natural rhythm of closeness and distance in a marriage,” he says.
“Accepting this and talking about your feelings as things unfold is helpful.”
10. Show appreciation
“We all need to hear we’re appreciated, that our efforts are seen, that we’re valued, that our strengths are acknowledged,” clinical psychologist Larissa Ernst says.
“It creates a connection and closeness in a relationship. It makes us feel safer and makes it easier to be vulnerable.”
She recommends complimenting and acknowledging your partner often to ensure they know they’re valued.
“Tell your partner when you feel proud of them, what you appreciate about them, what makes them a good mother or father,” Ernst says.
“Don’t say it once or twice. It should be a continual part of your communication with each other.