Cuddle each other at least five times a day? Don’t hesitate to have an argument? Never ever snoop on your spouse’s phone?
Seemingly every couple – and every singleton too – has a different theory when it comes to the best way to maintain a long-lasting and loving relationship.
My grandfather’s advice was simpler than any of the above. When, on his 25th wedding anniversary, he was asked the secret of his success, he replied with just five words: ‘Do as she tells you’. Although, my nana’s reply – ‘if only he would’ – suggests his wisdom may have been more fiction than fact.
Either way, despite countless lists and tips on how to keep a marriage happy and healthy, it appears that staying the distance is fast becoming a forgotten art.
Figures continually show separations on the rise and long-term commitment on the decline, both globally and in the UAE. In much of Europe and North America, divorce rates now run at more than one in two. In Belgium – the split-up capital of the world – it’s a staggering 71 per cent.
Things are better here. In Dubai, there were some 1,686 divorces in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. That was an increase of some 34 per cent over 2013, says Mohammed Ali Salmin, director of the personal status department at Dubai Courts.
Refusing to believe that long-term love is a thing of the past, we called in top experts – relationship counsellors and life coaches with proper lengthy relationships under their belt – to find out once and for all what advice we should all be following if we want to love long.
What follows is our 12 practical points – call it the lover’s dozen – on how to keep the magic in your marriage.
You can thank us on your own diamond wedding anniversary.
1 Choose the right person in the first place
Admittedly, not the most practical tip if you’re 30 years deep into a match-up you wake up and regret every day. Yet this little nugget is arguably more important than anything else on the list. The hypothesis is simple: if you’re going to spend your life with someone, it’s a good idea to be compatible.
‘Perhaps, because of cultural factors like arranged marriages, not everyone has this option,’ says Carmen Benton, managing director and principal of LifeWorks, a personal development training centre in Umm Suqeim. ‘But if you do have that choice, it’s a good idea to spend time in your 20s meeting people and discovering what you like in a partner. Don’t rush into anything. You’re hopefully in this for the long haul, so finding the right one is important.’
2 Love yourself
Too many of us believe that we will only be happy when we have someone to complete us, says Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, clinical psychologist at Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. And that, she adds, is a myth.
Rather, the key to a truly strong and joyful union is to ensure we are leading an enriching and fulfilling life outside of a partnership as well as within it.
‘Couples should be interdependent, rather than codependent,’ she says. ‘If you view your relationship as the one thing making you happy, that is not healthy for you – or the relationship. There need to be other factors in your life outside of being a couple.’
To be content as a twosome, in short, you must be content as a onesome.
Great relationships are like great friendships, great businesses and great political careers: built on the ability to communicate.
That doesn’t just mean having conversations about what’s for dinner, who’s picking up the kids or what you think of the new Mall of the Emirates extension. It also means being open and honest when issues crop up.
‘Annoyances, irritations and occasional issues crop up in any relationship,’ says Carmen, having been married for 13 years herself. ‘The strongest couples don’t ignore these things and allow them to fester. They bring them out into the open.’
4 Argue sometimes
It might sound counter-intuitive and, when you have to buy a new door because someone slammed it too hard, it may sound expensive, but a good disagreement-turned-debate-turned-blazing row does no one any harm. On the contrary, it gets issues into the open and blows out the cobwebs. And you get the bonus of making up later.
‘Arguing is indicative of two people who have their own opinions, and are willing to share them,’ says Rachael Lay, the American online relationship guru. ‘It means that there is a desire to share the issues that are important. In a relationship where there is barely a heated conversation, it could mean that one or both parties don’t feel safe enough to express themselves.’
Having said that, don’t be a moron about it. Insults, blame and spite are never OK.
Obviously. Truly strong couples, like countries, are built on consensus rather than tyranny. They give and they take. There is no greater love than going out for dinner with your partner’s colleagues when you’d rather be at home watching the football or latest movie or TV show box set. In sporting circles, it’s called taking one for the team.
