Have you been watching Wanderlust? If not, where have you been?

I’m finding this series captivating and intriguing as it examines a 20 year relationship going a bit flat, the couple then deciding to have an open relationship and seek sex outside of the marriage. I’m no prude but I’ve found it a bit cringey (but addictive!).

Having been through a failed marriage myself, I get how easy it is to wake up one morning and realise that everything has changed. But does it really have to be that way – either ending the relationship or seeking gratification elsewhere? I say not. If divorce, and more so my new relationship, taught me anything at all, then it would be that it ain’t all sweetness and light and a bed of roses, you really do have to dig deep sometimes. The superficial shit we think is the issue is totally not.

My work these days takes me into the psychology and neuroscience of it all and WOW! When you really ‘get’ what’s going on then you need a PhD to succeed in marriage these days! Understanding what physically takes place within a human brain and body takes you a fair way down the line to getting it. I’m a firm believer that once you truly understand something or someone, everything becomes some much more tolerable and easy.

So what’s occurring?

Well, when we fall in love, we’re flooded with oxytocin – the bonding hormone – which makes you feel like the world, your partner and your relationship are perfect! Conflict isn’t an issue. We are bonding animals. Our brains are wired for connection. However, when we sense rejection or abandonment we panic and become distressed. Inevitably, the rose tinted glasses wear off after the honeymoon period in a relationship and our perfectly imperfect flaws start to show – we hurt each others feelings, we let each other down, we fail to meet expectations – this causes conflict. We tend to focus on this conflict but this is just a symptom. The cause is a lack of safe connection. Not nipped in the bud here, you’re heading for a downward spiral. In the wanderlust example, expectations in the bedroom department are not being met. It’s just a symptom of a deeper connection issue, at an intimate and emotional level.

Now when we’re in any kind of conflict or lacking in a safe connection, there’s no more oxytocin. We’re on for lashings of cortisol, the stress hormone. It’s our primal response to danger – fight or flight – that’s kicking in. When we’re stressed, the release of cortisol inhibits our ability to think and process (all energy is diverted to muscles for running or fighting) so we’re not in a good place to be making decisions and taking action with regard to our relationship. We just move into a deeper state of conflict and the contempt, resentment and bitterness kicks in.

Did those three words hit you like a freight train then? Contempt, resentment, bitterness. A recipe for a lifetime of misery! Yet, I’ve been there. I also meet many women who are there too. Some have been there for 20+ years! Jeepers!! That makes me so sad. Is that you?

The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to throw the towel in (or carry on putting up with it for another 20 years) and there are things you can do to repair it. Just know, it’s gonna take some hard graft and to make yourself vulnerable.

So, if that’s you, or you feel yourself on the road to heading that way, then maybe it’s time to give your relationship an MOT? Here’s my top tips on how to do that:

  1. First and foremost stop brushing it under the carpet. It’s time to speak up. It’s important you think about how you’re going to do this, especially if you’ve been together 20 years and never said a dicky bird before now – it might come as a bit of a surprise. Come from a place of curiosity, to want to understand and learn more about your relationship and your partner, not from a place of accusation and character assassination. Be present and listen.
  2. There’s no place for blame. If this is gonna work you must be future focused. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what’s happened in the past, but avoid blaming each other for it. Accept it as a fact of circumstance and move on.
  3. Own your feelings. If you find yourself saying “You make me feel….” then press pause. Nobody can ‘make’ you feel anything. You choose how you feel and react. Tough pill to swallow I know. Instead, trying saying “When X happens, I feel like Y”
  4. Get to know each other better. I mean properly – take a behavioural preferences test if you need to!!! I’m not joking! Most relationships struggle to communicate because they practically speak a different language, are driven by different values and different things are important to them. Have you ever had this conversation? Work out why and how you are different. Then, start to appreciate and respect each other on that basis. Like any team, play to your strengths, mitigate each others weaknesses, value the diversity and what each other bring to the party.
  5. There will be some common ground – work your arse off to find it. Then spend time doing shit loads of that together. The conversation in step 4 will help you to identify that.
  6. Prioritise yourselves. I know so many women who if asked ‘who is the most important person in your life?’, they say ‘the kids’. Might be a bit controversial but, the kids wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you and your partner! I’m gonna whip my aeroplane analogy out of my pocket again….. whose oxygen mask are you supposed to put on first? Nuff said. You’ve got to spend time together – alone.
  7. Last but not least, the elephant in the room… SEX. I get asked frequently… “but what if I just don’t find them attractive anymore?” Good question. Try to see your partner through a different lens (go find those rose tinted glasses you lost in the 80’s!). Most people look attractive doing something they’re good at, so get your partner doing a bit of that and watch the magic unfold.

Without sounding smug AF, I’m in a marriage that I categorically know I will be in for the rest of my life! (and not under duress, or with bitterness, resentment or contempt). Believe me, it’s not all peachy perfect either. But I’m 100% confident in us because we communicate – we know each other intimately. We ‘get’ each other. We’re like chalk and cheese but we know it and work with it (we drive each other bonkers but it’s ok). And when we have a shit time or a rough patch, we fall out and we argue, just like any other couple, but we’re able to see past that because we know we’re safe with each other and we’re deeply connected….. pass the sick bucket!