"The whole purpose of a husband and wife is that when hard times knock at the door you should be able to embrace each other." Nelson Mandela
Disney has a lot to answer for when it comes to our first ideas of love and marriage. Expectations of 'boy meets girl' begin with a prince and princess and highly idealised notions of romance. The messages from our childhood are ones of magical undying love but that's the stuff of fairytales. As we grow older we realise it just doesn't take into account all the trials and tribulations of real life. A happy marriage is loving and nurturing and fun. Here are my secrets to how to keep it that way.
It's so easy to get married, and yet with the divorce rate at an all-time high, it seems not so easy to stay married. There is so much written on the subject of how to have a happy marriage, and most notably by people on their second or third... These are people who have learned some valuable lessons through trial and error.
Charles Darwin, just before his marriage to Emma Wedgwood, in 1838, wrote several fascinating notes listing the pros and cons of marriage, from which he concluded very memorably that he would like to acquire a "constant companion and friend in old age" as he felt that a wife would be 'better than a dog.' What a charmer!
Love and falling in love
In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières describes the difference between 'falling in love' and simply loving, a lesson, for many, which is pivotal to marriage.
"Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day... That is just being 'in love', which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away."
It's all too easy to fall in love and get caught up in the whirlwind of excitement that planning a wedding presents. Love is one essential ingredient to a successful marriage, in my mind, even if not in arranged marriages. If you love your partner, then you care for them and want only what is best for them. Love is patient and kind, when we love we show compassion and we truly care. Falling in love is indeed wild and exciting, loving and being truly loved is much, much more. Keeping that feeling of being connected, whether it is felt on a romantic, emotional, intellectual or spiritual level, is an essential ingredient for many people in a long-term relationship and love is at its core.
'It takes two to tango' as they say, meaning if one partner wants it to work that's just not enough.
Marriage and long term relationships in general are partnerships which need give and take. If one partner gives all the time while the other takes, then sooner or later resentment can set in. While partnerships thrive on togetherness, you don't have to live in each other's pockets. Trust in a relationship means there can be some freedom to pursue separate interests as well as having shared ones. Sharing similar beliefs, religious or otherwise is also very bonding.
Sex and intimacy
Adam Gopnik, in his feature Is there a secret to a happy marriage? said:
"Marriages are made of lust, laughter and loyalty - but the three have to be kept in constant passage, so that as one subsides for a time, the others rise. We've all seen that. Marriages from which lust fled decades ago, and laughter became hollow back in the 1990s, but which continue to run on loyalty alone. Loyalty alone can sustain a marriage, but not happily, and not for long."
I think there's some wisdom in this and yet it's hard to keep the balance between the three. There are couples who continue dating even after decades of marriage. Making time to spend together having fun and sharing meaningful experiences helps to keep that important connection strong. Regular intimacy, both physically in terms of embracing each day and making love on a fairly regular basis, as well as emotional intimacy - opening up and sharing your innermost feelings, thoughts and fears will bring you closer as a couple. The fire and passion of initial lusty feelings can burn away gently for years to come as long as the fire is stoked every once in a while.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a marriage is friendship. If you like each other's company, and value each other as friends, then whatever else may happen, you'll always have that. Friendship is about close companionship and sharing hobbies or interests as well as goals for the future. So that when sex drives wane or illness strikes, you remain together - 'for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.'
What it all boils down to is that we show respect for our partners just as we do our close friends, we don't judge them harshly, we trust them and we don't betray their trust in us. We treat others as we would like to be treated. Communication and compromise will get you through every obstacle and a shared sense of humour helps in all things. There's an old saying 'the couple who laugh together, stay together'.
Zara Philips chose an extract from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams for her wedding reading. It is a sweet story, first published in 1922 that tells the tale of a child's love for its toys, or does it?
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When someone loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
My interpretation of The Velveteen Rabbit is that it's such a gorgeously gentle description of what it means for two people to grow old together, in love, or to become 'real'. The toys are, in fact, metaphors that we may begin as mere 'play things' for our partners but will evolve once love grows. The reference to the 'things that buzz inside you' and the 'stick out handle' could perhaps be interpreted as sexual references.
That your ''hair gets loved off' is perhaps a nod towards the groom's likely future hair loss, the references to your eyes and your joints are other signifiers of old age and there's a warning not to be too obtuse or 'have sharp edges' or need to be 'carefully kept'. The most beautiful line is the reminder that 'once you are real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand', meaning that once you are loved, you are loved for more than your looks, you are loved and liked for who you are, in the same way that a child loves their velveteen rabbit, no matter how old or how out of shape and its original brilliance it may become over time. This reading is all about the joy of growing old together and how love is all that matters.
When we marry we vow to 'love, comfort, honour and protect our husband/wife and, forsaking all others, be faithful to them as long as we both shall live.' These are poignant words indeed and it's a tall order to make that promise when we hardly know our partner, which is why it's better to spend time making sure you marry the right person and not the beautiful princess of your fantasies or the prince who whisked you away in your dreams.
Getting married is just the start of a lifetime with your life partner. It won't always be fun and light but if you both give enough love and time and energy to nurture your relationship your marriage will be a success and your life will be a happy one. For me, The Velveteen Rabbit just says it all.
Image from Real Weddings on Confetti.co.uk