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  • Writer's picturecraigschorn

Together forever - lessons for lifelong lovers

Heart of the matter: ‘Never raise a complaint with a criticism. It always makes people defensive’ and other tips for keeping the love alive. Illustration: Danae Diaz/The Observer

After that initial attraction, what keeps a couple together? And as we change and grow over the years, how do we make sure we move in the same direction? Philippa Perry and five other relationship experts on how to keep that loving feeling

Michael Segalov and Eleanor Morgan (The Observer, Sat 12 Feb 2022 15.00)

Philippa Perry: ‘Your partner is not responsible for your happiness, you are’ Him: “What are you doing?” Me: “I’ve got to write 500 words on ‘keeping love alive’, before I go out.” Him: “What? In case it all changes, when you go?” In other words, my husband even after more than 30 years of near-functioning togetherness is taking nothing for granted, or he is exercising his terrific sense of humour. Or maybe he’s got a point – perhaps I’ll have an epiphany in the Co-op and we’ll have to re-evaluate everything. But as for formulas for a happy union, one size will not fit all, what one couple may need to do more of, another couple should do less. For one couple, it might work if they believe you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. For others, it might work better if niggles are brought into the open before they get too big. Some swear by openness, and others, the judicious use of deceit, or tactfulness as it’s often called. We are not equations, we are humans. We are formed by different genes, cultures and ongoing experiences. We don’t all need the same thing, or even stay still – so it is likely that what worked for a couple at the beginning of their relationship might need to come under review later on. I cannot give you a fail-safe recipe for lasting love, I’m doubtful about the universal applicability of the following tips, but if any of them resonate with you, they might be useful. 1. Aim for mutual understanding over gaining victories over each other. I don’t recommend entering a relationship believing love will conquer your personal demons and, then, when it doesn’t, blaming your partner for you not feeling happier. Remember your partner is not responsible for your happiness, you are. 2. Remember loving touch. Personally I’m fond of a bit of skin on skin, but one person’s skin on skin is another person’s being tied up in the broom cupboard – takes all sorts. Nobody, not even your partner, knows exactly what it is like to be you and you cannot ever know what it is like to be someone else. But to have someone who knows and sees most of you, stays interested about you as you evolve and you stay curious about them, then as years pass your mutual knowing deepens… That, I think, grows intimacy, although it could be the not-knowing part of this, that advantages physical intimacy. 3. Commit to each other. If you have one foot in Plan B, you won’t be giving everything to Plan A. You find out what you each want if either of you are not to go mad and you compromise, so you each get a bit of what you need. You find out what you can stand, they find out what they can stand, then you work together to see if you can stand it. Sometimes, you can more than stand it, it can make you both better people. Happy Valentine’s. PP Dr John Gottman: ‘It’s about always thinking for two' The one core thing is having the motto: “When you’re upset, the world stops and I listen.” That’s what (the data shows) separates great relationships from bad ones. I carry a notebook and pen in my back pocket at all times. So, when my wife, Julie, says those four most terrifying words – “We need to talk” – I can whip out my pad and say, “I’m listening, what’s the matter?” Once, she spoke for two hours. I was jotting down what was being said the whole time. When we look at how couples have maintained loyalty, there’s something very simple that is always present. It’s about always thinking for two. Even when I’m alone, Julie is a constant presence in my mind. The decisions I make, even on my own, are about our benefit – not just mine. One time, Julie and my daughter were in a pottery shop. Not interested, I sat outside. And then this rare event happened: an attractive woman started flirting with me. I was flattered and could have enjoyed it. But, wanting to build trust and commitment, I said: “You’ll enjoy this pottery shop. My wife and daughter do.” That’s what commitment looks like. And, while it’s comforting to think that when you’re truly in love everything just works out, in truth that’s not everything. There’s actually much more to it, right from the start. The beginnings of relationships are all about building trust, scoping out whether we can rely on each other. Once that trust is established, we turn to the question of commitment: are you committed to both me and us? Feel empowered; be proactive. Whether or not a relationship works isn’t down to chance alone. MS

Dr Orna Guralnik: ‘Sit and listen; hear without interruption’

