Forget Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up by a gust of wind as she stands over the subway grate, titillating your husband at around the seven-year mark. Your husband may just be standing at the MRT station one day when wham! – he suddenly realises you’re not The One after all. Apparently, that happens a lot around the three-year mark.
The seven-year itch has now been replaced by what UK relationship experts call “the three-year ditch”. The term became trendy after Netmums, a UK parenting website, conducted a survey that found that couples are four-and-a-half times more likely to split after just three years than they are after seven years.
In Singapore, a 2003 study published in the Subordinate Courts Research Bulletin revealed that out of 50 couples undergoing civil divorce proceedings, 65 per cent reported marital problems within the first five years of saying “I do”. The study surmised that the “critical period” for couples is the first four years of marriage.
“Everyone has expectations for what their marriage will be like,” explains Melbourne-based counselling psychologist Louise Cooper. “It is usually in the first few years that a couple realises their marriage is falling short of these expectations.”
A newly married couple is also under pressure to adapt to a new lifestyle and family, says Christina Spaccavento, a Sydney-based sex and relationship therapist. “It can be a tough time,” she adds. The Netmums survey also highlighted how having children during this time can put added strain on young couples.
So, three years into your marriage, watch out for these culprits that could bring your happily-ever-after to a premature end.
PROBLEM #1: “WE LEAD SEPARATE LIVES”
Two years after Melanie* married Thomas*, she asked herself if her marriage was a mistake. She had been speaking to a close friend and let slip that she’d barely spoken to Thomas in over a week, even though they lived together. Melanie thought this was normal because of their busy work schedules. Her friend told her it wasn’t, and that got her thinking.
“Thomas and I are both lawyers. We work very hard, sometimes well into the night and even on weekends,” she shares. “We seldom went on holidays together in the first two years. We thought, ‘Now that we’re married, we have to get serious about our careers and work hard to build our financial future.’”
But while they were building up their nest egg, the couple missed out on quality time together and heart-to-heart talks. Their passionate lovemaking dwindled to twice monthly because they were both always tired. In effect, they led separate lives.
Just like your car needs its weekly petrol fill-ups, your marriage needs regular “check-ins” to keep it going. Sit down with your husband for a heart-to-heart talk. “Ask him about how he feels, his needs, and any concerns he may have,” says Christina. And be open to what he has to say.
After some soul searching, Melanie decided to talk to Thomas about the problem. Luckily, he was on the same page. He too felt that the marriage was slowly falling apart but wasn’t sure how to bring it up to Melanie. The couple promised to invest more time into the relationship, communicate more, and go on regular dates.
In the last three months, they’ve had weekly date nights, enjoyed several weekend meals together at home, and are now planning a second honeymoon in Maldives later this year.
PROBLEM #2: “WE’VE LOST THE PASSION”
Lana*, a teacher, missed the romance of the earlier years of her relationship. “Dennis* used to be very attentive, buying me flowers, writing me love notes and organising surprise dates. All this gradually stopped as we settled into married life and grew busier with our careers.” To turn things around, she started planning romantic weekend getaways and cooking special meals. But she stopped trying after a year, realising that she was the only one making any effort.
The turning point came when one day, Lana joked that Dennis didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. He took it personally and they ended up arguing. Lana shares: “I told him that I felt unimportant and neglected. These feelings hadn’t arisen out of the blue; they had grown over time.”
If you feel your marriage has lost its spark and spontaneity, take action, Louise advises. “Talk about things that are not working for you soon after they happen. Don’t just hope the problems will go away – they won’t. Things won’t change if your husband doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong,” she says.
After talking things through with Lana, Dennis realised that he’d taken her for granted. “It’s not that I didn’t care – I just got complacent,” he says. “Maybe I felt that I didn’t need to impress her so much since she was already my wife.” He vowed to do more to make Lana feel that she mattered. “It was the little things that she cared about, not so much the grand gestures,” Dennis explains.
“So now we take turns doing nice things for each other, such as preparing meals, giving back or foot massages, and offering to run errands.” Lana says their marriage is now a lot stronger. “I’m happier knowing that I’m still the centre of his world,” she says.
PROBLEM #3: “WE CAN’T STOP ARGUING”
Like many dating couples, Angela Wu, a human resources executive, and Raymond*, had their share of petty squabbles. But after exchanging vows, their fights got a lot more heated.
Raymond claimed that Angela hated his family, while Angela felt that he was stubborn, “spineless” and uncompromising. She says: “He allowed his family, especially his mum, to direct his life.”
A major sore point was Raymond’s brother moving in with the pair after losing his job. Angela was miffed that she hadn’t been consulted and wanted her brother-in-law out. “Raymond accused me of being unsupportive and uncaring. Then my mother-in-law got involved, telling me how selfish I was. Raymond never took my side and I felt that they were all ganging up on me,” she says. Raymond, on the other hand, felt that his wife was trying to drive a wedge between him and his family.
The two would have yelling matches that usually ended with Raymond storming off or giving her the silent treatment for days. When they started speaking again, they would act as if nothing had happened. “We just carried on in this vicious circle.”
In the end, the couple separated for a couple of months, after two years of marriage. “By that time, even the sight of Raymond made me sick. So I moved in with a friend,” says Angela.
Continuous fighting without resolution will kill a marriage. Work on the way you handle your disagreements, and learn to find solutions and compromise.
A few months into their separation, Raymond and Angela realised that they missed each other, so they went for marriage counselling. Through this, Raymond learnt that he had to compromise by not giving in to his family all the time. Angela realised she had to be more understanding and accept that Raymond was close to his family.
At the counselling sessions, they also learnt how to talk about what was bothering them without resorting to yelling at each other. “Patience, compromise, compassion and open-mindedness – these are the qualities we were taught to cultivate in our marriage,” Angela explains. “After three months of counselling, our love was rekindled, but it took a lot of work.”
Some compromises they made: Raymond’s mum couldn’t pop over unannounced, and he agreed to take Angela’s side if his mother said something nasty or unwarranted to her. In return, Angela would stop whingeing about his family, and try to temper her jealous and controlling nature.
Thanks to their commitment to make things work, the couple have made it to their fifth year of marriage and now have a one-year-old son. Angela’s main takeaway: “Sometimes in a marriage, you have to take a step back to realise that it’s not all about you.”
*Names have been changed.
This story was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Her World.