It's so often depicted as a fairytale – you meet your soulmate, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. It’s destiny. Except it isn’t, really. We know that marriage is hard work. In fact, it’s something every couple in a committed relationship, married or not, can attest to.
Those lovey-dovey photos posted on social media are only a small part of the reality. Because who posts pics of the daily grind and all the struggles and compromise that get you to the point where you’re celebrating 15, 20 or 30 years together? "For every picture I’ve posted of us looking happy and in love, there have been countless moments of annoyance, irritation and disagreement," says Nicole*, who’s just celebrated her 17th wedding anniversary.
She and her husband, Owen*, parents to two teenage boys, describe their marriage as happy and fulfilling, despite the fact they went through such a rough patch several years ago they landed up in couples therapy. "We were bickering all the time, about the silliest things," says Nicole (43) of Cape Town.
"There came a point where I wondered, 'Is this what our marriage is going to be like from now on? Do I want this?'" "We were stressed and on edge. We’d both been working really hard," Owen (45) says. “And we’d been so focused on the kids for such a long time we just kind of drifted apart."
They felt disconnected from each other, Nicole says, and it scared her because it made her wonder if they were really meant for each other. What couples therapy helped her realise is that experiencing a major wobble doesn’t mean your marriage is unhappy and doomed to fail.
"A happy marriage isn’t one where you never have problems," Nicole says. "It’s one where you choose to prioritise each other and are on the same page about how to deal with those problems." Owen agrees. "We realised we had to decide what was important. We could choose to keep letting stress make us irritable with each other, to keep putting the kids first and not make time for us as a couple, to keep living past each other. It’s all about choice."
Experts agree: a happy marriage is a choice. It doesn’t happen automatically and it doesn’t come without effort, attention and conscious decisions. So, what can you do to tip the scales in the right direction? We asked a few experts for advice.
Ditch the idea of the 'perfect partner'
There’s no such thing as the "perfect spouse" – it’s an illusion, says Louis Venter, a couples therapist from Randburg, Johannesburg. And it’s an illusion that can cause a lot of pain and suffering in a marriage because it results in expectations that aren’t always realistic.
You might think if your partner loves you they should know what’s upset you and what they need to do to fix it – without you telling them. But this is really just expecting your partner to read your mind. "The perfect partner is the person who chooses to stay with you through the pain, hurt and emotional upheaval that is part and parcel of marriage until you can get back to a space of understanding and empathy as a couple," Venter says.
Do a bit of introspection
If you want a good marriage you need to choose to be a good partner and teammate, says Shelley Lewin, a couples therapist and life coach from Cape Town.
"Make sure you’re dependable, communicate well and honour your commitments. A good partnership begins with you," she explains. Venter agrees regular self-evaluation is important, especially during the tough times. "When there’s a problem in your marriage, say, 'Yes, this or that annoys or bothers me, but what’s my part in this?'"
Self-awareness – knowing what your strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and fears are – will help you be a better partner.
Check-in with each other – often
We’re used to being evaluated at work, but how often do couples take time to reflect on how their relationship is going? When was the last time you asked your partner, "How are we doing?" or "Is there anything you’re unhappy with?" Doing this is about taking ownership of your bond, says Esther Perel, relationship therapist and author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
"It also gives you a sense of what you can do better and if your goals are still aligned. These conversations can be uncomfortable and may still be even after 10 years together. But you want to have them as best you can. If you talk through the discomfort, your connection will be strengthened."
Ask for what you want
Couples who last ask for what they want. "They make requests instead of complaints," Perel says. This means if you want to spend more time with your partner, you should refrain from nagging or saying things such as, ‘You never spend time with me.’ Instead, you should say, 'Let’s do something tomorrow night – just the two of us.'
We complain because it protects us from the vulnerability of openly stating what we need and possibly not getting that need met. But that vulnerability is part of being a grown-up in an intimate relationship, Perel says.
Act like you're in love
In any long-term relationship there comes a time when the rose-tinted glasses of romance come off. In the early days you’re focused on each other, but as time goes on it’s natural that you’ll become more focused on other things, such as your job, raising kids and running a household, Lewin says.
"That feeling of being in love comes and goes," says Arie Roos, a life coach from Pretoria. He suggests this little trick: "If you don’t feel in love, act as if you are – you’ll be surprised at how quickly the feeling returns." Find the feeling again by thinking about good times you had together in the early days.
It might even inspire you to make time to do those things again. People in happy marriages make time for each other, Roos says, and it’s a big part of how they ensure they don’t drift apart.
See the value in your differences
Opposites do indeed attract, Roos says. But those differences you found so thrilling in the early days often become the things that get on your nerves as time goes by. The important thing is not to let your partner’s habits, moods and quirks become things to argue about.
You’re not going to change them, so learn to let it go. And when it comes to different perspectives on things, let their point of view help you to look at things in another light. "Use your differences to each other’s advantage and to the benefit of the marriage," Roos says.
"For example, the realist can use the dreamer’s flights of fancy as inspiration. And the dreamer can use the realist’s sober logic to filter out the best dreams, and focus on those."
Don't fear conflict
You shouldn’t be afraid of conflict, because sometimes that’s the only way you can solve issues, Roos says. "But don’t let your emotions get the upper hand. Be respectful towards each other." Also, address issues as they arise rather than ignoring them in the hope they’ll go away, Lewin says, adding that your focus should be on understanding rather than blame.
"Ask each other questions. Try to understand your partner’s point of view and why they feel a certain way. There’s no point in blaming each other. You should rather try to figure out what each of you could be doing differently." How you handle feeling unhappy in your marriage is also your choice, Lewin says.
"You can address your unhappiness, explain what’s causing it and try to improve your communication, or you can choose to remain unhappy. But that won’t solve the problem."
*Not their real names