How we survived our seven year itch

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I never expected it to be perfect. I don’t believe in fairy tales or buy the big, bombastic, “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed”, Four Weddings and a Funeral style love. I thought my husband and I were muddling along OK – busy with life, work, toddler- rearing and dog-wrangling – until things started to unravel.

One Saturday in April he came up to me, arms folded, demanding, “Do you know what day it is?” I looked blank. “It’s our anniversary,” he said crossly. I flicked through my mental diary and realised, with a knotting stomach, that he was right. We seldom marked our relationship milestones with fanfare but at least I’d been aware of them in previous years.

“Do you know what D and B did for their anniversary?” he said. (D and B are our most loved-up friends.) “Th ey went to Venice and drank prosecco on gondolas and she rented an owl to fl y over and deliver a velvet pouch with a watch he’d wanted for ages inside.”

I started to argue that this sounded slightly over the top (and dangerous) but he wasn’t listening. Instead, he fl ung an envelope at me and said, “Happy seven years.” And there was the rub. Or rather, the itch.

With boring predictability, we had fallen prey to the seven-year itch – the decline in relationship satisfaction that classically occurs after 2555 days of romantic “bliss”. There was nothing dramatic about the onset of our itch – it was so subtle I didn’t realise it had crept up on us until that moment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that our relationship was nothing like the early days.

During our first exciting months together, I’d epilate and moisturise every inch of my body like a woman possessed and he cooked elaborate recipes for me using gourmet ingredients, complicated kitchen equipment and ramekins.

 When we moved in together, we settled into a routine of cosy domesticity – weekends reading the papers and breakfasting in bed, followed by gallery visits, pub lunches and nights out with friends.

But after we got married in 2011, “life” began to take its toll. We endured years of fertility treatment in an attempt to start a family, all while maintaining stressful careers.

Then, in 2012, my husband was offered his dream job working for Lego in Denmark. We decided to go for it and I quit my glossy magazine job to go freelance, relocating at the start of 2013. But we didn’t know anyone, we didn’t speak the language and I had no job.

Every morning my husband left for work at 7.30am and I was all on my own. We’d left the bustle of the city – where we had friends and family on tap, but never enough time to see them – for rural Jutland, where we had precisely zero social life. We were forced to start over, building a support network from scratch. I started to worry that I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.

My husband was feeling the pressure too. If the move didn’t work out he felt it would be his fault, given that we had moved for his career. Then, miraculously, I got pregnant. At the start of 2014, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. The chaotic fug of caring for a newborn is crippling, but it was the “daily grind and residual resentment of toddlerhood” – as one friend puts it – that was the real buzz killer. 

Work deadlines plus sleepless nights often culminated in rows over domestic arrangements, family and money. The tension was tangible and something had to change.

​Around that time I began researching my book, Leap Year, about learning to make big decisions. I began investigating the best tools for improving every area of life, including relationships. It seemed like the perfect time to find out how to put the spark back into my marriage.

While most couples’ therapy involves face-to-face meetings, I wanted to find out whether we could work on our relationship remotely, implementing proven techniques to reignite the flame. I came across William Phillips, a British psychotherapist specialising in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), and called him to ask for assistance. 

He began by reassuring me that people who are open to seeking help in a relationship tend to fare better, adding that there are five steps to work through: identifying individual values, expectations and perceptions; exploring negative beliefs and unhelpful behaviours; agreeing on our individual differences; identifying and practising new behaviours based on respect, empathy and tolerance; and, most importantly, agreeing to an “emotional contract”. 

“This is where each partner commits to acting in a manner that is consistent with their shared values,” he explained. In other words, we had to learn to be nicer to each other.

Inspired, I sought out as many tools and techniques from the world of CBT and relationship counselling as I could, then whittled them down to find methods that met Phillips’ fi ve steps. First, US psychologist and CBT expert Dr Scott Symington suggested we each write a “loving-action list” of things our partner does to make us feel loved. I was sceptical but my husband and I did it anyway, then swapped lists. 

He was surprised (and slightly alarmed) to discover that I seemed to feel the greatest love for him when there was food involved or he did something considerate to keep me warm when I felt chilly. But there were more useful ones, too. My husband’s list revealed that I needed to look after myself better: “I like it when you exercise.” (“Are you calling me fat?” “No! You’re just in a better mood after you’ve been for a run. And have slept properly.” “Oh …”)

The more I digested this, the more it made sense – and being conscious of how my lack of sleep or failure to exercise impacted on our relationship was a wake-up call. When we first met, I made an effort to conceal any tired grumpiness and exercised regularly, but my workout routine post-childbirth was limited to darting around after a small child. I vowed to do better and he promised to carry on making me frothy coffee and keeping me in cashmere socks.

To explore our negative beliefs and unhelpful behaviours (step two), we needed to express ourselves and be more honest. The best way to do this was to document our relationship as it really was. 

“If we only ever take pictures where we’re smiling, we won’t remember the bad times or know how to handle them when they come around again,” I explained to my husband as I whipped my phone out to record the moment our angry toddler smashed quiche into his face. I did the same when our son took it upon himself to defecate in a friend’s playhouse. And when I woke up the following morning with a hangover, this too was snapped for posterity.

To tackle points three and four – agreeing individual diff erences and practising new behaviours – I used psychologist Dr Harriet Lerner’s book Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up. She suggests couples pretend they have a house guest in the spare room to help them behave better, explaining how she once counselled a couple who were constantly at each other’s throats until a colleague came to stay. They became so mindful of being overheard that they stopped rowing.

We decided our hypothetical house guest should be someone famous we were both aware of. I plumped for Joan Collins as an example of someone I’d definitely want to be on best behaviour in front of – and it worked. We were eerily polite at first, and even made it to a friend’s for lunch without either of us sulking or shouting at the satnav. 

Then, during a dispute over whose turn it was to give the dog its tick medicine, imaginary Joan reminded us to be civil.

By this stage, the mood in our house was notably lighter. Th e playful approach to something as scary-sounding as “relationship therapy” made it feel more like a game than anything intimidating.

Later that month, we were ready to progress to the fi nal step: agreeing a new “emotional contract”. Everything felt suddenly clear to me: “I want to be with my husband for a long time, so I’m committed to making this work. I want to be less critical and more tolerant. I will also keep making an effort.”

Over cups of tea one wet Sunday morning, we shared our visions for what we wanted our relationship to look like in 10, 20, 30 years – and astonishingly, they were aligned, for the most part. We both promised to get better at processing work stress and not taking it out on the other partner. And we agreed to accept the other for who they are, rather than who we want them to be.

Six months on, we make each other laugh again and even hold hands occasionally. Above all, we’re more considerate to each other. He has started to cook more, and every Sunday I lace up my trainers for a run while he starts on the roast. With potatoes. And Yorkshire puddings. And, once, a gravy boat … Reader: this is love. 

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