Is being in love a distant memory? Couples therapist Andrew G Marshall teaches techniques to revive flagging long-term relationships – Joanna Moorhead tries some of them out.
Today started, for my husband, like any other day. Grumpy at 5.30am,
he woke to the equally grumpy tones of James Naughtie (they are both
Scottish, and I sometimes wonder if perhaps they are related), before
proceeding – as usual – to edit me out of his morning as he focused on
the news on the radio, having his bath, finding his cufflinks and
heading out to get the train to work.
But on the doorstep, something happened. Normally we just bark “bye”
to one another, usually from opposite ends of the house. Today, though, I
was waiting at the front door as he left. I stood close to him. I said
his name. I touched his shoulders. And then I kissed him, on the lips.
Gary was alarmed. Not just a bit alarmed – seriously rattled. He
backed off and stared at me as though I’d grown a second head, and said:
“What on earth is going on?:
I laughed. He looked at me as though I’d truly lost it, then saw his
chance to get past me on to the pavement and scuttled off towards the
station. Whew, he was probably thinking. That was weird.
It was weird, but here’s the thing. That was love. Or at
least, it’s the sort of thing people who are in love do. Gary and I have
been married for 28 years – being in love is just a distant memory.
Somewhere inside we do care and respect and look out for one another,
but these days the focus of our relationship is our children. We have
pretty separate lives and it’s a long time since the focus for either of
us was the other one.
Couples like us are prime contenders to start the new year by calling
a divorce lawyer because, really, how easy is it to stay married on and
on and on into the future? How easy is it to stay married when so many
marriages around you are ending in divorce? How easy is to stay married
when you can’t quite remember, most days, what made you decide to team
up with the other person anyway and when their habits drive you more to
derision than distraction?
It’s definitely not easy, as the bestselling marital therapist Andrew G Marshall would be the first to agree. As his book I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You,
which has already sold more than 100,000 copies in 20 languages, is
reissued to mark the 10th anniversary of its publication, we are sitting
in his local tea shop in Sussex, eating carrot cake and drinking tea,
and pondering the $64m question: do all these couples who will be
lifting the phone to their lawyers next week really need to do that?
Could they still save their marriages?
The thing is, says Marshall, that in the decade since he first wrote
the book, more of us believe it’s at least worth another punt. “People
used to say, how can we ever fall in love again?” he says. “But these
days there’s more of a realisation that people have built a wall in
their relationship and they can take the wall down again.”
Also, many more people are open to the idea of therapy. “Thirty years
ago, if you went to see a therapist it would have been regarded as odd,
whereas now I’m surprised if I meet anyone who has never seen a
therapist. The more we understand ourselves, the less likely we are to
have a car crash.”
At the core of Marshall’s relationship credo – the truth he says he
wants to dedicate his career to furthering – is that no marriage, no
partnership, is ever all plain sailing. “It’s my all-time ambition to be
remembered as the man who exploded the myth of soul partners,” he says.
“That idea that you’ll find someone you’re so in tune with and so
similar to and that you’ll never have any arguments or problems in your
life is at the heart of 95% of all relationship problems.”
So here are two big truths: no relationship is ever perfect, and
every relationship requires hard work to survive. A lot of hard work,
and then some. The funny thing is, says Marshall, that it’s in the very
differences between us – the snarls and grumbles and shortcomings – that
the space for growth and betterness lies. “Too many couples bury the
nasty bits – they avoid arguments, but what they don’t realise is that
it’s the conflict and challenge in a relationship that helps it grow,”
“What I want people to realise is that it’s OK to argue and actually
that’s the best way of repairing your relationship. Arguing is very
intimate: you have to care enough about someone to want to have it out
with them. Often it’s easier to let something go than to have an
argument. But that’s another brick in the wall in a relationship.”
One of the big issues with long-term togetherness is that we have
very poor linguistics relating to what constitutes love. “I love my
partner and I love this carrot cake, but the two loves are very
different things,” says Marshall. “Yet it’s the same word. But love is
so many different things. And what our society most focuses on as love –
and what we seem to most believe love is about – is something that
would more properly be called limerence.”
