The Long Game

By Sandy Burgham

My husband and I are going through a good patch in our marriage. Today he spent a lot of time preparing the wood-fired hot tub at the bach, did the dishes twice, and made elaborate pizzas. This is getting into perfect man territory.

To be honest, that’s all it takes to turn me into a nicer person to live with. I’ve loathed him a lot over the years, but divorce was never a serious option because a) I loved him as a general rule; b)we had two kids and I wasn’t confident I could fake being ok with divorce; c) I’d have no interest in step-parenting someone else’s progeny if I re-partnered; and d), because I couldn’t be bothered. Indeed a male friend quipped that a good reason not to get divorced after a long marriage is because there’d be “too much paperwork”. One girlfriend who has been married for over 30 years professes to staying so because she can’t bear the thought of taking her clothes off in front of someone new.

No one really talks about bad patches in marriages, except me because I am deeply curious about why people pretend that marriage is a natural state and being with someone for over 25 years is a constant state of joy and gentle ribbing. We must remember that if we were living in the Middle Ages, I’d be up to husband number four by now, because the previous three would have been conveniently killed off in battle. Then, living with someone for 25 years would have been rare. Modern relationship longevity is thanks to a lack of war and conscription, and of course medical advances promoting longer lives.

Like many married women, there have been times after one of those marital spats that I have imagined a better life should I be partnered with Keanu Reeves. And I’m sure there are times my husband has wished that I would meet Keanu, so he could restore his classic car in peace and find someone more adoring.

Now though, I am glad we have lasted the distance into this Second Act, because we finally get on rather well. Certainly the relief of the kids growing up and almost achieving independence has had a lot to do with our current contentment.

Kids do have a lot to answer for when it comes to marital unhappiness. Professor Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, has completed extensive research into adult happiness. In his book Happy Ever After, he suggests that children are a tad overrated when it comes to bringing happiness. Research found that it’s the existence of children that brings more happiness than their actual presence (those with teenagers and kidults will feel this sentiment acutely).

He also found what many have suspected — the happiest people in the western world tend to be single women with no children. So all this sexist stigma about unmarried childless females being sad and lonely (as opposed to her male counterpart, imagined to be the high-income bachelor playboy) can be blown apart once and for all. My child-free, independent, female mid-lifer mates seem pretty happy to me. One friend who is nearing 60 rang me recently to say that she’d decided to sell one property, put the other on Airbnb and go on an adventure with her trusted companion, a rescue dog. Like many these days, she can work remotely from pretty much anywhere. So much for the ‘spinster with cats’ trope.

And for those who deny the truth that married life is hard, consider what Dolan found in his research: that married people are indeed happier than other population subgroups — but only when their spouse is in the room when they are asked. “When the spouse is not present when they are asked, the married respondents seem to be “f***ing miserable”, Dolan has said.

I have noticed men often repartner quickly if a relationship ends. This is clearly about survival. Dolan found that being married is good for men – they take fewer risks, earn more money and tend to live a little longer than bachelors. Married women are at greater risk of physical and mental conditions, and die earlier than their single girlfriends. I can understand why. Aside from working women doing what is commonly known as the double shift (doing more than their share of the physical and emotional load at home) there is more social pressure for women to remain married, and not to have ‘failed’ at what they are supposed to be good at.

I am happy to be married, but over the years have not always been happily married. Yet through it all, there has never been anyone I’d rather go to the movies with or wander through an art gallery with than him. And now in my 50s, that’ll do me.

This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Hobson Magazine.