This article was inspired after an interview I did for BBC Radio Tess. You can find it here at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06mv8y3 1:43:21 in.
Speaking recently, former I’m a Celebrity and Countdown star Carol Vorderman admitted she ‘gets over people easily’ and doesn’t see dating as a ‘priority‘. Vorderman claimed she doesn’t believe in finding the ‘love of your life’ and likened the idea to ‘tat’ in an interview. She equated finding the love of your life to a fairy-tale from Disney and maintained she had ‘rarely’ met a couple who have been together for more than a decade and still consider themselves to be happy. Vorderman said “why would I want someone to fit into each part of my life?”
Why indeed? Is she right? Vorderman has had what appears to be four marriages and yet more relationships, so she could have a lot of inside experience and know what she is talking about.
But it turns out she might not. In fact, she probably doesn’t. That sounds harsh, though it’s not meant to be.
Let me show you why.
Relationships. It’s hard not to be an expert in them, after all, we’ve all been in a relationship or two, and we’ve all been burned when a relationship has failed. But there are degrees of learning in a relationship, and as some folk know more about mathematics than others, some folk know more about relationships that others. Take this simple analogy: if you have a problem with your electrics at home it might be wise to consult an electrician; it just might save you getting a great shock, fried and making things worse. If you are having a marital difficulty, or just want to tune up your couple relationship, therefore, it might be wise to consult a good, qualified relationship therapist with expertise.
Of course, there might be a wider issue here, the so-called lack of trust we might give to experts, yet a relatively small sum of money to tune up is better that the relatively large cost of an unnecessary divorce.
It might not be the quantity of relationships we have, but rather the quality in or the knowledge of. Taking Vorderman’s comments about couples who have been together for more than a decade, research published in March 2018 from Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University analysed the marriages of 2,034 couples and they found that “results suggest that marriages that remain together show little evidence of deterioration in relationship quality over the marital life course”. This research suggests that married couples are actually happiest not at the very beginning of their marriage, but when they reached the 20-year mark in their relationship. Not only did they spend more time doing activities together than younger couples, but they also had a deeper sense of appreciation for one another. This falsifies Vorderman’s claim about couples being less happy 10 years in, although to be fair to her, she might just mix with couples 3 years or so married and have no practical experience of relationships over a longer period of time.
What might predict success in couple relationships?
Possibly one of the most important perspectives to have on a couple relationship is one of distance, a perspective which is often called “meta” or seeing things from a higher perspective instead of from within the thing. The metaperspective in particular that can be most useful in marriage is the couple development approach. Couples develop in their relationship through distinct stages or phases; when these stages are successfully met and moved through the relationship or marriage itself develops, in effect getting better. Here is the RelationshipsNorthEast model of these stages. First, some important research to frame the 5 stages:
- These stages are successively more complex at each level of growth
- No stage can be skipped.
- Each stage is based on the preceding one and prepares for the succeeding one
The relationship stages we go through, we grow through:
- The honeymoon stage. This is the stage of fire, of lust and sex and wild romance; it’s a chemical brew where the couple find sameness in each other, where it feels like -SHAZAM!!-each have the other half of this sacred amulet and they have found their other half. You feel the urge to merge. It’s bliss, it’s love (it’s not). This is what the couple psychotherapist and writer David Schnarch calls level 1 intimacy, where the pact is “I’ll show you my vulnerable side if you show me yours”. It also called the “necessary illusions” model of love where an unconscious deal is struck and we fall in love with what we never had growing up and what we have found at last. This is the “Disney love” stage. It might feel real, but it probably isn’t.
- The living together stage. Each stage shades into one another rather than abruptly breaking into a new one, which is typically why we don’t really experience them as stages; we experience them from the inside out of our intersubjective selves. This stage is where we get to know each other, our shared and independent habits and foibles with greater detail and greater intimacy. It’s a stage of consolidation, often of routine. It can be quite a short stage. Each stage we go through prepares us, sort of lays the ground for the next one. And the next one is often a big one.
- The power and control stage. At this stage differences start to appear, change happens, illusions start to fall and we see our partners differently, warts and all. It feels as if our partners are behaving badly and we assert ourselves, we get frustrated and angry, wanting our partners to stay as they are-or stay as they were. We can’t believe that they have changed and we might feel disappointed in them. Distancing might appear and it feels as if the deal between us is breaking. It is, sort of. We argue, we fight, and again we assert control in varying degrees of “I’m right, you’re wrong” types of manoeuvring. At this point, we feel as if something is going very wrong; in fact, something is going very right: the conflict is often a resistance to stepping up to the next level, the next stage, and the pain we might feel is often the experience of a “growing pain” of the relationship calling out for its own maturity and development. At this point the relationship can mend into real love, or end and break apart (affairs often happen at this stage). At this stage couples have three broad choices: stay as you are (this, in effect, means be miserable) break up (huge costs with the possibly of repeating the same pattern) or mend. This last choice usually requires help from a qualified couple counsellor; as above, don’t try to fix the electrics yourself, you could both get fried.
- The reconciliation stage. At this stage couples move from power and control to letting go; they embrace not just conflict reconciliation with its habit of letting the conflict return, but conflict transformation, where meaning and change is found in the conflict by searching to find what is underneath the conflict, what the new needs of the relationship are. This is the formation of a new deal in the relationship and it is the first conscious relational deal that the couple have struck; it’s the birthplace of real love. It’s not fire, it’s not lust, but it is getting to know each other all over again, lowering expectations and seeing each with “new eyes”. This is Schnarch’s second level of intimacy, where each partner can be vulnerable with the other without expecting or needing anything back, for there is a real sense of trust, faith and maturity in the relationship.
- The meaningful stage. Illusions are let go of, the notion that each partner is there to make the other happy has been jettisoned long ago. Meaning is found, and -ironically-happiness becomes the by product. Couples achieve a deeper appreciation of each other, an often-profound gratitude for the reciprocal love and support given and received over 20-25 years of marriage. It’s an imperfect relationship whose hallmarks are care, support, tolerance and respect. In place of the high school frivolity, the drama and the emotional highs and lows, in place of the control, the volatility and the unreasonable demands of the first stages, there is a sense of fit, a sense of stability and meaning, a sense of maturity and a feeling that this is the person you can truly trust and support and this feeling is mutual. It feels like this is the life partner who will grow old with you. This mature love is not easy all the time, but nor is it expected that it will be easy, it will have challenges, but these challenges will be met as growth, not signs that something’s going wrong. You both pull together in this relationship and there is a definite sense of a team, of mutuality. It’s adult love, real love at last.
The more experiences — both good and bad — that you successfully navigate through with someone over the years, the more resilient your relationship can become, and, over the course of 20 years, you will have time to hone your connection, communication and conflict skills.
Having a partner who offers support, love and respect, care and compassion and yet grows as you grow, a partner to share meaning and memories with, to mutually develop within the same kind of crucible within which you both can truly experience real love: isn’t that worth a 20-year struggle?
Isn’t that why you would want a person to fit into (not always so snuggly) each part of your live-to grow into the very soul of your marriage. The relationship stages we go through, we grow through.
And this is why we moved on and outgrew the other stages.
This is getting real love, isn’t it?
 Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise
 Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson In Quest of the Mythical Mate: a developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy
 David Schnarch Constructing the Sexual Crucible