Red flag: Your marriage won't take care of itself

Kinderling News & Features

To state the bleedingly obvious: long-term relationships take work. I think most people understand this, but when you’ve been married several years and have had a child (or children) it’s easier to think that it will look after itself. There are so many other things that require your attention. Everything else requires work and energy.

That’s how I feel anyway. I spend most days expending all the patience I have on my children, all my energy on making deadlines and all my generosity on friends and family.

And I’ve left my relationship to hum along in the background, reasonably untended.

Our love partner is one of the most important relationships in our lives

I have to admit, after having children my relationship took a back seat.

The love I have for my kids, and the love they have for me, feels urgent. Loving them is as necessary and natural as breathing. They are so young, and still have so much to learn. They need me more.

But my husband is my rock. If things aren’t right between us, I’m not right. Even a small argument makes me feel like the world is out of kilter. He is my sounding board, my comforter, my best friend.

He is the most important relationship in my life, which makes the neglect we have both allowed of our relationship puzzling.

How do we give our relationships the attention they need?

First step to getting back on track: going to Love School.

Recently, I went to an evening session at The School of Life called How to make love last. I roped my husband in for the ride – telling him it was for the purposes of this article – when I really wanted him to come with me so we could start a conversation about our relationship.

I have seen loving couples flounder around us, and I don’t want that to be us.

What I learnt at Love School

It turns out working on your relationships is a bit like going back to school.

We have to be prepared to teach, and also to learn. We need to be ready to teach our partners about the things that irk us, make us mad, or embarrass and humiliate us. We can’t expect them to simply know what we’re thinking.

Yes people. The biggest lesson that night was this: our partners are not mind readers. Again, obvious. But how many times have you slunk off in a sulk because your partner did something that upset you (like make a comment about a dirty dish, or a critical comment about your clothing) and you didn’t tell them?

I had a lot of “a-ha!” moments in the class

It’s pretty incredible to hear someone dissect the language of love, the tangles and twists we create for ourselves, in a simple way.

Our relationships are private things. Sometimes we ourselves - the protagonists in the play - don’t understand what’s going on. Listening to the teacher (who that night was psychologist Emma Agnew) hold a light to the importance of understanding how we like to be comforted, or when our actions don’t translate to what we’re really feeling, was profound.

I would sneak a sideways glance at my husband, and he was taking it all in. Later he said a lot of it made sense.

Let’s talk about sex

Actually, let’s not. I’m pretty open about many things in my life, but sex is not one of them.

But you can’t talk about making love last and leave out the most intimate expression of love.

Which, I might add, my husband was thrilled that was included in the class.

Up until this part of the night I had been feeling pretty smug. After all, it had been my idea to come. I was the self-aware, emotionally evolved one. I had this.

And now here I was, sitting in a class full of strangers, with my husband outlining his sexual fantasies (as instructed by Emma). I was not as forthcoming.

Let’s just say the first lesson here is smugness is never becoming. It’s obvious that in a relationship, it will take two parties to be vulnerable and brave to make it work.

Treating our partners like children, in a good way

The final lesson of the night was about generosity, and this is something I have thought about before.

If I look at how I treat my children, and compare that to how I treat my husband, I’m horrified.

I am incredibly generous with my kids. I assume that they don’t know how to express their feelings, so I forgive them when it comes out wrong and they say something rude or hurtful.

I notice when they’re tired and I will be understanding, softening their cranky behaviour with love and space.

Adults are just as likely to have trouble expressing how they feel. And while I do expect my husband to be more self-aware and considerate than my kids, it doesn’t take much to forgive a grouchy demeanor when he’s had a hard day.

Expanding my generosity to include my husband will take effort. Sometimes I feel like I’m completely empty. But at the end of the day it’s worth it.

I can’t expect our relationship to survive without it.