The actress Kate Hudson once suggested that the key to a successful marriage lay in putting your man first. In our post-feminist era, that’s not a politic – or popular – observation to make. Neither did it work for her; she got divorced not long after delivering that nugget of wisdom.
In the first six months of 2017, 1.85 million couples in China filed for divorce, an increase of more than 10 per cent over the same period last year. Many experts suggest the rising rate is, in part, the consequence of female emancipation. Girl power is a good thing, but so, too, are happy marriages, which are good for children, confidence and our cholesterol levels.
Sustaining a happy marriage isn’t easy. Even Madonna, who once had a really good-looking husband, loads of money and a bottom that never looked big in anything, admitted, “it’s not easy to be married”. Which may be why she packed it in.
There are many clichés about a good marriage, and how it takes two to make it work. So we consulted Hong Kong-based psychotherapist Nikki Green, who is also a sex and marital expert, for her recommendations.
1. Stay “in touch”
“This is very much about keeping our partner in our awareness. Staying in touch allows us to maintain the priority of the connection. Often, there’s one person in a partnership who likes to keep in touch more than the other, and that has to do with our attachment styles. However, if couples do keep in touch well, eventually the person who initially needed less connection learns to rely on it, and finds great comfort in it.”
2. Be kind to each other
“John Gottman, renowned for his work on marital stability, has conducted 40 years of research on thousands of couples which shows that in happy, secure marriages, there are five positives to every negative; that’s a lot of goodwill, empathy and support.
“Most of us don’t realise that when our partners mess up, if they’re good people – and most people are – they will be giving themselves such a hard time that the best thing we can do, if we love them, is to be accepting of them so they can learn to be accepting of themselves. Acceptance is the greatest gift we can give anyone. It’s what real love is all about.”
3. Work at give and take
“Generally, men are better at this than women. I think it has to do with the fact that most women focus on fairness and quid pro quo, whereas most good men are happy to just give their time and effort, even if they end up doing more of the giving as long as it’s making their partner happy.
“In my experience, men tend to stop giving when they feel that it has no effect on their partner. Because men are success driven, it makes little sense to them to continue giving. I encourage the women I work with to learn how to be better receivers, to be more grateful and receptive, and not to concentrate so much on perceptions of ‘fairness’.
“Men get so much delight out of a woman who can genuinely receive and be delighted by his giving. Helping women recognise they’re worthy of this is one of the biggest ways to help them become better receivers.”
4. Separate marriage and parenthood
“Often when children arrive it’s the beginning of the end for many relationships. That’s because one – or both – parents turn to a child to meet their needs for connection, and they stop meeting each other’s needs. More often it’s the mother. If I had a dollar for every man who told me how lonely he got when the baby came along, I would be a rich woman. And lonely husbands can be tempted to look for love elsewhere.
“The important thing is to put your relationship with your partner first, then your relationship with your children. That’s not an excuse to ignore them, but you need to consider that children will grow up and leave home one day, and if you don’t have a deep and meaningful connection that supersedes the kids, that’s a time when marriages can fall apart.
“Secondly, we need to give our children a positive example of what a loving, supportive and mutually prioritising relationship looks like so that they can emulate it themselves.”
5. Argue constructively
“This is something that we all need to develop, as most of us didn’t come from families who taught us how to do this. Most of us came from very patriarchal families where somebody needed to receive blame, and where there was always a winner and a loser. Most of us carry this approach into our adult relationships.
“The good news is that you can learn how to argue constructively. The key is being able to agree to disagree, and respecting everybody’s different take on a situation. Few of us know how to listen to another person without being reactive and being compelled to add our tuppence worth. For most of us it’s so difficult to allow our partners to have a completely different point of view because it feels as though we’re admitting that they are right, ergo, due to our conditioning, we must be wrong.”
Green suggests that when you’re in the middle of an argument, ask yourself: “Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?” It is important to remember that the warm glow of happiness lasts longer than that brief smug feeling that comes with being “right”.
6. Last, but by no means least: sex it up
It’s a cliché, but one of the best ways to make up after a marital tiff is good sex. Good sex is vital to the health of a marriage. But the stereotypical view of sex in marriage is that women are too tired for it and men never stop thinking about it.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel, the author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity and Mating in Captivity, believes that a physical connection is so important to sustaining happy unions that she advocates putting sex on your “to-do” list.
“People are horrified when you tell them that you have to schedule sex, because they want it to be spontaneous and to fall from the heavens while you’re folding the laundry. But sex only happens if you make it happen,” Perel says.
Green agrees, but adds: “In a marriage that’s not in a great place, putting sex on a to-do list seems impossible to most women, because women need to feel loved before they can have sex. But men need to have sex to feel loved.”
That brings us neatly back to the beginning: communicate. Talk. Stay in touch. This is imperative in keeping a marriage happily on track, yet it’s ironic how many people forget to remain engaged with the person they’re married to.