Other people’s marriages — intriguing, unknowable and usually more interesting than your own. In a revealing survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Style, a study of 2,000 people offers a picture of what married couples and civil partners really think and feel over the course of their relationship, from year one through to 60 and counting.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017 just over half of the adults living in England and Wales were married, a number significantly lower than in previous decades. And yet our exclusive survey reveals a positive picture that is counterintuitive given the negative headlines — married people are contented, hopeful and fulfilled. In our research, 89% of people said that they are happy in their marriage (that number was slightly higher in newlyweds with no children — less surprising), and 81% said they believe that marriage is important for long-term relationships, suggesting that once we are inside this age-old institution, our optimism isn’t necessarily eroded by the sometimes stark realities of mortgages, children and whose turn it is to take the bins out.
The most common reasons stated for getting married were love (75%) and commitment (47%), a win for the hopeless romantics among us. “The nature of love and relationships has changed in contemporary Britain, so that coupling is now much more about ‘love’ and ‘commitment’ than in the past, where community, family and status would have played a more noticeable role,” says Dr Julia Carter, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of the West of England. “Love in itself is not a reason to get married — you can love and not be married — so when people are using this to explain their decision to marry, this indicates a move towards more individual motives for coupling.”
Where there is marriage, there is sex, or a lack thereof — 62% of newlyweds and 40% of settled spouses wished they had more sex with their partner. “When people wish they had more sex, we have to question, what does this mean?” says Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at the School of Life. She has been working with married couples for eight years and has seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of marriage play out in every incarnation. “Do they want more sex, or do they want to want more sex? For some couples, having sex monthly may be adequate, and for others the optimal frequency may be several times a week. What’s of more concern is if desire is asymmetrical. The results suggest that couples who have been married for longer may be more accepting of how often they have sex, whereas for newlyweds there can be immense expectations.”
Carter adds: “What we know about statistics like these are that the frequency of sex between couples tends to be overstated, because of modern imperatives for everyone to be sexual and sexualised, but especially married couples, where marriage itself is a sexualised union. On the other hand, infidelity tends to be under-reported because of the social stigma and taboo surrounding non-monogamous relationships and the primacy of monogamous marriage.”
In response to questions about infidelity, 29% said they actively thought about cheating on their spouse. Fox Weber agrees that this figure seems low for the reasons Carter cites. With one in four saying they cheat out of boredom, she is interested in what makes us want to cheat in the first place. “There’s a great line from Freud: ‘Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.’ ” In short, it’s really difficult to keep wanting what you already have. “Cheating is rarely simply about sex,” she says. “It can be about meaning, purpose and a search for novelty, all of which are complicated by the marriage dynamic.”
It may look like great news that 55% of married couples spend five or more hours together every day, but Fox Weber believes it’s the quality of the time we spend together that matters. “One of the things I see a lot of in couples’ therapy are people who have gone from being nose to nose to being side by side. So, at the beginning of a relationship when you’re in that infatuation stage, you’re really looking at each other, then over time it becomes side by side, when you’re sitting on the sofa watching TV or you’re looking at your phone. That might technically count as time together, but it’s not necessarily meaningful.”
Ascribing meaning to the seemingly banal day-to-day of married life is vital to the quality we crave. Even five years ago, the question of who carries the emotional load in a marriage wouldn’t have featured on a survey like this. While it’s edifying that this formerly invisible issue now has a label, the gender inequality in the results does make for disappointing reading — 63% of women claim to carry the emotional burden in their marriage, in contrast to 19% of men. “Sadly, we live in a society where this kind of inequality is continually downplayed,” Carter says. “Of course, we know from research that there continue to be significant disparities in the division of domestic labour, childcare and emotional labour.” If this gendered dynamic means that the emotional load is carried by women and the financial load by men, it makes sense that money (38%) and housework (29%) topped the list as reasons why couples argue. And 44% also revealed that they kept secrets about money from their spouse. On a more positive note, the number of people reporting the equal sharing of the “emotional load” (32% of women and 52% of men say it’s shared) is encouraging.
On the subject of secrets in general, Fox Weber believes they are not necessarily harmful. “I don’t think it’s always the worst thing in the world to have secrets,” she says. “Having your own private fantasy life is part of the human condition. I don’t think the solution is to get rid of all secrets.”
Behind all the headline statistics, marriage is essentially a leap of faith. Fox Weber believes that a healthier, happier union comes from a less normative, more bespoke attitude towards it. “We should try to accept that our inner worlds don’t always match our conduct. When we try to censor our inner worlds, we get into trouble. Radical acceptance is a huge part of making a relationship work.”
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