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Long term relationship advice

Andrew MarshallLeading marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall, who specialises in long-term relationships, joined us for a live webchat in October 2012. With more than 25 years experience as a therapist, Andrew insists that (monogamous) sex gets better in your fifties. He also argues that couples can not only survive infidelity but get stronger because of it.

His books focus on infidelity (How Can I Ever Trust You Again?), sex in long-term relationships (Make Love Like a Prairie Vole), and keeping long-term relationships alive (I Love You But I'm Not in Love with You) - and most recently My Wife Doesn't Love Me Any More - the Love Coach Guide to Winning her Back.

Q: I am 54, my husband is coming up to 57, we have been together for 11 years, married for eight. We have not had full sex for over seven years. I still love him very much and feel that a full relationship should be part of that love, however it just doesn't happen.

At first I put it down to depression when he wasn't working, but then he started a job that he absolutely loved. I hoped that would mean our sex life would improve, but it didn't. I have tried all sorts of approaches, but no luck. We do have shared intimacy, but not full lovemaking. Phoenix

A: If you haven't had sex for seven years, it's important you don't let this go for much longer. How do you talk about the lack of sex? The best place to start is with the positives. You have lots of shared intimacy. I suggest you use something called appreciative enquiry. I explain it in detail in my book "Help Your Partner Say Yes". But in a nutshell, you start off talking about everything that's good about cuddles and back rubs etc. Next you can talk about how things were in the past and how much you enjoyed the oral sex, masturbation, or whatever. And then you can ask the most important question, how can we bring all of those good things into our relationship today?

Basically instead of tackling the problem, you talk about what you like. The first sounds like criticism and makes people shut down, The second encourages creativity. So if you hear anything negative, acknowledge it, maybe make a note of it and come back to it, but you must keep positive. So finish off by telling him how much you enjoy talking to him and how important it was that he listened as this praise will encourage more of the same.

Q: Sex has become the elephant in the room with me and my partner. We've been together for 30 years, and until about ten years ago everything was fine - then it started to wane. I've looked at books and articles for help but they all say that the most important thing is to communicate. Easier said than done! I just don't know how to bring the subject up. We talk about everything else but what's missing in our relationship. Kathgran

A: If you find it so hard to talk about sex, why don't you focus on touch instead? Most relationships fall down because they get into the all or nothing rut. By that, I mean, you don't want to give him a kiss that lingers, because you don't want to give him everything - you stay on your side of the sofa, bed etc. So start somewhere that feels safer than the bedroom. Put your arm round your husband, stroke the back of his arm, snuggle up to him. If he does something like that to you, follow up with casual and sensual touching. Slowly but surely, your cuddles will last for longer than 30 seconds.

At that point, you will either have crossed over into something more intense, or if you still need more help, look at my earlier post about appreciative enquiry.

Q: Have you got any tips for avoiding boredom in long-term relationships? I love my husband but occasionally I think, "Oh no, here we go again." What do you have to do to have great sex after 25 years? loudmouth

A: The secret is that you need to reinvent your sex life probably about once every seven years or so. That's because we become different people. Unfortunately with sex, we stay with what we're comfortable with, what both of us are fine with - you're not eating in the same restaurant or wearing the same clothes as 25 years ago, so you shouldn't be making love in exactly the same way. Sex becomes boring because we stop taking risks.

In my book, I talk about the three kinds of lovemaking - partner focussed, trance and creative play. Perhaps you have been using just part of the palette, and you need to try something different, alternatively it could be that you've been doing what you think your partner likes, rather than what it is you need. 

Q: I would like to ask about the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone - and can a marriage work with one but not the other? leeanne

A: We use the word love to describe how we feel about our partner, our children, our sister and chocolate. These are all very different relationships. In effect, there are three kinds of love: limerence, loving attachment and affectionate regard, mixing them up causes a lot of heartache.

I explain these in depth in I Love You But I'm Not In Love With You, but here goes.

Limerence is the crazy part of falling in love when you can think of nothing else but writing your beloved's initials on the back of your exercise books and it seems you are permanently walking five feet above the ground. At the time we think it's going to last forever, but scanning our brain chemicals shows it normally lasts somewhere between 18 months and 3 years (when people have affairs and say they've found the love of their life, what they mean is they've got a big dose of limerence).

Hopefully, limerence will give you enough courage to commit and put down roots with someone, and that's when loving attachment begins to grow. While limerence is not impacted by how someone behaves (you can have limerence for someone who doesn't even know you exist!) loving attachment needs to be fed by talking, listening, compliments, making the other person feel appreciated. Unfortunately we take loving attachment for granted and don't feed it because we're too busy collecting the kids from school, tinkering with the car, or wiping down the kitchen surfaces.

We think that because our partner loves us they will understand. But if you don't feed something it withers and dies. That's when it turns into affectionate regard. Affectionate regard is what we have for our parents or children because we love them even if they do drive us up the wall! Unfortunately, if you focus on family intimacy, rather than couple intimacy, you can mistake affectionate regard for loving attachment, and that's why you can wake up one morning and think "I love you but I'm not in love with you".

