Every month, we scan our bank statement; every year we scrabble to file our tax returns – but isn’t there a far more important audit we’re missing?
In any long-term relationship, there is an unspoken list of checks and balances. If too many grievances start to land in the debit column, a marriage can start to go under. Why not mine?
On paper, granted, things don’t look bad. Having “filed” our first decade of marriage, my husband and I have seen a fair return – house with shed, kids with each other – but what of the future? His hair could fall out, my bottom could drop – and, believe me, the curve’s looking ugly: of the UK couples who wed the same year as us, one in five has already divorced, with numbers rising year on year.
Can you blame me for being worried? Scan the bookshop shelves, scroll through the internet, and you’re bombarded with marriage tips and relationship “red flags” – waved by everyone from preachers to counsellors, self-help authors to smug-mum bloggers. Believe this lot, and marriage isn’t a safe harbour but a conjugal knife-edge.
My husband doesn’t see it that way, of course. We’ve got a roof over our head, haven’t we? Kids under our feet. Sit him down for a Useful Examination of our Marriage, and I won’t get past, “Are we spiritually aligned?”, before he’s passed out into his soup.
Accepting that the future of our family lies in my hands, I decided to take the moral high ground – and spy on him. Well, spy on us. Distilling the advice, observations and buzzwords of countless self-help experts, I would compile a “definitive list” of criteria for a healthy marriage. Over the course of a humdrum week, I’d then judge us against it. Would our marriage prove the solid enterprise I hoped? Or a house of cards, liable to collapse at the next gust of marital wind?
The marriage checklist
Here are my findings…
‘You are active together’
We used to be. Light years ago, my husband and I ran together, skinny-dipped together and climbed up Welsh mountains. Contrast with this week: our sole shared activity was tracking down our kids (“Is he still on the loo?”; “She’s stuck in that box again”), then dragging them off to places nobody particularly wanted to visit (the dump; Devizes).
Over the week, I note we stomp around each other quite a lot, but the energy expended is not the kind to create togetherness, endorphins or nutcracker thighs. Divorce looks imminent.
‘You are both happy with the division of chores’
Let the point-scoring begin. Monday morning, Mat put his clothes in the washing machine. Monday night, I took them out. Tuesday morning, I bought ingredients for fish pie. Tuesday night, he cooked it. Wednesday, I could go, on, but we would all of us die of boredom. Suffice to say, recording all the chores performed this week made me wonder a) how we ever find time to talk, and b) why is our house still a tip?
‘You respect each other’s fighting styles’
Relax, people. This isn’t a cue for Middle England to pull on boxing gloves and “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Sadly, it just means, “Do you allow your spouse to express emotion? Does he take ‘time out’ to formulate his argument? Does he –”
Nope, sorry, I don’t have time for this. Nor does he. A proper row takes energy, and we have none. So Mat and I take the passive-aggressive route instead – mostly around the kitchen. This week saw a fine display of our (trademarked) Married Martyr Moves, such as – abandoning breakfast when access to the toaster wasn’t instant/seizing the dustpan and sweeping pointedly/looking bleakly at the contents of the fridge, while muttering, “Still? No cheese?”
Upshot? Nothing was resolved. We’ll be back in the ring next week (and there’ll still be no cheese).
‘You hug after any time apart’
Phew. Some high scores at last, especially from my husband. He’s a great bear-hugger. But the audit got me wondering… is he giving affection? Or sometimes buying time? Take Monday morning – he came into the bedroom, half-dressed, and swung me around till he’d got a fix on his socks. Thursday afternoon, as the kids swarmed for tea, he clutched me like a human shield. Friday night, he staggered in from work, wrapped me in his arms and, briefly, went to sleep on my head.
I can’t complain, however: a week’s audit reveals he hugs me rather more than I hug him. Probably because I’m always carrying crockery.
‘After all these years, you still love the smell of your partner’s neck’
I have no words. Nor does my Yorkshire mother-in-law who, on hearing this statement, laughed so hard that I thought she’d come off her chair.
