Five steps to married bliss

Protection, gratitude, focus, balance and pleasure - if these elements do not exist in your marriage, it is doomed, says Janet Reibstein - and after 20 years of working with unhappy couples, she should know. By David Cohen

David Cohen
Wednesday 26 February 1997 00:02

The trail of laughter leads past the half-finished pudding plates and up the stairs. There, five couples - who answer to the description "truly happily married" - are carrying on like love-sick rug-rats. They hold and touch their partners incessantly, gaze attentively at their spouses whenever they talk, and make sure never to be more than three inches apart. It's enough to make you throw up your creme brulee.

As a married friend of mine says, there is nothing so sick-making as to be in the presence of the HMC - self-consciously Happily Married Couple. Especially when you consider that these HMCs are not newly-weds, but that between them they have been happily married for going on 100 years.

One hundred years of happiness. Or is it, taking into account our tendency to forget pain, really a case of five years of happiness and 95 years of amnesia?

Even more galling, perhaps, is that these HMCs have maintained harmony without ever having spent a profligate penny on therapy.

These particular HMCs - the Happy Five - have been plucked from obscurity to feature in a forthcoming Channel 4 television series called Love Life precisely because they are meant to exemplify the secrets to marital success. The reason why they are all gathered in one room is for a post-production party at the west London home of the television producer Vicky Barrass.

Barrass's series is based on the ideas of Dr Janet Reibstein, a Cambridge- based psychologist and psychotherapist, whose new book, Love Life - How to Make Your Relationship Work (Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99), is published this week. Dr Reibstein says she decided to research and write the book "because after 20 years of working with unhappily married couples, I knew, partly from my own tempestuous but ultimately happy marriage of 22 years [to Stephen Monsell, also a psychologist, with whom she has two sons], and partly from couples that weren't going into therapy, that there was another side of the story."

It is a sign of our times that couples still smiling after 20 years of marriage should be worthy of scrutiny and study. With so many once-promising love affairs washed up on the doorstep of divorce, it has become pertinent to ask: what is it that makes the HMC tick? Is it merely, as Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, that "happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance", or is there a secret to their success?

With the help of cameras installed in the homes of the HMCs, as well as in the home of one apparently terminal couple, Dr Reibstein seeks to demonstrate that the secret of a long, happy marriage can be boiled down to five essential elements: protection; focus; gratitude; balance; and pleasure (see panel). Unless all five elements are present in a relationship, she insists, that marriage is doomed to failure.

To be fair, Dr Reibstein's book goes beyond the usual shopping list of key words and simplistic, cliched advice that has become the stock-in- trade of self-help books on marriage. Okay, she still refers to the importance of "developing effective communication", of "making time for each other" and the rules for "pulling out of downward spirals into conflict and resentment", but she also offers a novel theoretical framework for analysing why it is that some marriages succeed and others fail. She calls it her "theory of protective love", and what makes it interesting is that it flies in the face of current liberal and psychoanalytic thought on relationships.

The pivotal claim of Reibstein's theory of love is that happy couples place protection of each other at the centre of their lives.

"Just as we accept that dependence is a fundamental part of parental love, we need also to admit it is fundamental to adult love," she says. "But it is not popular to claim that adults should depend on each other.

"Independence is greatly admired and espoused by our culture, by feminism and by much of the psychoanalytic establishment. Maturity means `standing on your own two feet'; to be `your own person'.

"It follows that to need someone is regressive. Pathological, even. But this is not the language of love. To love someone is to be vulnerable to them and to have empathy for them. And you can only achieve that when you trust that your partner will protect and support you.

"It is because couples think that they have to become independent that they grow apart. Instead of the focus remaining on each other, the couple point the beam outwards, on their careers or their children, and begin to take each other for granted. Conflict sets in, good will evaporates, the couple become competitive rather than co-operative, and they descend into a spiral of ever-deepening resentment."

The remedy is not for warring couples to go into therapy, though therapy may be needed in dire cases. Rather, she prescribes a mindshift to a new, dependent model of relationships and maturity.