Whether based on the relationships we see depicted in popular culture, our own previous experiences, or those of the people we grew up with, we all have what I call an “inner object of couple”. We each come into relationships with expectations; templates of what we assume couplehood should be. That can become a struggle needing negotiation: your partner will come with their own visions. We don’t always need to be in sync: there’s nothing to fear in your partner growing and changing, it’s only natural and will contribute to your sense of aliveness. Don’t be scared, but see it as an opportunity: your partner can function as a thorn agitating for your development and growth, too. Counterintuitive as it may sound, communication probably isn’t the problem in your relationship, but the symptom. People often construct this theory – that they’re struggling to communicate – but this is usually just a manifestation of an underlying issue. We create communication problems when we don’t want to hear or say what’s actually going on. Finding ways to communicate better is fairly straightforward, it’s often superficial. So, I start by asking people to describe the difficulty they’re having communicating. It might be interruption or hyper-excitement; getting too angry or shutting down. Once that is identified and cleared up, you can turn to the task of listening: make a clear distinction between when you’re in listening and expressing mode. Take turns deciding when one of you is communicating, and then sit and listen, hear without interruption. When speaking, monitor your own emotional state, and make sure you’re not shut down or overwhelmed. There’s an “optimal zone of emotional engagement” beyond which conversation stops being of use. If you find you’re going too far in one way or another, just take a break, rather than keeping at it and hoping for the best. And then, pause. Don’t do anything for a while afterwards. If you can create that space, putting the different positions on the table, we are inclined to solve the problem in front of them, it’s in our genes. MS Nedra Glover Tawwab: ‘Be clear from the get go about what you want’

State your needs and ask questions early on. When dating, we’re often not asking the right things. I’ve spoken to many couples who are married and are only then talking about whether they want to have children or not. Why wait so long? These are conversations to have at the beginning. Are these big questions, or are we just treating them like they are? We overthink what we can talk about in regular conversation. If it feels a like struggle to bring these topics up, find a natural segue: did you see the news that… [some celebrity] is pregnant? That can open up a conversation about kids; do you have any friends’ weddings this summer? And then decide: should I be dating people who want very different things from me? In some cases the answer will be no. We’re inclined to compromise on things that really matter to us when we meet new folks because we want to keep them around, but that may very well present problems down the line. If you carry one, at least you’ll make an informed decision. Be clear from the get go about what you want. Yes, on all that big stuff, but on the little things, too. Often we do this in relation to physical attributes. You might want someone tall, with a moustache and a neat haircut. That’s not a bad thing, but we need to think beyond physical attributes. If dating someone who follows you on social media, laughs at corny jokes and takes a real interest in your career really matters, then also look for those details. They’ll impact your daily life for a lot longer as you age and looks fade. Be sure to tell your partner what you need, and repeat yourself regularly. It’s easy to feel as if you’ve told your partner something twice and end up feeling frustrated with them for not remembering, when in fact we need to ask four or five times for it to sink in. And, I’m biased, but do see a therapist. Certainly not just when you’ve hit a crisis point. The couples who do better use therapy as a preventative tool, rather than a last resort when (ultimately) minds have already been made up. It’s not a failure, admitting defeat, but allowing an expert set of eyes to guide and support you. Maybe start at home: I always recommend co-reading a relationship book. Both take a chapter, then sit and discuss how it’s relevant to you. MS

