https://www.smh.com.au-By Alix O’Neill
At the lowest ebb of her marriage, Cat Sims would quickly jump into the shower on waking each morning to avoid speaking to her husband, Jimmy.
“I knew he would end up saying the wrong thing as far as I was concerned,” she recalls. “Nobody had done anything wrong. We’d just come to the point where we felt constantly disappointed by each other.”
“This is an obsessive doubt that you’re with the wrong partner, despite being with someone loving, with whom you’re well matched.”Credit:Stocksy
When she first met musician Jimmy at a gig in 2007, Cat, who runs the lifestyle blog Not So Smug Now, felt instantly at ease. “I was more comfortable with him than I had been with anyone else. We just clicked,” she says. Five years later, they had a low-key wedding in France and went on to have two daughters, now aged five and three. But cracks started to appear after their first was born.
“It was a traumatic labour, then a month later Jimmy had to go on tour. I felt lonely and isolated. He would come home and think the right thing to do was to take the baby off my hands, but it made me feel like a terrible mother.
“Jimmy resented me for not holding it together while he worked, and I was angry at him for failing to understand how hard it was.”
It took three-and-a-half years of therapy for the couple to work through this. At one stage, for three long months, the therapy conversations were the only time Cat and Jimmy actually spoke to one another. “We knew everything we said outside of counselling would end in a fight,” says Cat.
But, over time, they worked through it. “It took us a long time to realise there wasn’t anything wrong with our relationship – we’d just found ourselves in bad circumstances.”
Few marriages are immune to the strains of modern life – who hasn’t kept a mental score sheet of their partner’s domestic efforts, or lack thereof? But we live in an age of curated perfection where the pressure to get it right, from our bodies to our relationships, has never been greater.
Not long ago, an unsolicited box of chocolates would have been considered romantic. Now, social media is setting the bar higher: remember Kim Kardashian’s Valentine’s Day Instagram post, in which husband Kanye West treated her to a private audience with saxophonist Kenny G amid a sea of long-stemmed roses?
“You see these ‘perfect relationships’ and it’s easy to compare your own marriage,” says Cat. “Even friends rarely admit they’re struggling in their marriages. We complain about wet towels lying on the floor, but nobody actually says, ‘This towel is a sign of a bigger thing to me and I’m really miserable.’
“Jimmy and I hated each other for a while. I even had a flat ready to move into. But [for friends and family], we were faking it. In the end I said, ‘We have to stop pretending that everything is OK.’ ”
We all compare our relationships to others’ at times, explains Sheryl Paul, the author of The Wisdom of Anxiety. But the danger lies when we allow unrealistic expectations of love to take hold – a phenomenon known as “relationship anxiety”.
“This is an obsessive doubt that you’re with the wrong partner, despite being with someone loving, and with whom you’re well matched,” Paul says.
“It can come after three, five, even 20 years together. One cause is when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re sold a message that our partner is supposed to make us feel fulfilled, alive and rescue us from pain. When we don’t have that, we think there must be something wrong, that we’re not in love enough. But real love includes doubt, fear and feeling irritated with our partner.”
For Cat, the turning point was recognising the impact that postnatal depression had on her marriage.
“For the first time, I realised we were in this place because we both went through a tough period,” she says. “Today we go on dates and communicate regularly. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re happier than we have been in a long time.”
A study last year by match.com revealed that 60 per cent of people in a relationship felt that films, TV and social media had given them unrealistic expectations, while a quarter confessed that their relationship looked better online than it was in real life.
Influencer Marissa Fuchs and her partner Gabriel Grossman came under fire last year for posting a video of their elaborate “surprise” engagement – reports suggested that it was, in fact, carefully marketed. How are lesser mortals meant to compete?
Victoria Jennings claims the pressure for the perfect relationship intensified an already difficult period in her marriage. After the 39-year-old’s first daughter Ana, now 10, was born, she says she struggled to relate to her husband, Dave. “I felt he didn’t understand me, how I was feeling.
We wouldn’t speak in the evenings or at weekends. All I wanted to do was sleep while he looked after Ana.”
Going through Dave’s emails and discovering he’d been looking for an alternative place to live, she says, was the wake-up call she needed to help get her marriage back on track.
“Nowadays we’re bombarded with images of the ideal relationship. But things change when you have children. Before kids, our texts were all, ‘I love you, can’t wait to see you tonight,’ followed by lots of kisses. After you have a baby, it’s, ‘Can you bring home some maternity pads?’ – no kiss. I questioned whether Dave was right for me, but I now realise that what we went through happens to lots of people.”
Psychotherapist Lola Borg explains that there’s often a gap between what we have in a relationship and what we think we should have.
“For example, if you have a relationship that doesn’t start with a thunderclap, you might wonder if you’re missing out. The reality is, if you’re with someone for a long time, things can get flat. To expect it to be otherwise is a mistake.
“But if you’re critical of your partner, it’s worth looking at your own life and your expectations of yourself. It might be about you and not about them.”
When the second of their two children left home, former stay-at-home mum Lauren*, 53, started to question her 30-year marriage to Andrew*. “We never had any major disagreements. But I started to wonder if I’d settled down too soon.
“I started to feel taken for granted. I remember watching Diane Keaton’s character in the rom-com Something’s Gotta Give. She went to Paris for the weekend with Keanu Reeves and came home with Jack Nicholson. I thought, ‘Now that’s living.’ ”
After explaining to Andrew that she hadn’t been happy for months, Lauren decided to spend a month with a friend who lived in Italy.
“I read books, explored villages, went for lunches by myself. It was the adventure I needed to put things into perspective,” she says. “When I came home, I realised just how much I’d missed Andrew and our life together. I guess I took my marriage for granted.”
High expectations of romantic love are something Natasha Lunn has encountered frequently, as the founder and editor of the biweekly email newsletter, Conversations on Love.
“The problem is the assumption that finding love will fix all of your problems and make you happy. Unless you find a way to build that happiness outside of a romantic relationship, it is actually difficult to be a good partner – and to receive love, too.”
Borg suggests examining how you are with your partner and asking certain questions: Are you yourself, and can you talk honestly? Can they listen? Do you share the same values? Do you respect them? “All the other stuff is icing on the cake and can be dealt with.”
For Lauren, the time apart from her husband gave her the chance to ask those questions. “I knew deep down Andrew wasn’t the problem. It was me. I just didn’t know what to do with myself after the kids left.
“And actually, Andrew is a bit of a romantic at heart. Every night he’ll put toothpaste on my toothbrush and leave it out for me. It’s not Jack Nicholson pouring his heart out on the Pont Neuf, but it’s our love story.”
* Names have been changed.
Five ways to anxiety-proof your relationship
Stay off social media as much as possible to minimise comparisons.
Try some form of inner work: journalling, meditation or yoga. This will help take the focus off your relationship.
Reduce your alcohol intake. Studies have indicated a link between alcohol and anxiety.
Spend time in nature; it’s the most effective way to connect to something bigger than you.
Recognise that anxiety is a message. It is there to tell you that there’s healing to be done.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 26.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)