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Sunday, July 3, 2022

‘Get into bed and see what happens’ – and nine other tips to revive a tired relationship | Relationships

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“At what point do you think a relationship becomes a long-term relationship?” I ask my boyfriend, while sitting on the toilet having a post-dinner wee. He is in front of the mirror, trimming the single thick black hair that grows out from a mole on his cheek. Our son is in the bath next to us, squirting water from one stainless steel mixing bowl into the other using a Calpol syringe.


“About here,” he says, gesturing towards the room, past my naked thighs, with a pair of nail scissors.

After nearly two years of intermittent lockdowns, working from home, reduced opportunities for travel, socialising and, in many cases, making money, and more illness, a lot of long-term relationships are looking a little tired, a little frayed. Tempers have run short; desire has faded. Especially on this most “romantic” of days, many us will be thinking that we need to address things. To freshen up. To repair. This calls for more than a box of chocolates and a bunch of flowers.


But where to start? I’ve been gleaning advice from those who have gone before me – from friends, relationship counsellors, old colleagues, writers and philosophers, even my family.

Children will change your relationship – and not always for the better.
Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Lower your expectations

Your partner is not psychic: they cannot know what you think and feel and want at every turn. Nor is your partner an extension of you: they will frequently and unconsciously contradict you. So lower your expectations and try, as much as possible, to be kind. Standing at the hob, cooking yet another vat of soup (my partner and I have both decided that we need to eat fewer meals centred on butter and flour), I re-read Alain de Botton’s famous New Yorker essay Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person: “We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.” I add some salt. And a knob of butter. Well, come on…

Mind your language

My sister’s dad (who, for the genealogists in the room, is not my dad) once told me that people don’t break up over big things; they break up over how they talk to each other. Yes, in the end, your partner might sleep with someone else or steal your rent. But in most cases, the damage is done when you stop saying goodbye at the end of phone calls, stop saying thank you for dinner, stop asking the other person how their day was.


However, blaming someone else’s behaviour is unlikely to change it. “People could really do with saying what they need, not what they think the other partner should do,” says Relate counsellor Josh Smith, who has been working with couples and families for more than five years. “Also, set a time and space when you’re going to talk about things but give it a time limit. A person who is feeling anxious might want to talk about an issue, but their partner might be more inclined to avoid difficult conversations and worried it will go on for ever. So you could say: ‘Let’s talk for half an hour and then stop.’” Smith also recommends giving yourself a timeout during those exhausting, essential conversations. “When our nervous system gets very aroused, we might say things we don’t mean, or not be able to say very much at all and disconnect emotionally. Being able to take a timeout, with a planned time to return to [the discussion], will help you listen.”


Go to counselling while you still like each other

When you hear counsellors talk about their clients, says Smith, the one thing that comes up time and time again is that they wish they’d come sooner – before the fight-or-flight response got so ingrained and the conflict so advanced that partners could no longer hear each other. So, to use a rather threadbare analogy, maybe treat relationship counselling like going to the gym: something that you use regularly to keep things healthy, to nip small problems in the bud, rather than turn to when things have seriously gone to seed. It is a privilege that many people can’t afford, of course, but it might also be money well spent.

A counsellor in a book-lined room, facing a couple.
Couples’ counselling isn’t just for emergencies. Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

Get into bed and see what happens

Sex is a pretty fundamental (and free) way to cement intimacy in a relationship. It can also act as a microcosm for the relationship: when people are feeling stressed, anxious, avoidant, low in self-esteem, bored or overlooked, it will almost inevitably lead to a drop-off in bouncing bedsprings. “For most of the couples I see, sex is an issue,” says Smith. “It’s not unusual for people in long-term relationships to have very little sex.” Well, who’d have guessed? “But that’s not a problem if it’s not a problem,” he adds. “Don’t let normative ideas about sex get in the way.”

That doesn’t mean you have to give up just yet. When I asked my family WhatsApp group how to reboot a long-term relationship, one cousin replied: “Actively listen, be nice to each other and have sex even in times you might not feel like it (and then remember how much you do actually like it).”

Flirt with other people

If you still need a little boost, remember what the psychotherapist Esther Perel says about desire in her Ted Talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship: “If there is a verb, for me, that comes with love, it’s ‘to have’. And if there is a verb that comes with desire, it is ‘to want’.” The journalist Katie Antoniou puts it like this: “Go to a party and watch your partner flirt with other people and remember why you find them hot. And flirt with other people and remember people find you hot. Then go home together.”

Do at least one thing separately every day

Two women swimming in a river.
You’re still allowed to have friends. Photograph: Gary Yeowell/Getty Images

One of the great challenges in a long-term relationship is judging how much time to actually spend together. “During the pandemic, I noticed that people’s lives became a bit enmeshed,” says Smith, in possibly the greatest understatement of 2022. “Having different experiences and being able to bring those back into the relationship can be really healthy.”