‘It’s part of communication, really,’ says Carmen. ‘In a strong couple you should be able to say, “I know you don’t want to go out for that dinner, but it’s really important to me, so will you just do this one for me?” Their answer – even if reluctant – should be, “Yes, if it means that much to you, I will”.’
6 Don’t take each other for granted
Remember, just because you’ve been together longer than a prison sentence for armed robbery doesn’t mean your partner has to love you still. That’s not a rule. To put it plainly, one partner doesn’t owe the other their love by right. It always – absolutely always – needs to be earned. So don’t take them for granted.
‘In long-term relationships, it’s easy to come to see the other person as a constant,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, personal and professional development coach and trainer at Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha. ‘But they’re not. They have ever-changing feelings, ever-developing ideas, ever-moving interests. We cannot automatically assume we know who they are because we wake up next to them every day. We must still find ways to connect, and expect the same from them as well.’
7 Spend time together
If it sounds basic, so says Jemima Wade, relationship expert with global website eHarmony, you’d be surprised by just how many couples lose sight of this apparently simple rule.
‘Date nights are a good way to show you care and quality time in any form is important in making a relationship last,’ she says.
It doesn’t have to be so formal, though, says Cindy, who has been married for 20 years. ‘Any time when you’re really in the moment together and sharing an experience is healthy, even if it’s something as simple as eating breakfast together in the morning.’
8 Intimacy is important
‘As relationships develop, the immediacy and intensity of the early years may fade,’ says Carmen. ‘But if you communicate and remain in tune with each other, it will evolve into something more fulfilling and enjoyable.’
And, whatever you do, make time for hugs. A 2014 study by the University of Hertfordshire in the UK found that couples who cuddled more were happiest together. Five times a day is reckoned to be the optimum amount.
9 Go out of your way to laugh
Couples who laugh together stay together – that was the conclusion of a 2015 study by the University of North Carolina in the US.
The report found that partners who shared giggles were more likely to feel happier in their relationships. ‘The moments where you are both laughing together really seem to count,’ stated researcher Laura Kurtz.
The conclusion? Play games, go to the places from your shared memories, and find the humour that’s all around us, all the time. And, if that sounds like a lot of effort, remember the rewards don’t just benefit the relationship. Laughter also decreases stress hormones, increases immune cells and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals. If nothing else, it’s good for your health.
10 Be spontaneous
Life can be boring. Routine can grind. Balancing a busy career, a hectic family life, and all the other trials and tribulations that come with living in a city like Dubai can wear a person down.
‘So add some pizazz to life,’ advises Ghada Zakaria, executive leadership coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy. ‘Being spontaneous brings spice and adventure to a relationship. It reasserts why you loved this person in the first place. Yes, we all have responsibilities and obligations, but sometimes you need to do what’s right for the relationship, and that can mean living in the there and then.’
11 Trust, don’t snoop
Some people may not trust their partners and check their phones, diaries or online histories for evidence of something illicit. If you’re that person, says Irma Kurtz, a writer and magazine agony aunt since 1970, ‘stop, talk to yourself, and ask, “Wait a minute, am I doing this because I think my partner is up to no good?’’’
If the answer is yes, you don’t need to look into their phones. The trust is already gone. You need to identify why you feel that way, and have it out with them.
‘The moment you have to snoop on your partner,’ says Ghada, who has been married 28 years, ‘that relationship is already in trouble – even if you don’t find anything. It’s time to take stock and talk.’
Great unions aren’t easy. They’re hard work. They have ups and downs, rocky roads, sticky patches. Because we’re all men and women – and we don’t have a clue what the other is thinking – times can be tough. But if this person you’ve been waking up to for 20 years is the person you once wanted to spend your entire life with, chances are they have something you kind of like. So work at it. Put in the hard yards. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Because remember that day out when you first fell in love? Wouldn’t it be lovely if, when you’re 60, 70, 80, the person sitting at the dinner table across from you remembers it too?