"You can do it yourself. But you have to stop protecting your own narrow self-interest and start seeing yourself as a couple again. You have to do the counter-intuitive thing. That takes self-awareness and self-monitoring. This is the main `work' which people speak of when they talk about `working at relationships'."

So far, so good. But what does "protective love" look like in practice? This is where the HMCs and the Channel 4 series step in. By placing cameras in the homes of the five HMCs and the one deadbeat couple whose relationship is in deep trouble, we, the public, are offered the opportunity to check it out for ourselves.

The fly-on-the-wall technique, when well edited, is usually a recipe for gripping television, but not in the case of these HMCs. Granted, the couples seem at ease and protective of each other, and we see Dr Reibstein's five key elements exemplified. But the couples talk in cliches, are inarticulate, come across as salt-of-the-earth types at best, and slightly pathetic and wooden at worst. As an advertisement for Dr Reibstein's theory, they fail to do the business because they make the "truly happy marriage" seem so dull and unappealing. They make you wonder: do I have to sacrifice all individuality and spark if I am to succumb to Dr Reibstein's "dependent model" of marital bliss?

One longs to see them come through a good fight, the true mettle of any "happy" marriage, but all you get are bland, angelic statements such as: "He sees no faults in me whatsoever" and "he's always been there for me". By sticking too closely to the "happy-script" and miscasting happiness as a permanent state of being, the couples lose credibility.

They also cuddle, smooch and pat each other's backsides at every opportunity, so much so that you begin to wonder how much is real and how much for the camera. As Vicky Barrass admits: "Each couple had the choice of when to turn on the video camera and when to turn it off. There's always the question of whether what you see corresponds to reality."

The most compelling visual case for Reibstein's thesis is the footage of the misery duo, David and Lynn Thomas. Both are unemployed and unable to afford therapy, so in return for half a dozen free sessions with Dr Reibstein, they offered themselves up as guinea pigs for the "beyond-hope" slot.

Initially this couple cannot bear to be in the same room. They never smile, never touch, hardly talk (unless it's to argue about David's children from his previous marriage), and watch television perched on opposite ends of the sofa. When Lynn fixes herself some tea, she doesn't offer any to David; when he pours himself a glass of water during a meal, he does not think to offer any to her.

There are no major rows. But it is a portrait of a couple who depend on each other for the bare minimum (both physically and emotionally), who are consequently in deep pain and seemingly unable to do anything about it.

Enter Dr Reibstein, to the theme tune: "I could be happy with you, if you could be happy with me".

The early sessions make seemingly no progress. One weekend, David and Lynn have a major fight, but he deletes the video. The television crew are disappointed. David is ready to chuck it all in.

But then a miraculous thing happens. Dr Reibstein has been giving them exercises to practise the key elements of protection, focus, gratitude and balance - they never quite got to pleasure - and David and Lynn's behaviour starts to change. David realises that he has been excluding Lynn from his relationship with his children. As his focus shifts towards Lynn, the balance alters, and Lynn, feeling more secure, begins to trust David. They start to show gratitude, and their positive behaviour is reinforced.

By the end they actually manage a kiss and a laugh. More to the point, six months after the sessions ended, at the post-production party for the couples, David and Lynn claim that Dr Reibstein's exercises have pointed them in the right direction and that they now class themselves as "happily married". To my eye, they still have some way to go, but the improvement is tangible.

And so the Happy Five have become the Happy Six. Perhaps, though, the following theme tune should be hummed in the background: six happy couples showing off their lives, one couple had a fight, and then there were five. Five happy couples go on TV, two hit a rough patch and then there were three.

Call me a cynic, but some people will do anything to get on to television. Even be happy

'Love Life' starts on Sunday, 2 March, at 7.30pm on Channel 4.

How to stay hitched

Protection: treating each other with delicacy and welcoming a degree of co-reliance

Focus: giving attention, time and energy to each other

Gratitude: demonstrating appreciation and acknowledging your partner's value to you

Balance: mutual give and take

Pleasure: enjoying your marriage and delighting in each other

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