Here’s a question for you: how long do you think the average marriage lasts? Celebrity gossip columns might have us believe that making it through the first year dusting off the pre-nup is an achievement, but according to the latest figures I can find the average British marriage lasts 11 years and 6 months. Okay, so that’s not too bad compared to most A-list couplings, but still – I’ve got items in my wardrobe that are older than that. All of which makes it doubly impressive that my mum and stepdad are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary today. Twenty-five years! That’s a quarter of a century and more than twice the national average.
As you may have gathered, I’m impressed and rather in awe. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a miracle that any marriages (or loving partnerships of any kind, whether officially ‘married’ or not) last for any length of time. Sure, you can love someone with all your heart. You can want to be with them above any other person; they’re the first person you want to speak to if you’ve got news, good or bad. They make you laugh, accept you for who you are and know you inside out. It’s the stuff of dreams and Hollywood movies, and it’s what gets some of us up the aisle in the first place. The reality, of course, is rather different.
Most of us don’t have the time to spend mooching about like the 21st century’s answer to Cathy and Heathcliff. We have jobs, children, chores and iPads. We have to find a way to live with each other without driving each other mad and while still preserving the love that started the whole thing off. Not always easy.
My husband and I have been married for five years – beginners by my mum and stepdad’s standards – and together for nine. We’re similar in many ways but different in others. We’re both from the north of England, middle class, well-educated and with divorced parents. We’re fairly forthright, talk more than we should and are pretty liberal. We both value a decent cup of tea, a good Danish drama and a nice glass of wine. We’ve both managed to forge a career in law, though each of us thinks we should or could be doing something different and more creative. We have very similar ideas as to how to spend our time, whether at home or on holiday. Thankfully we also had similar views on having a family.
Sometimes I think we’re very different, though. I love losing myself in a novel, but he goes straight to the non-fiction section of the bookstore. One highlight of my weekend is reading the Saturday Guardian from cover to cover, but he rarely reads the newspaper. In the past we’ve had some heated disagreements on politics – especially when the Boris v Ken debate engulfed London – but we’re beginning to agree more and more (I’m wearing him down). Likewise our views on private v state education have clashed in the past, as I had a great experience with the state sector and he didn’t. I’m a committed vegetarian whereas he’d eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner if he could. I love Coronation Street and getting to the bottom of the washing basket occasionally; he loves Top Gear but doesn’t notice if the washing basket is overflowing – he’ll just balance another shirt on top, Jenga style.
And therein lies the main issue for many couples, I think. It’s the everyday stuff, the mundane why-have-you-put-your-cup-ON-TOP-of-the-dishwasher-rather-than-IN-it, stuff that causes most of us to clash. It’s no-one’s fault. How to celebrate birthdays and Christmas, where to go on holiday, what newspaper to read, what to eat, drink and watch – so many of these things are ingrained in us from an early age by our parents. If you haven’t been brought up in the same household then why would you have the same views on tidiness, or anything else for that matter? When we were little, my brother used to drive me crazy. I thought he breathed too loudly, ate too loudly and was too noisy and untidy. And that’s someone I’d lived with for years, someone who’d been brought up in exactly the same way as me.
Maybe I’m just really intolerant, but I do think that two people in love choosing to be together forever is a tremendous act of optimism and courage. No-one ever tells you that it can be hard work to make it work; to focus on the good stuff and not get het up about the snoring and the socks on the floor. In my experience of marriage so far I’ve learnt that as well as love, you need tolerance, patience and an ability to compromise and bite your tongue. And, if you can afford it, a cleaner.