Relationships are not static. They evolve and change. And that means hard work. For many, this seems dull and depressing. After all, aren't relationships supposed to be romantic? What could be less romantic than hard work? Unfortunately, relationships do require work – and vigilance.
People change, and this often comes as a shock. When did the sweet, romantic guy you fell for morph into this irritable, short-tempered workaholic? Even couples who've been together for decades can find they barely recognize one another.
Change occurs for many reasons. Some people grow in confidence and, as they do, begin to feel suffocated and restricted. This is especially common when they marry young. Often, young people form relationships because they lack confidence and feel stronger as part of a couple. But the years pass and they shed their adolescent insecurities. As they do, they also outgrow the person they once clung to.
Priorities also change. In many countries, for example, there has been a sharp rise in divorce among the over-60s. So common is this that the group have been nicknamed the "silver splitters." When raising children and forging careers, people often have no time to worry about their relationship. Once the children leave home, however, and their careers wind down, they find they no longer want the same things.
Thanks to modern medicine, there is also more time between retirement and the grave. In general, women tend to be more sociable than men and, as they age, are more open to new ideas, new hobbies, and new interests. Men, on the other hand, often want nothing more than a TV and a fridge stocked with beer.
Many people form relationships to escape loneliness, and yet a bad relationship is just about the loneliest place on earth. What people fail to realize, however, is that even a good relationship includes its share of loneliness. This is perfectly normal and doesn't necessarily mean the relationship is dysfunctional or doomed.
A relationship is composed of two separate individuals whose moods and life experiences are not always in sync. One person may feel low or vulnerable just when their partner is on a career high or engrossed in some exciting new hobby. The other partner then accuses them of being selfish, cold, or insensitive. In fact, it only seems that way because the two are experiencing different realities at the same time.
If your partner tells you that he or she feels lonely, do something. If you do not, they may drift away from you – or seek comfort elsewhere. Remember, loneliness does not occur because someone spends too much time alone. Plenty of people live or work alone and never feel lonely. Loneliness occurs when people feel unable to connect, when no one understands or 'gets' them.
Counsellors often find that relationships reach a point of no return. The yelling and drama and tears are not the real danger. These can be worked through so long as the deep bond persists; once that weakens, however, there may be no going back.
For whatever reason, one partner begins to withdraw. They stop arguing and shouting and retreat into cold silence. The bond withers and intimacy dies. Once that happens, the relationship is like a corpse – nothing will revive it. So maintain intimacy at all costs.
Children pose a special threat to such intimacy. When they arrive, the couple's relationship changes. Before the child appeared, they were lovers. Yes, they argued and had their bad days, but falling out and making up was part of the romance. Now they are parents.
Once a child comes along, relationships mutate into something brisk and businesslike. Flirty texts are replaced by reminders to buy diapers. Instead of working on their relationship, the couple now just try to get through each day.
Do not make your children the center of the universe. Obviously you must love and cherish them, but you must also maintain your relationship. They need to understand that as well as being their mother and father you have a relationship of your own, and you are entitled to love and romance.
Of course, children are not the only threat to intimacy. Plenty of childless couples find career and ambition replace love and romance. As with so many threats, this tends to creep up on them. Intimacy slowly disappears until one day they realize they hardly see each other and barely talk when they do. Countless divorces take place because, as people put it, "we drifted apart."
Be wary of poor personal habits. Nothing breaks the romantic spell like B.O., dirty socks, or shaved leg hair. Unfortunately, when challenged many adopt a silly, self-righteous attitude, informing their partner that "the body is nothing to be ashamed of" and that he or she is too uptight.
That is irrelevant. No, the body isn't something to be ashamed of, and, yes, bodies do excrete, pass gas, and so on. But when you burp, wipe your nose on your sleeve, etc, not only is it a massive turn-off, it also demonstrates a lack of respect.
And this irritation builds slowly. Relationship counsellors often speak of the marriage that "dies by a thousand cuts," meaning that it falls apart not because of a major upheaval, like an affair, but because one partner wore the other down with lazy, thoughtless behavior.
Of course, relationships are not only threatened from within. Many break down because of something, or someone, from outside.
The most obvious danger is the ex-lover. Many people fall for someone beautiful or charismatic who then leaves them and moves on. Deep down, however, the bond, obsession, or whatever word you care to use, remains. Years later they bump into that person in a park or shop, phone numbers are exchanged, and their current relationship is doomed.
If you are in a serious relationship, you need to talk about exes. Ask your new partner to be frank. If their ex reappeared, could they resist? Remember, such a bond isn't always rational. Someone will admit that their ex is a selfish, shallow narcissist, yet they still spoil a good relationship by getting back with them. Why? Because it isn't John or Sarah they want to re-connect with but the time John or Sarah symbolize – a time in which they were young, beautiful, and carefree.
Friends can also threaten relationships. Never underestimate the power of jealousy ("beware the green-eyed monster," as Shakespeare put it). Your partner's best friend may convince herself that she hates you when in fact she is simply jealous. People have limitless powers of self-deception. The friend may do all she can to split you up, convinced she's doing this because her friend needs rescuing.
And be wary of new friends. For example, you move in with your girlfriend and start a family. For ten years everything is wonderful. Your partner quits her job and focuses on the kids. When the youngest enters High School, however, your partner begins an M.A. Degree in creative writing.
All she can talk about is a new friend she met on the course. This woman never married and boasts that she'd never let a man tie her down, that it is wonderful to be free to see friends, go the theatre, write novels, etc. Slowly, your girlfriend changes. The new friend convinces her that she's been a fool, that she's been "domesticated" and has failed to live her own life.
Boredom is another major problem. Passion fades, and it needs to be replaced, or at least bolstered, by other things. Attraction alone is never enough. This is a particular danger when the couple approach middle age.
Once they hit their mid-fifties and the children have moved out, the couple need to reinvent. If they do not, one, or both, may begin to feel bored. This is when affairs start. People want passion again. They have raised their children and now they want something else – a bit of adventure and excitement. If their partner cannot provide this, or refuses to, they will look elsewhere.
Of course, boredom can be a problem at any stage of the relationship. Birthdays are particularly dangerous. Be on your guard during the build up to a milestone birthday like a 30th or 50th – deep down many dread and hate them. This is the time in which people ask, "is this where I wanted to be at this age?," "am I happy?," and so on. And the answer is often no.
Unfortunately, many simply expect too much of life. When at college, the future seems filled with adventure and possibility. The reality, of course, is often tedious and disappointing.
To combat the sense of boredom, begin by really listening to your partner. If he or she feels you are bored, that in itself is boring. Men are especially guilty of this. If marriage guidance counsellors had a dollar for every time they hear a woman say "I never feel he's listening," they could retire ten years early!
Listen to the trivial stuff as well. Admittedly, it isn't always easy. Your husband may like golf or fishing while you prefer poetry or art galleries. But make the effort. And listen to your partner when they talk about their friends or work colleagues.
You could also try taking up a new hobby together. Or maybe set yourselves a goal of some kind. Whatever it is, you need to share a sense of excitement and anticipation.
Relationships should never be taken for granted. As the years pass, new threats constantly appear, both from within and without. Your relationship is a living entity. And like any living thing it must be constantly defended and repaired.