Focus: How to stay together

Learn to give and take. Don't go to bed angry. Log off Friends Reunited and stop texting old flames. As reasons for marriage failure multiply, Mandy Appleyard seeks the secrets of success
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The Independent Online

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue? Find something else to do. That can seem like the best advice for modern brides, now that four marriages in 10 fail.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue? Find something else to do. That can seem like the best advice for modern brides, now that four marriages in 10 fail.

Divorce rates have just shown their biggest increase in two decades, according to the Office for National Statistics, rising by 5,755 to 153,490 in 2003. The internet is partly to blame, according to marriage guidance specialists Relate, with websites such as Friends Reunited enabling old flames to meet again.

There are so many reasons for marriages to fail, that it sometimes seems a miracle that anyone gets past their first anniversary. Mobile phones make it easier to conduct clandestine affairs. The stigma of divorce has gone. Raised on Hollywood happy endings, many come to marriage with inflated expectations. Long working hours leave less time for couples to be together. Sometimes marriage can seem as disposable as a plastic cup.

There is a glimmer of hope. Divorce now comes after an average of 11.3 years of marriage, up from 11.1 years in 2002 - suggesting that couples may be willing to try to work things out for a little longer before bailing out.

So what are the secrets of staying married? Give and take, don't let the sun go down on your anger ... such are the answers routinely given by couples celebrating their relationships' longevity. But the pat phrases disguise much hard work, says Relate counsellor Denise Knowles: "Marriage isn't a rose-tinted cure-all for unhappiness. It requires huge preparation and effort, and the wedding day is only the beginning. Couples forget that they need to give each other time. It might just be five minutes of stopping what you're doing or picking up the phone or sending a text to let your spouse know you're thinking about them, but these little considerations help keep a relationship alive."

External pressures can seem insurmountable: "We're living longer, so elderly parents need our help, and children are living at home longer, which gives a couple less time for each other. Finances cause big problems, as does the internet - one in 10 couples who come to Relate cite the computer as a problem in their relationship."

Ms Knowles advises swift action if you feel your marriage is off-track. "That's the point at which you have to do something. Don't ignore it in the hope that it will go away."

A recent survey revealed that the place with the happiest and longest-married couples is North Yorkshire. But if you can't live in Harrogate, there are many other ways of keeping things together, as these personal stories show.

Newly-weds: 'We'll do everything we can to be happy'

Julie McCaffrey, 31, and Michael Joyce, 34, from Surrey celebrate their second wedding anniversary next week.

Julie says: "We were together for 10 years before we got engaged, having met at university; our parents have been together since they were teenagers. We expect to be together for ever, like them. We're Catholics, so we took marriage counselling classes before the wedding. We learned a lot. They confirmed what we already knew - that our morals, values and hopes were the same. They taught us how to row without hurting each other. We had a beautiful wedding and took our vows seriously. We'll do everything we can to be happy and make it work.

"I thought marriage would make me feel older and a bit past-it, but we still flirt with each other and we have great fun - if ever my stomach hurts from laughing, it's always something Michael has said. I'm surprised how much more secure I feel since being married - I know I've found a life partner and feel wrapped up in security because of that. I do think about divorce because my sister has recently come out of a painful divorce. I could cry just thinking about life away from Michael.

"Money is our biggest issue - Michael's very cautious and likes to save, whereas I'm a scattercash. We can have monumental rows big blow-ups that would stop the neighbours in their tracks - but can talk it over rationally within hours. We tried to set a rule never to sleep on an argument, but we have broken it. There've been a few nights when we've both slept on the extreme far side of the bed."

Michael says: "I hoped married life would be the start of a whole new adventure. I wanted to think that whatever happened in life, we'd be there for each other. We're still at the start of the adventure and that expectation hasn't changed. Marriage is a lot more relaxed than I thought it would be. If anything, we have more freedom. Julie and I were together for so long before getting married, and we worked through a lot of stuff before knowing we were ready to get engaged. The counselling before the wedding was really interesting. It helped us see that an argument doesn't spell the end of a happy marriage."

Struggling: 'You wake up one day having lost whatever brought you together'

Anna and Steve met through a dating agency. They have been married for nine years - and trying to save their marriage for the past twelve months. They live in Exeter and have three children under seven. Anna, 35, is a full-time mum; Steve, 40, is a teacher.

Anna says: "The first two years of our marriage were blissful - a story of love and discovery. We loved our jobs - I was a nurse - we had no money worries, and life seemed wonderful. Then we had three children in quick succession. I gave up work to look after them and everything changed. I felt trapped at home, we struggled financially because we'd lost my wage, we both lost sleep for years and years. Our lives were about our kids and not about us any more. Suddenly we seemed to live in chaos. We should have sent up a distress flare years before we did, but we were so busy with the children that we ignored the fact that we were drifting apart. We assumed it would all come right. It didn't.

"We were on a rare night out, celebrating my birthday last year, when I told Steve we had to do something to save our marriage because it wasn't working and I felt desperately unhappy. He agreed we needed help, so we signed up for counselling, which we're both finding very useful, if painful."

Steve says: "At this stage I don't know whether Anna and I will stay together, but we're working hard to save our marriage because we both want to see it through and because we took seriously the vows we made. It's easy for couples to lose sight of each other, to let things slip in small ways over the years, until you wake up one day and realise you've lost whatever it was that first brought you together. That's happened to us, but we're not going to give up without a fight. Counselling is helping us to talk about issues we've buried. It's a frightening and protracted process, but we both believe it's the only way we can 'relearn' our relationship."