Fear not! This can be turned round and affectionate regard can become full on love again.

Q: In the 43 years we have been married I have been the one with a low sex drive. For a while my husband seemed to have lost interest too but then he became impotent. But in the last year he has become obsessed with this and now takes Viagra to overcome it. He seems to think about and want sex much of the time. I really don't find it pleasurable and at night I am unable to sleep afterwards. I feel guilty that I can't be more loving but think that if we could just communicate more, then things might improve in the bedroom. contrarymary

A: My question is why you have a low sex drive. If you were seeing me, I would be interested in whether you ever get a chance to feel your libido, or whether you have to respond to your partner's. Unfortunately, it normally takes a man about three days after having sex to start to feel horny again, whereas the average woman takes longer to feel spontaneously horny again, research suggest about 5 days. As you can see the average man with the average woman could start pestering for sex before you realy feel interested. That's fine in the short term because you want to be generous, but in the log term you never get in touch with what turns you on, and then you start getting negative messages like "you've got a low libido". Perhaps you've got an impatient husband.

No wonder you don't find sex pleasurable, and perhaps the reason you can't sleep is not because of something sexual, but because you're angry and furious with him for pushing it. The other problem could be down to what you say about him not listening to you outside the bedroom. No wonder you don't feel very receptive. If we were working together, I would be negotiating a ban on sex for a while, so that you could concentrate more on sensual touching that rushing towards intercourse, because men actually like touching as much as women, they just forget about it as they hurtle towards an orgasm. It would also help the two of you get more into sexual sync with each other again.

As you can begin to see this is a big subject, so I would read up about it, or consider getting some help together. But the good news is that this can be turned around and it's brilliant that after 43 years you still care enough to post this problem and be determined to sort it out. Good luck.

Q: Do you really believe sex gets better in your fifties and beyond? The general feeling is that is gets more boring - or non-existent - as the years pass. Or perhaps that's only true if you're with the same person? mayfly

A: Sex gets better in your fifties because you know more about who you are and you can bring all of yourself to the bedroom. When we're in our teens and twenties, we are far too preoccupied with what other people think about us, who am I? that we might have the physical capacity, but we don't have the emotional maturity. In effect, we're just rubbing our bits together.

However, you do need to go through a sexual reawakening. Generally this happens in the forties, but it's never too late, where you start thinking again about what you enjoy, what turns you on, rather than just doing the same old things that have turned you on for last 20+ years. It seems hard, but heck, when you've been through the sort of hurdles that face anybody to reach 50, you have more confidence and determination and possibly a better sense of humour. After all, there are times you need to laugh in bed as well as love.

Q: My husband and I don't touch each other as we used to. I mean the touch on the arm as you pass, just leaning into each other when you're reading something, just those little touches that mean so much. We have been together for 40 years and married for 36. glassortwo

A: Congratulations on noticing! As you've pointed out, it's so easy to fall into a routine, when you are effectively turning each other off all the time, rather than making your beloved feel attractive and wanted. I suggest that you make a concerted effort and next time you feel something warm and tender towards your husband, instead of keeping it to yourself, go and find him. Put your hand on his shoulder, wait until he turns around, give him a little kiss and say "I just wanted to let you know how much I love you".

Start those little in jokes, "I love you more than you love me" or "I even love your ankles" - or whatever does it for you!

We think it takes one compliment, hug, I love you, to undo one cross word, criticism, but research has shown it takes five. Most couples have no problems communicating the negatives, but somehow forget to communicate the positives. Don't wait for your partner to start, get going now, that will encourage him to mirror your behaviour.

Q: I read your article in the Daily Mail. I am going through difficulties with my husband and without the support of my friends would have lost my mind. Are you really saying they are making things worse and not better? hillyandbilly

A: Obviously there is nothing wrong with talking to your friends. But what concerns me is how much some people talk to their friends. I know people who will spend up to two hours with a friend. I've known people who could spend over five hours a week with the same person. It's almost as if we've outsourced our self-esteem and our abilities to deal with our feelings to this other person, and that concerns me for two reasons:

Ultimately all the reassurance from our friends just makes us need more reassurance to be told "you're fabulous", "you're fine", and all that talking stops us from actually doing anything. However my greater concern is that if you're expecting your friends to smooth out your problems, you're probably asking your partner to do the same and no wonder he feels overwhelmed, angry, and has taken to the hills.

The secret of a happy life is to find the middle way, so of course it would be silly never to speak to your friends. What my article is about are the people who go to the opposite extreme. My worry is that you need to find a balance between talking to your friends and talking to your husband.