Coined by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the mid-1960s, limerence is the experience of being in love;
it’s a vital stage of a couple’s love journey, the foundations in many
ways of the whole relationship – but contrary to the Hollywood myth of
happy ever after, it’s only ever a prequel to more settled forms of
ongoing love as months turn to years and the years become decades.
According to Marshall, there are six distinct stages to a couple’s
love journey: limerence, blending, self-affirming, collaborating,
adapting and renewing. All of them are about love, but only limerence is
about that aching heart, that spring in the step, that total inability
to focus on anything else but the object of desire. As he says in his
book, it’s that moment in West Side Story when Maria sings I Feel Pretty.
It’s life-giving and bubbly and beautiful and magical, and we can all
sing it in our heads, but it’s not the only part of the movie – and
perhaps more importantly, when Maria’s friends sing about how she’s
crazy, insane and in an advanced state of shock, they are right.
Limerence is a bit of madness – the bit of madness, perhaps, that we all
long for in our lives. “I always say, if that’s the stage you’re at
then enjoy every minute,” says Marshall. “Because it’s absolutely
And it’s the madness that everything else is built on.
“People say what’s the craziest thing anyone has ever done for love?”
says Marshall. “I say the craziest thing any of us has ever done was to
open our home and our bank account, and our heart, to an absolute
The only reason any of us does that is limerence; but the reason we
are still with the other person decades later is because of all those
other love stages.
Like all therapists, Marshall is coy about his own story. What he
will say is that he started out as a radio journalist, and it was while
brokering a phone-in show one day with a marriage guidance counsellor
that he had a lightbulb moment.
“I was almost shaking as I listened because I suddenly knew this was what I wanted to do.”
He went to what was then the Marriage Guidance Council, now Relate,
and trained as a therapist in the mid-1980s – at this stage, he
recalls, the job was voluntary. He reckons he has counselled more than
3,000 couples in the decades since and 17 more books have followed his
original I Love You But … All he’ll confirm about his own love story is
that he is in a relationship, and that he tries (though sometimes fails)
to live by his own rules.
So what are his rules? Well, the first one is that it’s all too easy,
in a long term relationship, to start living in silos and to be
convinced that nothing will ever make your partner change. You get stuck
in ruts and you become certain that nothing will ever be any different.
But you are wrong, says Marshall. OK, so you can’t force your partner
to behave differently but you can change yourself. And by changing
yourself, you could trigger changes in your partner – and, in time,
everything else. “It’s like the mother who says to her child who has
been in a row, you’ve got to be the big person here. You’ve got to make
There is simply no knowing, he says, what might happen when you
introduce a bit of kindness, a bit of intimacy, a bit of connection.
Hence Gary’s weird encounter with me on the front step this morning –
that device to reconnection is a Marshall suggestion for how to
And, he says, there are lots more little things you can do to change
things in a stale relationship. “One fabulous habit to get into is
actually being in the same room as the other one when you’re speaking,”
he says. “And look into one another’s eyes – that’s a great thing to do
It’s also important to try to recognise your partner’s love language:
he or she might just be doing the washing, or tidying the kitchen, or
shopping, but underlying it is an act of love that should be named and
acknowledged. Eating together gets another big Marshall tick. So, too,
more controversially, does putting your partner first, rather than the
children. “The way I see it a marriage is for ever, but the children are
just passing through.”
But what message does he have for those couples who are thinking that they may be at the end of the road?
Marshall is not in favour of couples hanging on in there at any
price: if the relationship is abusive or dead, then you’re right to get
out. But there’s often a bit more road to be travelled and the process
of trying to negotiate it can be healing even if you do eventually
divorce. “Trying to save your marriage puts you into a win-win
situation. Even if you separate, you’ll have learned to be better
co-parents. It will also help you with the mourning process that’s an
inevitable part of marriage breakup. So whatever happens, you’ll be in a
All things considered, I’m not quite ready to give up. At supper in a
brasserie, I slip off a shoe under the table and gently slide my foot
on top of my husband’s. “Eeergh!” he shouts. “There’s a mouse under the
But when I’ve calmed him down, and we’ve assured the waiter it was a
false alarm, we do both laugh for ages. And it feels good. If I find out
where the headlights are, even though it’s a dark night, I think there
might still be some road ahead for us.