Six 'F' words that can implode a marriage

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

After working the relationship beat at Time magazine for a decade, Belinda Luscombe came up with a list of six fault lines that can implode a marriage.

They're all F-words.

Familiarity. Fighting. Family. Finances. Fooling around. Finding help.

She expands on each of the categories in a delightful new book, "Marriage-ology: The Art and Science of Staying Together," which draws on her years of collecting data, noting patterns, poring over peer-reviewed journal articles and interviewing couples counsellors, sex therapists, financial advisers, sociology and psychology professors, consumer behaviour experts and regular ol' married folks.

She weaves in anecdotes and lessons from her own marriage, and the resulting book is a hoot. And helpful.

"If I could talk about marriage to my wife with the intelligence and humour that Belinda Luscombe does in this book," writer Joel Stein offers in a blurb, "I'd be having a lot more sex."

There's no shortage of books about preserving and sustaining a marriage, Luscombe acknowledges. But it's an ever-changing institution - we need it for different reasons than we used to, we expect different things from it than we used to, we wage culture wars over it in ways we didn't use to.

"Then there are the shock waves of globalism, massive digital innovation and the information revolution; seismic shifts that have all shaped the intimate little bond between two people," she writes. "Alongside those, a swarm of smaller changes have also buffeted its boundaries: the renaissance of the city, marriage equality, gender fluidity, Netflix, texting, the iPhone, Blue Apron, free online porn, #MeToo."

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The advice is not rocket science. But it's framed in an approachable way and surrounded by science, which invites you, as you read, to go, "Am I doing that? Should I be?"

"With any habitual behaviour, the easiest way to change it is to start small," she writes. "Making a few slight tweaks to the way you treat your spouse can have a huge payoff."

She suggests forming this habit:

1. Notice something good your spouse did. (Actively look for it, if you have to.)

2. Thank them for doing it.

3. Do not immediately follow this expression of gratitude with any caveats, if at all possible. ('Thanks so much for cooking dinner but I think you used up all the good Parmesan': UNACCEPTABLE. 'Thanks so much for lighting the fire': ACCEPTABLE.)

She suggests considering and protecting your marriage like an entity in and of itself, the way athletes consider and work for the good of their own fortunes, but also their team's.

"There is your lover and then there is the partnership you have made together, the marriage or the relationship, which has its own value," she writes. "You're not just there for him or her or you, but also for some third thing that exists beyond the two of you."

If there are kids in the mix, she recommends remembering you are more than parents.

"The kids are not the reason you got together; they're a very absorbing project you have undertaken with each other, like a three-dimensional mobile jigsaw puzzle that talks back and leaves its underwear in the bathroom," she writes.

Equally dividing the work of parenting helps. Luscombe interviewed one mother who described her and her husband's approach to child-rearing as, "one of us robbing the bank and the other driving the getaway car."

And the kids should not always be in the getaway car.

"Sometimes this kind of partnership will require taking a vacation without the kids," Luscombe writes. "On other occasions it will simply require remembering to put the other adult above the kids now and then."

She suggests getting comfortable and honest about the way you approach money and its role in your marriage.

"One school of thought even argues that money is the first subject therapists should address," she writes, "because it flings open the door to what's really going on in people's interior lives and gets at the root of so many issues that bedevil relationships: family of origin, boundaries, trust, conflict and power."

She suggests scheduling sex, even if that seems lame.

"What else do you do in your life that's of value to you that's not planned?" sex researcher Lori Brotto tells Luscombe. "Really, nothing. When you plan sex and you talk about it, it opens up possibilities to fantasy and anticipation, and actually thinking about the factors that give rise to a pleasurable sexual encounter."

The book is surprisingly sweet.

"There is within most of us a deep desire to be in an intimate relationship with another person," Luscombe writes. "Not to just have a playmate, but the full megillah, a husband or a wife or another warm body who is only ours and who cares for us as for no other, and who has promised to accompany us for the whole journey, all the way to the end of the map."

And it's nice to have directions.

Chicago Tribune