By the standards of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary on Wednesday, my wife and I are mere novices in the marriage stakes.
But, with our 40th anniversary coming up in the New Year, I reckon we’re qualified to pass on a tip or two about the secrets of an enduring marriage.
I was going to write ‘a happy marriage’, but then, I thought this would be presumptuous. After all, ‘long-lasting’ and ‘happy’ don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Indeed, I know couples who seem unable to stand each other’s company (I hasten to add that Mrs U and I are not among them), yet they stay together year after year.
Travelodge confidently announced this week that the key to a happy marriage is to spend five days apart from our partners every month (stock image)
Enough to say that if I could peddle reliable advice on how to achieve happiness in a relationship, I’d be seriously rich.
As it is, I’ll stick to what I know — or, at least, what I think I know. But more of that in a moment.
No such uncertainty appears to afflict the cut-price hotel chain Travelodge, which confidently announced this week that the key to a happy marriage is to spend five days apart from our partners every month.
This was the highly questionable conclusion the company drew from a survey of 2,000 people, which found that four in ten who regularly work away from their partners are ‘extremely happy’ in their relationships, while only three in ten of those who are together all the time make the same claim.
As for that five-days-a-month rule, the theory is that this is the optimum time to be separated. Apparently, it makes people realise how much they miss their loved ones, and more appreciative of their time together, while happiness falls away if the separation is any longer or shorter.
‘Time apart is as important as time together,’ says Richard Scott, 35, who regularly leaves his wife, Rebecca, at home in St Albans, Hertfordshire. ‘It makes you realise how much you mean to each other.’
This was the highly questionable conclusion the company drew from a survey of 2,000 people, which found that four in ten who regularly work away from their partners are ‘extremely happy’ in their relationships (stock image)
Well, you don’t have to be a hardened cynic like me to understand that the first thing we should do when we read a survey is to check who commissioned it. In this case, I hope it’s not unfair to say that the subliminal message Travelodge intends to convey is that we should all spend time away from our partners — and where better than in one of its hotels?
All I can say is that if I started disappearing to a Travelodge five nights a month, Mrs U would very soon be raising more than a suspicious eyebrow.
On my return, she’d be far more likely to greet me with a flailing rolling pin than a declaration of how much she had missed me. But then, she and I have spent very few nights apart in the 41 years since we met. In my youth, as a political reporter, I would spend a few days every year in Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, covering the three main party conferences.
Then there was the time she saved up her air miles from Sainsbury’s, bless her, and sent me to New York for three days as a birthday present. (There weren’t enough for us both — and I still suffer pangs of guilt because she has yet to visit the U.S. Perhaps I’ll take her in 2020.)
But, other than that, we’ve seldom been apart for more than one night a year. And that includes the total of four nights she’s spent in hospital since we met, giving birth to our four sons.
Certainly, I’ve missed her when we’ve been separated. But would we really be happier if we were apart more often? Others may swear by separation as a recipe for marital bliss. But I’ll take Travelodge’s findings with a hefty pinch of salt.
At the risk of being attacked as hideously unromantic, I must say I’m also sceptical about the claim that as many as 30 or 40 per cent of marriages are ‘extremely happy’.
All I can say is that if I started disappearing to a Travelodge five nights a month, Mrs U would very soon be raising more than a suspicious eyebrow, writes Tom Utley (stock image)
Yes, I dare say such blissful unions exist — and you may well be among the lucky ones. I should also admit that if a pollster asked me about the state of my marriage, I would probably tick the box marked ‘extremely happy’ myself. But this would be far from the whole truth.
Let’s face it, in the overwhelming majority of cases — including my own — extreme happiness is too glib a description of a relationship as complicated as a marriage, and as prone to ups and downs.
Without a doubt, Mrs U and I have enjoyed great contentment together, on and off. But, like most couples, we’ve also endured plenty of moments of extreme irritation with each other’s company, and we could both draw up a list of the other’s faults as long as your arm. (I won’t list Mrs U’s here; I’m not that foolhardy!)
Which brings me to the first of my shockingly unromantic secrets of an enduring marriage: don’t raise your expectations too high. Indeed, I’ve long thought the chief cause of marital breakdown is that far too many couples tying the knot these days imagine marriage to be a sure-fire recipe for extreme happiness. Except in the rarest of cases, the reality can only disappoint.
As for rule two, this may seem almost too obvious to state. But if you want your marriage to last, you should regard it from the word ‘go’ as a totally unbreakable commitment for life. That means shutting out any thoughts of escape.
If each partner knows that the other takes this attitude, then even the most flaming row becomes far less serious, and the need to kiss and make up assumes far greater importance. Any musings on the possibility of divorce have an ugly way of proving self-fulfilling.
With that in mind, I’ve long championed the idea that couples should pool their resources in joint bank accounts. This is because keeping money separate has always smacked to me slightly of an exit strategy if things should go wrong.
But I know there can be many practical arguments against this — and as so often these days, I find myself slipping far behind the times.
Indeed, a survey by AIG Life Limited, released today, finds that more than half of couples today say financial independence is important to both partners, while 17 per cent keep their cash entirely separate. That said, 77 per cent share some money between them, though the average paid into joint accounts is just a fifth of monthly income.
If my suspicion is right, the more of their money that couples share, the less likely they are to split. I confess, however, that I can’t cite figures to prove it.
So much for my advice on making a marriage last. As for tips on keeping it happy, I threw the question open yesterday to my small circle of drinking companions in the pub — all of us men, with a total of well over 200 years of marriage between us.
Two suggested enforcing strict demarcation between ‘his’ and ‘her’ jobs, so that there are no rows, say, about whose turn it is to do the washing or mow the lawn. Another said it was important that a man and his wife should have their own separate space. All said that whatever their womenfolk might say or think, it was vital to agree.
But one spoke for most long-term partners, I think, when he answered: ‘Patience, tolerance, forgiveness, good humour… and all the other qualities my other half possesses!’
As for me, I don’t know about extreme happiness. All I can testify is that marriage gets easier after the first 30 years or so — and I’d suffer extreme misery if we split.
So, no, I won’t be urging Mrs U to go off and stay in a Travelodge, five days a month. She might well find she preferred life away from me. And that would break my heart.