Dr Julie Gottman: ‘Learn how to have healthy conflicts’ Couples really needn’t be compatible. Conflict? It’s not a bad thing. That’s a myth. In Northern Europe and North America, we tend to believe feelings should be damped down – particularly anger. But there’ll always be significant differences between two people. When you couple up, you’re picking a set of perpetual problems you’ll have with a partner. Instead of shying away, learn how to have healthy conflicts, and how to find resolutions or acceptance. When conflicts arise, always remember to describe yourself and not your partner. The biggest mistake couples make is to raise a complaint with criticism: “You’re so lazy, you never clean up the kitchen.” Our research shows there’s no such thing as constructive criticism in relationships. It will make anyone defensive. Instead, say how you feel about the situation and then state your positive needs: “I’m upset that the kitchen is still a mess, would you please clean it up?” Simply tell your partner how they can shine for you. On the bigger issues, don’t be too quick to try to rush to a resolution. When tension arises, sit together with it and explore it. Ask each other questions, like what’s your dream here? Why is this important to you? Seeing it as an opportunity to listen and learn about each will help soften the space between you, leading to more compassion. Stagnation isn’t insurmountable, there are ways to avoid it. First, it’s not uncommon to hear couples say, “Fun has come to die in our relationship.” But we know from research that our brains need fun in relationships. So make time for it. I knew of this couple who felt they were falling out of love, so they decided to go into their back yard and had a mud fight, rolling around in the dirt. It changed their dynamics completely; they had fun again. Make time for a conversation that involves open-ended questions with longer and winding answers. Ask each other about your dreams; what you’re longing for. Generally, we ask each other lots of big questions at the start of relationships, then we stop. But we’re always evolving. You’d be surprised at how profound the results can be when we just ask bigger questions to connect with each other: it helps us reprioritise and cleanse our relationships, refocusing from trivial tasks into something much more fulfilling. MS

Dan Savage: ‘You know someone is the one when you decide to treat them that way’

No person can ever meet all of another’s needs. Some people feel as if they should get everything from their partner – a best friend, a lover, an unfaltering emotional support system – and don’t have intimate friendships. But there is no such thing as The One; the person who will give you everything. I get letters from people who say, “I love this person, the sex is great, we’re emotionally connected, but I don’t know if they’re the one.” The myth of just “knowing” that our person is the person damages people.It ends good relationships. You know if someone is the one when you decide to treat them that way. We don’t talk enough about companionable, healthy, loving relationships that are sexless. If both partners are content with sexlessness, that relationship is fine. If sex is important to you to maintain connection, acknowledge that. I’ve been with my husband for 30 years and it’s really important for us to have that flood of oxytocin; to look at each other while we’re climaxing. But after 10 or 20 years with the same person, how do you bring back the terror and excitement of getting undressed with them all those years ago? You can’t. You have to engineer a sense of risk. We spend so much time sitting on our butts, looking at our screens. Physical passivity creates inertia. We can’t be shocked when nothing happens. So get off that bed. Get out of that room. Get out of the house! Fuck in public! Defining everything as “cheating” sets relationships up to fail. There may be emotional infidelity, there may be crushes, there may be desire for others, there may be getting off to porn or thinking of someone else during sex. But if you define cheating so rigidly, and position it as unforgivable, sustaining a relationship may be difficult. Your partner should not have to hide who they are as a price of admission to be with you, and vice versa. Even if you’re together for 60 years and wind up in the funeral home together, was it a success if you weren’t truly known to each other? Being in a relationship means meeting your partner where they’re at. That can be scary. When you start dating someone, it’s a slow process of peeling back the layers and working out if you can be together. Figuring out what you can tolerate (different kinks, non-monogamy, whatever) is great. Figuring out what you can celebrate is better. EM

Dr Ruth Westheimer: ‘Try a new sexual position’

How fortunate we are that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel of this terrible virus, which is why my first tip is to shout out, “Hallelujah!” Expressing thanks will put you in a much better mood that is conducive to good sex. Being in a bad mood, or feeling anxious or nervous, can make it more difficult to become aroused. Positive thinking is a turn on. Prolonging the sexual experience is one way to enhance it, so I suggest you take a bubble bath together first, washing and then drying each other. Have some cookies and champagne prepared ahead of time and after your bath, share these delicacies slowly. Only then hop into bed. Many couples use the same sexual positions for the simple reason that they work so they think, why bother experimenting? I suggest you try a new position, but in the back of your mind know that you can always end the session going back to your tried and true position if the new one doesn’t do the trick. There are plenty of resources for finding options: from the Kama Sutra to Sex For Dummies. Usually good sex means both of you have an orgasm as a result of your coupling and as a rule, I think that’s the right way to have sex. But as an experiment, try picking only one of you to have an orgasm with the promise that the other will be the chosen one the next day. See whether the anticipation doesn’t make for a stronger orgasm for the one going second. I know that many people like to talk “dirty” during sex, that for them it is very arousing. But why not try enveloping a sexual encounter with the warm words of loyalty and exclusivity? I think that the security of knowing that you are having sex with a trusted partner will also end up being very arousing. MS



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