‘You say, “I love you”, frequently’
Really? Like sappy Americans? Can’t I just show my love in Great British ways, like making him tea and not joining Tinder? (Full disclosure: on Tuesday, I did try to sign up to the dating app – “for a laugh” – but Mat got stern. “It’s a slippery slope, Tash. We must never know what’s out there.”)
When I do start listening for “I love you”, I’m struck by the different registers it can come in. Heading out for a tough work day, Mat says it like an officer to his batman, going over the top. That night, in bed, I say it in a rush of gratitude: he’s just watched me floss my teeth and bazooka my verruca, yet he’s still here?! Then I realise we’ve reached the life-stage where any passion is merely panic. “I love you” means “DON’T LEAVE ME!!”
‘You don’t put your kids before your marriage’
Easier said than done, when they’re perpetually planting themselves between us. Snogging Mat, I can’t recall the last time something poked against my waist and it wasn’t a child.
By Sunday night, the audit results are clear: we both spend more time hugging our kids than each other – but only just. And sod it, why can’t we? We have such a short time with our children – so cuddly and keen – whereas Mat and I could have years together, clasped in an arthritic hand-lock.
‘You value face time over screen time’
Meaningful conversation is required. Apparently, healthy couples don’t “escape” from each other to their digital devices. But where else is there to go? Monday sees Mat and me all over the place like headless chickens. When we do sit down to supper together, it’s a triumph. “Let’s not speak,” I say. “It’ll only spoil things.” So we turn to our screens – plural. (The heady days when we endured each other’s execrable tastes are long gone. If I have only 20 minutes’ viewing time, I’m not spending it on Vikings). Earphones in, we watch our separate iPads. After a while, Mat gives me a friendly nudge: “I like to see you laugh.” We kiss, and it’s like I’m laughing at something he’s said, not The Graham Norton Show on catch-up.
‘You prioritise sex’
Great idea. In reality, like most knackered parents, we try to table sex somewhere between “Not Driving off Beachy Head” and “Bin Day”. That said, the week started well – with Mat returning from a work-trip and triggering our One-Hour Rule. (He’s away a lot. We’ve found the best way to ride out fraught reunions is to have sex within the first 60 minutes, no matter how little either of us wants to.)
Subsequent encounters were fun, he only kept his jumper on the once, and food preparation stood in for foreplay. (Him: “I’ve put the spaghetti on.” Me: “Right, let’s do it!” Him: “Are you sure? It’s easy-cook.” Me: “We’re fine.”)
The final picture wasn’t 9½ Weeks, just seven weary days in Wiltshire, but heck, we’re still doing it. Crucially, we’re still doing it with each other.
‘You have fun together’
Mmm… depends on one’s definition of fun, doesn’t it? Ours is definitely getting looser. On Sunday, we “make the most” of a six-hour motorway trip – and buy an audiobook. Ten minutes into Girl on a Train, husband and wife are united in middle-aged confusion: “What did she say?”; “How do I press rewind?”; “Shouldn’t we turn on to Traffic News for a bit?”
Yet it was the highlight of our week. So should I stop lamenting the scarcity of our time together – and see it as a boon? Something to keep us “exotic”? When Mat and I do enjoy a brief encounter – crossing on the stairs, emerging from the bread bin – it’s surprisingly fun. We don’t engage in sexy sparring, more a rolling news feed (the GP’s told Mat to beware a “craggy prostate”; our youngest is singing show tunes to the postman), but it’s enough to raise a chuckle. Perhaps raising the roof can wait?
Audits have their place, I decide: in the office. One’s marriage is one’s home, and it doesn’t pay to look at the cracks too closely. Especially if cracks are all they are. (Were Mat and I slaving 14-hour days to bring up kids on a minimum wage, I’d be stressing about a lot more than “Does he blow in my ear?”)
Nevertheless I’m glad I did it. It stopped me taking my marriage for granted – for one week, at least – and persuaded me to hug more, praise more and (for once) give the last word to my husband.
Turns out he didn’t want it. When offered a chance to digest my audit findings, he declined. “If things were that bad, Tash, I hope you’d be contacting a marriage counsellor, not publishing your results in a national newspaper.”