Remind me what I liked about you...
Five common relationship pitfalls - and how to solve them. And if your partner has gone from soulmate to stalemate, it's time to get that connection back...
He's becoming a millstone...
The problem: After years as a stay-at-home mum, you've gone back to work and the balance of power in your relationship has shifted. Whereas, once, you couldn't wait for your husband to get back from work to have some adult conversation, now you're rarely at home because you're either doing overtime or socialising with new colleagues. While you're embracing the change, your husband feels neglected and threatened - making you feel guilty for getting on with your life.
The reason: ‘It's in our nature to find a comfort zone and refuse to leave it,' says psychologist Dr Gary Wood, author of 'Sex, Lies And Stereotypes' (New Holland, £7.99). ‘So, if one partner shakes up that comfort zone by making big changes in their life, the other one is left feeling insecure and, often, resentful. It's as if, for years, your relationship has been coasting along, then suddenly the autopilot is taken off and you're going to have to start flying it yourself again.'
The solution: If your opposing work-life balances are starting to feel like an out-of-control seesaw, you need to try to get back in sync. Encourage your partner to stop seeing change as a problem and start seeing it as an opportunity. ‘The partner who's been left behind should stop feeling nostalgic for the way things were, and use their partner's new lease of life as a springboard to make changes of their own,' says Dr Wood. ‘Use it as a wake-up call. Are you happy doing what you're doing? If not, how can you change it?'
Meanwhile, a little sensitivity on the part of the ‘flying high' partner wouldn't go amiss. Remind your partner of his strengths and try to work out together different ways in which he could put those strengths to better use. Discussing how your relationship can benefit from the new and positive changes in one partner's life helps remind both of you that you're a team - and what's good for one is also good for the other.
No kids, no conversation...
The problem: For the first time since having kids, you're going on holiday without them. But, instead of looking forward to romantic meals, you're terrified you'll have nothing to talk about.
The reason: ‘Many parents fall into the habit of conducting their relationship through their children,' says Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and spokesperson for ParentLine Plus. ‘They become "Mum" and "Dad", rather than individuals. They might even start referring to one another as such, telling the children to "ask Mum" for this, or "tell Dad" this.' Once you've fallen into the habit of talking about the children or talking through them, it can be hard to imagine what on earth you'll talk about when the kids aren't there.
The solution: If you're facing your first holiday in years as a couple rather than a family, the best thing you can do, says Suzie, is plan. ‘We all have this romantic idea that things ought to happen spontaneously, but that can be a recipe for disaster. Don't just go to the same place you've gone to for the last five years - plan your holiday with care. Do you want to revisit a place you went to before the kids were born, or do you want to try something new? If you revisit an old haunt, the old memories may help recreate the intimacy you once had, whereas sharing new experiences will give you a sense of joint adventure and provide you with plenty of material to talk about.'
Libido is lagging...
The problem: In the early days of your relationship you often didn't get out of bed for days but, as circumstances have changed, so has your sex life. With demanding jobs and children, sex is often the last thing on your to-do list.
The reason: ‘Lots of relationships suffer from changes in libido,' explains Dr Wood. ‘It would be naive to expect the sexual marathon of the honeymoon period to last forever. That only happens in Hollywood movies. It's where the changes in libido are one-sided that the problems start.'
The solution:The key to the libido lag is to keep communicating - yes, even if you find it deeply embarrassing. ‘It may sound ridiculous, but deciding between you what's a reasonable amount of sex to be having often helps,' says Dr Wood. ‘Also look at the underlying reasons why your desire might have decreased. Maybe sex has become boring and needs re-charging. Your taste in clothes and music changes over the years, so why not your taste in sex? Or perhaps you're resentful of your partner for some other reason and it's coming out as avoidance of sex. Or it could just be that you're stressed about work or money and just don't have any surplus energy for sex.' Whatever the reason, it's important not to let a discrepancy in libido overshadow what might otherwise be a healthy, working relationship. ‘Keep talking about it - if necessary, through a counsellor,' says Dr Wood. ‘And keep the physical intimacy going, even if actual sex is off the cards.'
He's let himself go...
The problem: Although you make an effort to keep in shape, going to the gym three times a week, eating sensibly and block-booking six-weekly visits to the hairdresser, your husband doesn't see the point. Although he's still your best friend, his slobby ways and expanding waistline are making it hard to fancy him anymore.
The reason: ‘Many men just haven't caught up to the changing nature of relationships,' says Suzie. ‘Traditionally, women were defined by their looks and men by their earning power, so men didn't feel they had to look good in order to be sexually attractive. But it's different now.' As relationships have become more economically equal, there's more pressure on them to be physically equal as well. ‘It's not acceptable for women to work at looking young and slim while their men let themselves go. Physical attraction has to be there, too,' says Suzie.
The solution: As long as your man's slobbiness is literally skin-deep and not down to something more serious, such as depression, you're entitled to chivvy him up a little, says Dr Wood. Just be careful how you go about it. ‘Be diplomatic. He's much more likely to respond if you say you want him to get healthier, than if you tell him you find him physically repulsive. Make getting in shape something you do together - going to the gym or taking long walks. There's a lot of entertainment value in both sitting there with clay face masks on.' But, says Dr Wood, it's important to make sure you keep a sense of perspective. ‘If your partner looks after themselves to a normal degree, but you're still unhappy with the way they look, the problem could lie with you and your own sense of insecurity about getting older, rather than with him.'
Empty nest, empty marriage?..
The problem: You've just dropped your youngest child off at their university halls of residence, and realise that, for the first time in decades, it's just you and your partner again. The last time you had dinner for two was when you were loved-up newlyweds, but now it's like sitting opposite a stranger.
The reason: When the complicated dynamics of family life are abruptly severed, it can leave a huge void which, although temporary, can appear terrifiying. ‘Some couples get so bound up in the business of earning a living and raising a family, that they don't really look at one another properly from one year to the next,' says Penny Mansfield, Director of One Plus One, the relationship research organisation. ‘Then the youngest child leaves home and they suddenly think: "Who are you?" and "If we didn't have kids, would I be with you?"'
The solution: ‘Couples need to re-experience what it is to flirt and to be lovers,' says Penny. ‘If it's difficult to reconnect, it can help to find ways to be apart from each other - getting involved in different projects and interests - which you then talk about at home, giving you a new way to re-engage.'
Suzie also advises getting to know one another all over again, using the ‘eggtimer' technique. ‘The rules are that one person has two minutes to talk while the other listens and then you swap,' she says. ‘It's very difficult at first, but when it works and when you've been heard for the first time in years, it can be amazing.'