Panic, disillusionment and sex three times a year... Henry Sutton tells the depressing truth about men and marriage
"SOMETIMES I feel like I'm going completely mad," says Andy, a friend of mine. "I think 'What the fuck have I done?'" Andy has been married for just over a year. I have been married for almost four years, and sometimes I feel that I've actually gone mad.

My other married friends think the same way. All of us have questioned, and on occasions still do question, whether it's been worth it. Marcus, who's been married for five years, says it's the most expensive thing he's ever done. Paul, two-and-a-half years in, says his life has completely changed. "There are good times," he says, "and then there are bad times."

Yet all four of us are still married - which would suggest that the good times outweigh the bad. But it hasn't always been easy. Marriage - Andy, Marcus, Paul and I agree - is exceptionally hard work. As relationship counsellor Julia Cole says, "If you think that marriage is nothing more than signing a piece of paper, then you are severely kidding yourself. There is nothing like being married - except being married."

For the first year I was married, I used to wake up in the middle of the night sweating, thinking, "This isn't really happening to me." I felt like I had slipped into someone else's life. To say life became a nightmare would be untrue, but I certainly had a strong sense of everything closing in on me, of being trapped.

Between my three married friends and myself, one of us became so run- down he lost his job, another developed post-traumatic stress disorder, a third developed a cocaine habit, the fourth became overweight. Two of us have already gone to Relate, the relationship guidance service. Two of us came under unbearable pressure because we weren't sure we could handle having children, while two of us came under equal pressure because our wives were having problems conceiving.

The four of us agree that surviving these years has been the biggest struggle of our lives. But, says Relate, that's normal. We're just average newly married men.

We've each developed theories about why our marriages have survived. Andy says it's because he thinks with his head, not his dick - he avoids the temptations of other women by going out less. Marcus says he tries not to take things too seriously. Paul says he's let go of his past life.

When one of our single friends announces he's getting hitched, we cry, "Don't!" But this is a defence mechanism - the selfish reflex of the brotherhood. We all love our wives to bits. Paul is the first to admit he wouldn't change anything for the world. It's just that marriage is so complicated. There is no easy way to make a marriage work. No short cut.

While each of our marriages is different, there are themes that keep cropping up, which have to be tackled. All marriages have difficulties. They require great effort from both parties to pull through. "Marriage is all about give and take," says Paul. "You have to give your wife room to breathe, and there are times when you have to give when you don't like giving. In general, people have become too used to taking and not putting anything back."

Julia Cole, who works for Relate, says that nearly all relationships follow a pattern. Imagine a graph. As your emotional and physical feelings for each other intensify, the line quickly rises until you believe your partner is heaven on earth. You love the way she is so gregarious at parties and great in bed. The line gently flattens out, then begins to dip as familiarity takes over - most people marry at this point. After you return from your honeymoon the downward curve really starts. You start to think your wife isn't gregarious - she just never shuts up. You're shocked that she's no longer shapely but, well, rounded. You find her boring in bed. "This is absolutely normal," says Cole. "It's simply learning to know your partner."

The intense romance and excitement of your honeymoon period feels like it should last for 50 years. But it never does. "The way we view each other differs all the time," says Cole. "It's this variety that helps keep the relationship going. If you survive the bottoming out - what is called the crunch - things will come back up."

Andy says that a companionship develops after a time - "which is nice" - but forget about passion. Marcus says, obliquely: "It's easier putting up with someone you like, rather than love." Pressed on this, he says the friendship with your wife begins to matter much more than the sex.

All of us largely stopped talking about our sex lives after we married. There wasn't much to say. When you've been married a while, you don't think of sex in terms of how many times you might do it in a day or a week - you think in terms of months and years.

One of us says he only had sex three times last year. "You just sort of stop thinking about it," he says. "You concentrate on other things, like work and food." One of us could only manage it after he and his wife had sniffed serious amounts of cocaine, and two of us have had bouts of impotence brought on by trying to impregnate our wives. One wife, in a particularly fertile mood, forced her hapless husband to perform when he had really bad flu. "It certainly put a strain on the relationship," he says.

Of the four of us, only Marcus says that he married for the sole reason of having children. "What's the point otherwise?" he says. Cole says the arrival of the first child is one of the hardest things a couple has to negotiate: "If you had any problems before, a child will make things really wobbly." If you thought your relationship graph had been bottoming out, you'll suddenly find yourself rattling over a series of painfully sharp dips and bumps. Sex that might once have been a monthly occurrence becomes a yearly one.

Marriage counsellors generally believe heightened sexual expectations put huge pressure on modern marriages. They also know that when a marriage is under strain, a satisfying sexual relationship may suffer, thus increasing the unhappiness, and creating its own cycle of blame and misunderstanding. Relate offers counselling for people with sexual problems. Most commonly, women complain of a lack of interest in sex, while men suffer from impotence. Cole strongly believes the sexual side of a relationship is overplayed. What's more important is "shared affection". When those casual little gestures of affection disappear, you know something's really wrong.

If the problems build up, consider seeing a marriage counsellor - and sooner rather than later. The two of us who have been to Relate found the process helpful, even if it didn't solve all of our problems. Both of us went because the problems that we were having adjusting to our marriages were being compounded - in one case by a partner desperately wanting children; in the other by the pressures of a crap job. "Relate made us draw out issues we had swept under the carpet," one says. "It was all to do with how we grew up and our relationships with our families and our jobs. It also became apparent that because my parents never divorced, I had a much more relaxed attitude to our marriage. My wife's parents had divorced, and so this made her desperate to make our marriage work. We still don't get on brilliantly but we're coming to terms with each other."

None of us has had an affair - though we've been tempted. On our boys' nights out, we still look at women with almost the same intensity.

Andy says he felt a sort of peer pressure to find a wife and settle down. He had reached his mid-thirties and could see himself slipping from one unsatisfactory relationship to another. "I was becoming sleazy," he admits. Paul comments, most poignantly of all: "I had decided this was the person and by taking those vows and making that commitment, I wanted to take the relationship onto a different level. We wanted something deeper and hopefully more lasting." Cole reckons marriage will survive because everybody - ultimately - wants to be loved, to give love, and grow old feeling safe and secure. Which is what marriage is meant to be all about.

Like most people, I got married for a mixture of all these reasons, and perhaps one more: I wanted to feel I belonged. Numerous single friends have said to me over the last few years, "I wish I was married". And I have replied more than once, "I wish I was single". But I don't really. The thing about marriage is that there's no middle way. And, having taken the leap, I'm buggered if I'm going to let it fail.

Divorce may be common, but it's a prospect that scares the shit out of us four. There are the kids to consider (two of us have families, one is expecting) and the shattering expense. And Andy speaks for all of us when we talk about our wives: "Life would be terrible without them."

This article appears in the current issue of 'GQ Active'