Q: Should you tell your (adult) children if you're having problems, or if one of you has had an affair? Or is it best to keep it private - particularly if you expect them to take your side? if you do decide to tell them, any tips on how best to do it? praxis

A: My advice is to tell your children as little as possible, whether they are 5, 15 or 25, about your marital problems. I often have couples recovering from infidelity where the wife has forgiven but the daughter still hasn't and that's creating family problems. You think you need support and I'm sure you do, I'm just not sure it's fair to drag your children into it. if it is unavoidable, please don't tell them more than the top line, because although you have the magic of kissing and making up in the bedroom, your children are stuck with lots of horrible images.

Q: My husband and I have always believed that if either of us had an affair it would spell the end of our marriage. Yet we know people who (seem to) have made it work perfectly well after one or other has done this. How on earth can the injured party ever truly trust again? I think I would be permanently on edge and waiting for the next time - which would be the kiss of death to the marriage even if an affair wasn't. louella

A: Affairs happen for a reason, to explain more I've put it into an equation.

Problem + Poor Communication + Temptation = Affair

We tend to concentrate on just the temptation, but let's face it there's millions of attractive men and women in the world, and although we like to look at pictures, we don't act on them because we feel good and happy in our relationship. However if there's a long-term problem, for example, people on this thread have talked about not having sex for seven years, and you have poor communication, and therefore can't talk about it, it is much easier for the temptation to get to you and to cross over the line.

So in a nutshell, how you recover from an affair, which I explain in more detail in How Can I Ever Trust You Again, is that you begin to solve the underlying problem, and improve the communication and then you don't need to worry about the temptation.

The good news is that although couples dealing with infidelity are the least happy when they arrive in my therapy room, they leave the happiest. That's because they're prepared to look deeper and work harder to make certain it never happens again.

Q: Couples can survive infidelity, eh? What if fidelity is one of the founding beliefs of the relationship? What if it's non-negotiable? Isn't that a betrayal of trust? And yes, I do speak personally. firenze

A: Yes, of course it's a betrayal of trust! And if for you it's non-negotiable, that's fine. But I find that many people on discovering infidelity make their mind up about the future of their relationship too quickly. Let's face it, you are in shock and that's not the best time to make life-changing decisions.

At this point you probably can't hear what has been said, or you're only getting half the story. If you throw him out, you lose all the chances to ask further questions. The same with saying I forgive you, because you've removed all incentive to be honest.

There needs to be a lot of what I call intense questioning so that you understand what happened and why and so you can understand your contribution to the infidelity equation, because although you're not responsible for your partner's cheating, you are one half of the poor communication that stopped him saying "I've got a problem" rather than going off and finding an individual solution to a couple problem.

I understand why you're hurting, that's natural and part of the healing process. I hope it gets better soon.

Q: Do you have any advice for relationships that started as infidelity? Obviously it's not an ideal situation because the trust can never be the same as you know they left someone else for you, but once you're in it, are there any ways to improve that trust bond between you? bakergran

A: I have to admit this is a huge huge huge problem. And it's one of the reasons I'm so against infidelity. We imagine once the other person's out of the way, we'll walk off into the sunset. My concern is that if a relationship has poor foundations it is hard to build upon.

Having said that, it's never too late to put down some good foundations. First of all, I think you need to grieve for your old partners, because the excitement of infidelity and the trauma of discovery means that your relationship is jump-started as you go from clandestine meals to everyday reality (with angry step-children thrown in).

If you want more advice on grieving you'll find it in Heal and Move On. The other half of putting down good foundations is learning how to communicate properly rather than leaping into bed and forgetting all your problems. I explain how to be assertive in Resolve Your Differences.

Finally I think you need to understand more about the bubble of infidelity so I would also look at How Can I Ever Trust You Again. I'm sorry I've given you a University course length reading list and that I sound so negative, but you're starting from a really difficult place. Be honest with each other and it's amazing what you can achieve.

Q: How do you stop a long-term relationship from going stale? When time and money are both short it's so easy to lose the 'romance' and get consumed with day-to-day life. What should we be doing to keep the spark alive(nothing too saucy please - my husband has a herniated disc)? barbarab

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A: Romantic gestures shouldn't cost much. It's about hugs, smiles, buying a Mars bar because I thought of you, cooking a favourite meal, talking to each other in the same room rather than shouting up and down the stairs, running a bath and putting tea tree candles round it, sharing a warm bath and a bowl of cold ice cream. What I'm talking about are good habits which by their very nature have to be small and repeatable rather than trips on the Orient Express, which are by their very nature hard to repeat.

Q: I am fascinated by the title of your sex book - Make Love Like A Prairie Vole. Have you really spent time watching voles at it? And if so what do they have that we don't in terms of success in the sack? micki

A: I promise I've never watched prairie voles have sex, but there are many scientists in America who have. We know more about the brain chemistry of voles than any other creature, and from that, an understanding of what promotes desire. Basically the big difference between humans and voles is just how much time voles spend together, they are always cuddling and kissing. if you read the rest of the posts, you will realise that we spend far too much time worrying about our genitals and not enough time worrying about stroking, petting, and whispering sweet nothings into each others' ears.