You know who your friends are when you’re going through a relationship crisis. Maybe your husband is coming up to 40 and has started acting strangely; perhaps you’ve caught him texting another woman; or, worst of all, he’s threatening to leave you and break up the family.
Whatever the circumstances, it’s only being able to phone a friend or chat with the girls over a glass of wine that stops you from going round the bend.
However, after almost 30 years working as a marital therapist, I’ve become convinced that, while men don’t have enough friends or emotional support, women can have far too many and too much.
Charlotte, 48, who chairs the board of governors at a school in Kent, sought my help when her husband David, 47, announced out of the blue that he didn’t love her any more, saw no future in their marriage and wanted to rent a flat in the next town, away from her and their three children.
‘You’ll never guess what he’s done now,’ she said as she sat down in my office, in the same tone I imagined her speaking to friends. ‘He’s bought our 12-year-old some trashy heels. He knows I don’t approve and he’d have been the first to complain if I got her a small top or anything else he considered inappropriate, but since we’ve separated, he’ll do anything to curry favour.’
When Charlotte finished cataloguing the ways her husband had let her down, I asked her to reflect on why he might have behaved like this. She became more thoughtful.
‘He’s not used to disciplining the children, as he’s left that up to me, and he’s frightened of alienating the girls, so he’s a pushover.’
That was the case with Katie, 32, a teaching assistant from Berkshire, who came to see me with her husband Mike, 36, as they tried to rebuild their relationship after she discovered he was having an affair.
‘Everybody’s been supportive, telling me I don’t have to put up with being treated like this,’ she said.
‘When your wife doesn’t want to sleep with you, you not only feel unattractive and unwanted but you begin to wonder what’s the point in anything?’ Mike, who worked in corporate hospitality, told me. One of the main problems of off-loading our problems on to friends is they love you and want the best for you. So if you’re in a lot of pain, they’ll try to make you feel better quickly.
FIVE STEPS TO SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE
- When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Under pressure, we tend to try the same failed strategy again and again. Eventhough we know pushing for an answer, getting angry or going silent doesn’t work, we imagine doing it one more time (but bigger, louder or for longer) will
change things. It won’t.
- Stop playing tit for tat. He does something horrible and you match him. Soon it’s become a race to the bottom.
- Just for a second, put your feelings to one side and step in your partner’s shoes. How does your relationship look now and what would you like to do differently?
- Make a full apology. This is different from saying sorry. First, acknowledge any behaviour that you regret; next, identify how this might have made him feel, and then apologise. Please don’t explain why you acted as you did — that’s for another day — because it can sound like an excuse and lessen the power of your apology.
- Be the big one. If you love your husband — and if not, why are you spending hours talking about him to your girlfriends — do you love him enough to give without any expectation (in the short term) of getting anything back?