Second chance: 'My first marriage taught me that a wife's role is not just to please her husband'

Denise Knowles, 49, a counsellor for Relate, is with her second husband. She has been married to Tom, 57, for 22 years. They live in Northamptonshire.

Denise says: "I hated Tom on sight. I thought he was arrogant and poured a soda siphon of water over him because he was irritating me! But he grew on me, and I think what's held us together over the years is being able to communicate with each other. We know each other so well that I can sense when something's bothering him or when he wants to be left alone. We're good at checking out with each other that our assumptions about how the other one might be feeling are right.

"We also have a lot of fun together, and we've never stopped touching. We always have a kiss in the morning, a huge cuddle and kiss when we meet up, and we snuggle in together on the settee when we're watching television. We've been able to develop a comfortable, companionable silence. We can sit and read a book on holiday -we don't have to be doing stuff all the time. I was married before Tom and I learned from the failure of that marriage. I learned to open my mouth rather than keep it shut, and that my role wasn't simply to please my husband: in my first marriage I'd become subservient. I was adamant that wouldn't happen to me again."

Golden years: 'The secrets? Love, compassion, respect and a sense of humour'

Dora and Derek Prag first met, aged 14 , at their Hebrew class. They have been married for 56 years, and live in Hertfordshire. Dora is 79 and Derek 80.

Dora says: "Married for 56 years? I don't know how I've done it! I always thought Derek was too clever for me - we used to call him The Walking Dictionary - but then I discovered he had a wonderful sense of humour and that's the key. We still make each other laugh.

"I think our marriage has survived because it was built on such firm foundations. Our families were close, we knew each other well, and we shared the same values. He spent too long in the bathroom, but I always knew he was kind and understanding. He loved his family and they loved him. I once told my mother I was going to leave Derek and she said if I did, she'd send me straight back to him because he is a good man.

"I really loved him then, deep down, and I still do. I can't imagine life without him, which begins to worry us at this stage in life. We have terrible rows and we don't agree on everything, including politics. I'm messy and he's too tidy. I did a class years ago in which we were taught to walk away from arguments and that's what I try to do. We have too solid a basis ever to contemplate not being together. The central thing that keeps us together is love, real love. It's not just meeting someone, jumping into bed and thinking they're a good lay. Our Jewish faith has a lot to do with the stability in our lives.

"Our family - we have three sons - is so important to us. Young couples today give up on marriage too easily."

Derek says: "The key to a long-lasting marriage is love. Also I think I'm tolerant, but I'm not sure Dora is. Sometimes I'm more easygoing, though I can be very difficult too. We share an important determination not to let any argument go on for too long, and we're on the same lines when it comes to a feeling of basic common attitudes to life, people and things. We both value compassion, respect and kindness, and because we value those things in life, we apply them to each other and to our marriage. A sense of humour is terribly important."

Happy apart: 'Work hard at it but chill out over the details'

Carole Smith, 60, lives in York. She separated from Peter, 50, in 2001 after 15 years of marriage. They have no children together, although Carole has two children from her first marriage.

Carole says: "We both admitted we'd been going through the motions and would probably be happier apart, but we'd known each other for 25 years and separating was difficult. I never envisaged growing old alone and I was worried about my future. Peter had stopped talking to me about seven years into our marriage - we couldn't communicate, and stopped making time for each other. He started working away a lot, and I don't think the separation did us any good.

"Now we're the best of friends. He is kind and caring, and it's a comfort to know I can rely on him. He's good company, he makes me feel less alone in the world, and he's a good listener. We spend most Saturdays together, we talk on the phone most days, we're openly affectionate, and go out to pubs and restaurants.

"My advice to people wanting to stay married is: manage your expectations, work hard at it; chill out over the details."

Peter says: "Carole and I couldn't live together but I still have strong feelings for her and I enjoy seeing her. For years we did the work, but there came a point when I think we both gave up, ran out of steam. I think the world's full of married couples who've given up but continue to occupy the same space because they can't raise the energy to change things. We did change things, and perhaps that's why we can now enjoy the best of each other in a close friendship."

Reunited: 'Nearly losing my marriage made me realise how much it mattered'

Janet and John Appleyard have been married for 46 years. In 1996 they separated, after John revealed he was having an affair with another woman. After six years of marital turmoil, they were reunited. Now 67 and 69 respectively, they live in the Yorkshire Wolds.

Janet says: "I can't believe we made it through what happened and are still together, quite honestly. When John told me what had been going on and we separated, it seemed as if my world had ended. We'd been together since I was 16, and I had never known any other man. My trust was shattered. I'd been betrayed and deceived by someone I had shared absolutely everything with, and there were times when I hated him.

"I think we ended up back together for the simple reason that I never stopped loving him, and I know he never stopped loving me. I asked him to come to counselling with me because we knew we had problems, but he came once then said he couldn't go again. So we've muddled through and somehow survived - something I never thought we would.

"Ultimately we both had a fundamental commitment to a marriage which has lasted virtually our entire lifetimes, and to staying together for the sake of our two daughters [one of whom is the author of this article]. I think a spirit of forgiveness has been central to the rebuilding of what we have, otherwise we'd have ended up in the divorce court."

John says: "My life has been defined by my family - by my wife and my daughters - and I missed them all so much when Janet and I separated. I realised the devastation I had caused and felt a huge sense of guilt for what I had put everyone through.

"Those feelings stained the new experience I was going through, and kept me thinking about how I couldn't imagine life without that family. Janet and I have been together since we were teenagers.

"We grew up together, we've spent a lifetime together, and we belong together.

"I can hardly talk about the importance of marriage vows, but the institution itself counts for something, and it took nearly losing my marriage for me to realise how much it mattered to me and how much I cherished the love and the family we'd created as part of it."