Keeping the magic alive after ‘I do’

My good friends Laura and Raj were married yesterday; today, they have very sensibly started their married life together with a seminar. The subject under discussion was prompted by the title of a book Laura once saw in a guesthouse in Scotland: How To Be Happy Though Married. Here surely is one of life’s tougher challenges. How I wish I could take part in this think-tank to bring my own experience – married, divorced, now living with a woman who runs shrieking from the room at the mention of marriage – to this important subject.

Do not have a joint bank account. A bank balance can reflect, with surprising accuracy, the state of your inner life. It is important not to lose your sense of self in a marriage, and nothing erodes individuality quite like a joint account. Even if you have a household account into which you both pay, devise a system to keep your finances apart. The alternative is grim: every time she shows off a new dress, or he a pair of smart new shoes, it will cause a wince of pain where there should be pleasure.

Walk. Even without a dog, it is worth walking together, preferably without chatting away on mobile phones. The madness of the world will be kept at bay for those few minutes. You can have a conversation without looking at one another – sometimes an aid to frankness.

Avoid shopping together. There is an intimate rhythm to shopping, a mood (impatient, luxuriating, shameful, reckless) which is entirely individual. Apart from occasional duty trips to the supermarket, buying stuff should be a solitary activity. Very few couples are consumer-compatible.

Keep the family-unit thing under control. We all know about couples who are so wrapped up in one another that their children are made to feel like intruders. There is another contrasting danger. As a family builds around you, the little couple which is at the centre of it all somehow gets lost, or simply become two parts of a busy domestic enterprise. Hold on to what first brought you together before life became so grown-up and crowded.

Eat together. For reasons no one quite understands, eating a meal together once a day plays a small but important part in keeping married couples sane and happy. Ready-made pizzas, shoved into the oven and taken out, slightly burnt, should be avoided.

Stop competitive sulking before it gets a grip. He’s angry, she’s furious, they both want to show the other that they are more hurt than the other. Skirmishes develop into battles, which harden into wars. On these occasions, the action of a true hero of married life is to cut through the nonsense before it gets out of hand. Doing it may feel like defeat, but is the opposite.

Allow each other’s childish enthusiasms. It is tough enough being an adult without the person with whom you are living complaining that some hobby or interest, which matters to you for reasons you have never quite understood, is something you should have outgrown. What may seem eccentric and incomprehensible to one person may be giving the other a much-needed form of escape or release.

Have secrets. Domestic life can take the edge off relationships. Now and then, perhaps once a year, it is worth arranging things so that you see your husband or wife in the original light: surprising, different, unpredictable. Part of this process is to keep part of yourself mysterious and elusive – “over-sharing” can be harmful.

Be as sparing as possible with the pronoun “we”. The world is delighted by your union but it will be slightly greyer if two “I”s become too obviously a “we”, moving through life in a clumsy marital three-legged race. The line quoted by John Bayley about his marriage to Iris Murdoch, “growing closer and closer apart”, has a strange wisdom to it. Love and lean on one another, but all the while hold on to your self.

Independent, Friday, 29 July 2011