Why jettison your entire relationship when a little fine tuning could turn it into a lean, mean, loving machine? In a continuing, occasional series, Sarah Litvinoff shows you how to dejunk your relationship and reinvigorate the parts that made it fun in the first place
Statistics suggest that advice on dejunking your relationship is redundant. Wholesale dejunking has created a lucrative divorce industry. In 1994 (the latest year for confirmed statistics) there were 158,000 divorces in England and Wales. Dejunking peaks are one year and 20 years, the median being 9.8 years. You only have a one-in-three chance, maximum, of staying married.

But hang on. If you suddenly decided you couldn't live another minute with your avocado bathroom suite, you wouldn't call an expensive solicitor and a greedy estate agent and risk negative equity to buy a new house. You'd simply replace the offending feature with something more tasteful. Why then do so many people dejunk their entire relationship when it is far more efficient to realise that early remedial work and pruning of over-inflated expectations could reveal a serviceable, long-lasting and, better still, highly satisfactory partnership that could see you out?

The trick is to distinguish the real rubbish from the potentially useful - which spring-cleaning fervour can obscure. Junk the relationship completely if there is physical violence. You'll also probably want to discard someone you committed to out of lust when your gut knew you had little else in common, or someone who seemed a better-than-nothing option compared with a future alone.

Usually, and sadly, most people want to trade in the old for the new for far more mundane and fixable reasons. Remember when you threw out your Superman comics and later realised they were a gold mine? Radical relationship dejunking is worse.

Zelda West-Meads, counsellor and sex therapist, says, "Some top reasons for discontent are communication problems - `you never listen' - circular arguments about housework or DIY, long working hours, different attitudes to money, disappointment with sex, boredom and the fun going out of life." Sorry, but as reasons for jacking it in, these are wimpish. If you're prepared to put in a 12-hour day to succeed in your career, sweat at the gym to tone your body and put your life on the line for your best friends or your children, you can probably find the time to do a little straight- talking, compromising, creative rearranging and sorting out with the person you previously thought was perfect.

Throw that one out at once. Perfect is not only impossible, but also unbearable. Face it, you're not perfect (although one common reason for premature jettisoning is when your erstwhile love-slave offends you by noticing your unattractive foibles). Start by dealing with relationship litter: the irritations that get on your nerves. First, recognise what you can fix (behaviour); and what you can't (personality and attitudes). You can't make someone change what they think or who they are, but a well- intentioned person can do things differently when it matters to you. Above all else, avoid blaming or complaining.

Instead, talk about how it affects you - after all, someone else might consider the same behaviour charming. Secondly, clarify how important it is to you. Gentle hinting doesn't work, neither does saying it only once (it could be your mood). It's best to spell out the consequences. "When I think you're flirting with other people at parties I get in a vile mood and that's why I start a row later."

While you are sorting through the detritus ask yourself a question: if this aspect of my partner never changed, could I live with it? Biggies include different sexual needs or radically contrasting ideas on what constitutes the good life and the having or rearing of children. If the answer is negative, you are doomed to bickering and resentment until anything good has been swamped by bad feeling.

If your answer is maybe, ask a further question. What changes can I make so that it becomes more acceptable? This includes agreeing to differ, and meaning it, and reminding yourself mid-moan of the qualities you do like. Also plan strategies to reduce irritation: go out with friends when Match of the Day is on (he's in, so he can baby-sit); chart her PMT pattern so you can pre-empt the worst of it by doing something to make her feel good.

Under the litter is major junk: all those past their use-by-date expectations you brought with you into the relationship. It's so galling to think that you, an intelligent and sophisticated person, were brainwashed by romantic hooey which is rather embarrassing to face and throw out. All that stuff about love being effortless, thinking the same about things, that you will always drive each other wild with lust, that the right person will fulfil all your deepest needs.

Throw out that last one right away. If you need scintillating conversation while your partner wants quiet and the newspaper, phone a mate. Be creative about getting some of your needs met elsewhere. (We shouldn't, by the way, take this as permission to have wild sex with another - although if the statistics are to be believed at least half of us have probably done so or are considering it right now.)

It is essential not to be too radical when clearing out. You might miss the valuables masquerading as junk. These are wistful if-onlys about what's missing in your relationship that could make it blissful. You step over these because you have bought into the myth that if you have to ask for something it won't be so good. Talane Miedaner, a New York "attraction coach", briskly dismisses this. "I told my boyfriend that massaging my feet made me feel mushy and sexy. I said that if he did it without being asked it was even better. Now he does it `spontaneously'."

Probably, like most people, what you do is hint at what you want by treating your partner the way you want to be treated (the fast track to the divorce courts if you have differing needs). For example: he needs to be left strictly alone when he's feeling ill, while she wants to be cosseted. In this case, doing as you would be done by creates hysterical friction when either of you is sick. It may take years to uncover the cause, when you could so easily have explained it to each other.

And then there are the heirlooms. Stored in your relationship attic are the relics of what made the relationship so great in the past. You haven't looked at them for years, yet, to stretch the analogy to the limits, they will enrich your life far more if you put them on the walls rather then leave them gathering dust. What made sex great then? (You can recreate it.) How did we make each other feel so good? (You've become lazy and complacent.) A little play-acting, a few do-you-remember-whens, some good humour and effort, and some of the other junk will spontaneously combust.

TOP TIPS ...

Start early Don't kid yourself that behaviour you'd find intolerable in a friend is adorable in this sexy creature. Say what you do and don't like while you're madly in love and still willing to please each other. Don't rely on telepathy Hints, shrugs, sulks and body language are easily missed when life is busy. If it matters, say it.

Ask, don't expect If it would make you happy, say so and why. A refusal tells you something.

You can't change your partner You can ask for different actions or words, but the person remains the same. You'd be better off changing yourself.

Don't dejunk when you're angry Adrenalin makes you over-zealous. Wait to cool down and you can tackle the real problem in the right way.

When hearts beat as one, minds agree No. Loving each other doesn't mean feeling the same about how many children you want (if any), who does the shopping, relations, money - or anything. Talk, don't assume, before you make it permanent. You can always negotiate later.

Hot sex retains its temperature No. Sex goes off. That's the bad news. The good news is it doesn't have to - but you'll have to put in effort, time and creativity. At least it's not thankless hard work.

Love means never having to say you're sorry Wrong again. Sorry is potent love-talk, bigger than the L-word, almost as good as "You're right" or "I was wrong". Proviso: mean it. And don't do it again.

Your partner will make you happy Perhaps. Some of the time. But this is a fallible, moody, wilful human being. Have you no friends? Family? Colleagues? Enjoy the good times together but give your partner a break.

When you love people you really know them People change, and not just physically. When conversation is reduced to grunts and grumbles you miss the vital clues. No one "suddenly" acts out of character - it's only partners relating to the ghost of the past who believe so.

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