As Perel points out: “We come to one person, and we are basically asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide.” We want security, companionship, perhaps children, a best friend, a trusted confidante, a red-hot lover and someone to help us fulfil our daily domestic tasks. This is, probably, an unfair expectation of any single person. Put too many eggs in the long-term partner basket and cracks are going to show, if not yolk and leaking albumen. So don’t be afraid to look outside your relationship for other connections. It is not a criticism of your romantic relationship to go on holiday, share childcare, work, go to dinner, play football and watch films with other people. And, whether it’s a hobby, a shed or a separate bed, don’t be afraid to carve out a private sphere within your relationship. My greatest – and possibly only – bit of advice about sustaining a long-term relationship is to share a bed but have two separate duvets. The Germans, as is so often the case, have the answer.

Feel the fear …

“Long-term relationships aren’t like warm baths; they’re like holding a tiger by the tail.” I’m on the phone to a friend who has been in his current relationship – I say “current” because, honestly, who am I to say? – for a mere 43 years. When it comes to relationship advice, as he admits, his understanding of dating, casual sex, breakups and asking people out is minimal. “She moved in when I was 19 and that was it, really.” But he is rather useful on the long-term front. “There are two main approaches, as I see it,” he says. “There is the passive state, which some people can find very sustaining, when it would basically be such a faff to split up that you’re staying together.” I think of my mortgage and our son and the fact that I still cannot replace my brake pads. “Or there is the active approach, where you’re always opting in. That’s what I chose.”

The reason he and his partner didn’t marry for the first 42 years of their relationship, he says, is that they always wanted to know that they were together because they were choosing to be so. “I quite liked the jeopardy,” he says. “It’s a constant dialogue between exhilaration and exhaustion. At any time, I could have walked away. We had made no promise; there was no contract. Which meant that, every day, I knew I was there because I wanted to be there.”

But what about the days when you don’t want to be there, I ask, picking a used teabag off the lid of the compost bin and putting it into the compost bin. “Well, that’s when the exhaustion comes in,” he says. “And you have to have those conversations about where you are and what you want.”

… but don’t be afraid of all change

A priest once told me that, over a lifetime, you will be married several times – and if you’re lucky, that will be to the same person. Children, work, where you live, money, health: the things that change your life will change your relationship too. So do the work to make those changes happen with, and in parallel to, your partner. Talk to each other about the ways you are developing and how you can adapt the dimensions and texture of your relationship to fit. Few of us would really want to be the person we were 10 years ago (in my case: single, recently redundant and staying in my mum’s spare room), so don’t expect your partner or your relationship to be held in aspic either.

It is also worth pointing out that the things that bring you stress outside your relationship – money worries, illness, unemployment, housing insecurity, the demands of parenting, grief and moving home – will create stress within your relationship. So check if there are things you can do to improve your own situation before blaming your partner.

Make time for quality time (even if you hate the phrase)

Happy couple on the beach.
Spend time together away from your usual domestic setup. Photograph: Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

Date nights worked for the Obamas, who once famously flew to New York, took a limo to dinner, watched a Broadway show and then flew home all in one night, during his presidency. And it was noticeable to me that the first time my partner and I spent a night away together since our son was born four years ago, we ended up not only sleeping in a bedroom covered in photographs of someone else’s whippets, but getting engaged. It doesn’t have to involve money, travel or Instagram. Time spent together away from your usual domestic coexistence – even if it’s just a swim, or a train journey, or a trip to a new launderette – can make a huge difference to how you see your partner.

Remember the little joys

Finally, having picked up my partner’s socks from the floor, made the bed, rehung the damp, onion-smelling towel he had flung in a heap over the door, and wiped the peanut butter off my forehead, I asked my old English teacher for his advice. This, after all, is the man who taught Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb, with its description of the stone earl and his lady countess, who rigidly persisted, “linked, through lengths and breadths of time”. More to the point, he’s been with his partner since they met at a party aged 20, more than 40 years ago. He must, I reasoned, have some ideas about what sustains and revives a long-term relationship.

The reply comes back mere minutes later: “Amnesia, dogged optimism, a robust and shared sense of the contemptibility of public figures, alternating phases of heartfelt loyalty and shameless disloyalty with regard to friends and birth families, lonesome sheds with tools in them, compatible levels of existential angst, sunsets, recreational stimulants, utterly selfish projects, wholly unshared obsessions, a poor sense of smell, frequently sleeping in separate beds, frequently sleeping together, children, finding each other ridiculous, plant life, lakes, oceans, rock pooling, books, solvency, knowing who’s better at what, dreaming of elsewhere, avoiding all board games and exercising dictatorial authority over territories in different areas of daily mundanities.” His wife, he later tells me, probably had a better list. I would happily marry either of them.

Oh, and one final note: in all my research, nobody mentioned shutting the door when you’re on the toilet. But I’d say give it a try.



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