The real secret of staying married

As we live longer, 'til death us do part' is getting to be tall order. Now relationship experts believe it's time we redrew the rules on monogamy.

Five years ago my friend (let's call her Jane) discovered her husband (let's call him Steve) was having an affair with a colleague.

For a few weeks, their marriage teetered on the brink. Jane was shocked at Steve's "betrayal", uncertain whether she could ever trust him again. Everything – including the future for the couple's two children – hung in the balance.

This week I met Jane for lunch... and what a difference five years has made. She's happy, fulfilled, forging ahead with an important work project.

She and Steve have just had a holiday à deux and their marriage seems unshakeable.

But Steve still sometimes sees his other lover. And what's more, Jane now has an extramarital love interest, too. "We've got a new arrangement," is how Jane explains it. "Sometimes I think it's complicated – at other times, it seems ridiculously easy. Basically, we sat down and worked out that we're really happy with what we've got together – a lovely home, three gorgeous kids, fulfilling jobs. But we've been honest about the fact that we sometimes need a bit more."

Rewriting the rules around marriage, as Steve and Jane have done, is catching on, and there's a spate of new books and movies out to prove it: books that aim to unpick why we can't be more imaginative in the ways we live out our long-term relationships and films such as Hope Springs that seek to remind us that a long-term relationship doesn't have to dissolve into a stale and lonely old age.

Psychologist and relationship therapist Meg Barker is the author of Rewriting the Rules (Routledge), out this month. She says there are several differences in today's long-term committed relationships that underpin the need for change. "Number one is that people are living to be a lot older – so a long-term relationship is a much longer deal," she says. "And another thing that's changed is expectations: we require so much more from a relationship than people did in the past.

"There's been a huge growth in the recent past of this idea that you need one perfect relationship; that you will get everything from it – romance and children and financial stability and friendship and a great sex life. No other generation had such huge hopes invested in just one relationship and it is an enormous ask."

An enormous ask that, more and more, is prompting people to wonder if the time has come to dismantle the scaffolding that holds marriage together and to look at whether it couldn't be constructed in another way. Because perhaps the over-expectations we've come to invest in marriage have made the scaffolding too shaky: maybe the time has inevitably come to realise that, as a society, we've been piling too much weight onto just one frame.

That's certainly how social scientist Catherine Hakim sees it: and her take is that it's Anglo-Saxons who are worst at loading the weights onto marriage and then watching as it wobbles under the strain. No surprise, she argues in her new book The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power (Gibson Square Books), that it's Britons and Americans who have the highest divorce rates on the planet – because these nations are also the ones whose citizens have the highest (and, she would argue, the most unrealistic) expectations of the institution itself.

More than 90 per cent of Americans and 80 per cent of Britons condemn extramarital affairs as wrong, compared with just two in five people in Italy and France.

And guess what, says Hakim: in Italy and France, divorce is far less common. "There is no assumption [in these countries] that spouses must fulfil all of each other's needs, all of the time, exclusively," she explains.

Hakim's take is that affairs happen – and when they do, couples (especially in Britain and America) are using sledgehammers to crack nuts. That's what, she would say, a couple like Jane and Steve would have done if they'd ended their marriage five years ago. At root, their relationship is fine: not perfect (but who, and what, is?), but happy enough, and friendly enough, and even sexy enough, and certainly functional enough to make a safe home for their children to grow up in. How tragic it would have been, Hakim would say, if a couple like Jane and Steve had chosen to unravel all that in the midst of what was, all said and done, a difficult chapter in their relationship – but one which, with some straight talking and broad thinking, they were able to work through.

The French perspective on affairs is very different: the attitude there is more philosophical and more tolerant. "Affairs are not actively recommended, but they are not prohibited either," says Hakim in her book. Contrast the UK, where (despite the fact that affairs are very common), the language around them is loaded with negativity (think "cheating", "dishonesty", "love rat"). When Jane heard of Steve's extramarital relationship, she felt "betrayed": but why, exactly, did it have to be a betrayal? Relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall of Relate agrees with much of the logic of Hakim and Barker. Her line is that if anyone thinks there's a safe place in a marriage, they're kidding themselves: marriage, like everything else in life, is risky.

"Monogamy has its risks – boredom being the main one – and an open marriage has its risks, too, in the form of jealousy, feelings of rejection and so on," she says.

"But there are real differences in the landscape of a marriage these days and they're about the internet and opportunities for meeting people as well as in how great our individual expectations are. So we are the generation that can move the boundaries here and look again at how to draw up what a marriage is about," she says.

It's even possible, she ventures, that monogamy has played out its usefulness to humankind. "Some experts argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, we simply don't need monogamy as much as human beings did in the past," she says.

The key thread that runs through Barker's book and Hakim's, through Hall's words of wisdom and through Hope Springs, is that flexibility – always an important component of a long-term marriage – is even more essential today than in the past. Marriage – certainly where children are concerned – is well worth fighting for: but to win the war, tactics and manoeuvres that once would have been out of the question could need to be deployed.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Sport
Peter Moores was criticised for failing to handle top players when he last led the England team
sportFive years after being sacked from the job, Peter Moores to be named a cricket coach
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
VIDEO
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit