Marriage renegotiation: the rise of post-nuptial agreements and ‘relationship MOTs’ amongst long-married couples
There are many changes that inevitably happen as couples grow older. Could couples that still love each other, but are also unhappy, consider a 'relationship MOT' as a way to navigate these challenges?
Alex and Alison have been together for almost 25 years. He is successful in business, while she has worked on and off in marketing but focused on raising their family. Now that their children are both at university, the couple have reached a bit of an impasse.
“The children no longer need me in the way they did,” says Alison. “I wanted to be an artist when I was younger but that dream got put on the back burner. Now what brings me the most joy is travelling with my water-colours; I’ve made a load of new friends through the art club I joined. After a quarter of a century of putting everyone else first, this is my time.”
There’s only one problem. Alex is now semi-retired and he’s not keen on Alison disappearing with a new tribe of friends and her sketchbook. After years of slogging in the City, he’d rather she spent time with him. Increasingly he’s doing more of the shopping, cleaning and gardening – but feels hurt that she doesn’t seem to appreciate his domestic efforts and tends to start fiddling with her phone when he talks about them.
He’s also more upset than he had let on that Alison is avoiding conjugal relations – sex being something she is struggling to enjoy since entering the menopause. The couple still love each other and don’t want to split up, but they are also unhappy.
If this sounds familiar then maybe you are in need of a marriage renegotiation – or even a formal “post-nup”. It’s a term I first heard, strangely, at a debate held by Boodle Hatfield, a 300-year-old family law firm. Divorce lawyers seemed an unlikely bunch to be sharing relationship-salvaging tips – but then again, since they see so many wrecked marriages perhaps they also have insight into how that could be avoided.
One method is through an informal “relationship MOT” – a way to navigate the emotional and psychological changes which inevitably happen as couples get older. There is an epidemic of divorce among couples in their early fifties, with the Office for National Statistics revealing in 2018 that the rate among those aged 55 and over had doubled. They even have a moniker: “silver splitters”.
“So many of the couples who come to me are really seeking a renegotiation of their relationship” said sex and relationships therapist Silva Neves. “A kind of midlife marriage MOT.”
There is also the option of a more formal “post-nup”, involving lawyers. This, explains Emily Brand, partner at Boodle Hatfield is “like a pre-nuptial agreement but made during a marriage”.
“But in my experience these ‘agreements’ don’t usually end well,” she adds. “They are often about inheriting family money – where those leaving it don’t want a spouse to walk off with half if the marriage breaks down. You can imagine that’s not a very easy conversation to have. A post-nup can be a bit of a blunt instrument. The MOT is a much better route.”
Eleanor Mills and her husband: ‘One of the reasons I am still married is because of his thoughtfulness’
So what kinds of things might be on the table during such a negotiation?
Speaking to several therapists and surveying the community on my platform for midlife women, Noon, threw up several examples. One couple talked about how the wife wanted to travel but the man preferred to stay at home. They’ve come to an agreement that she can spend three months of the year away, but he is allowed to build a tennis court in the garden. Another couple’s compromise was that he could spend money on his middle-aged-man-in-lycra bike, while she is setting up her own business.
Therapist Susanna Abse, author of Tell Me The Truth About Love, says: “While midlife has many pleasures, it is also a time to take stock and question whether the life you have is the one you want going forward. That frequently includes one’s marriage.”
“A stock-check on any relationship will reap massive rewards. It is all about paying attention. Couples who go the distance have what I call a working ‘emotional processing machine’ – a way of resolving the issues that arise between them. The problem is that over time that ‘machine’ gets so clogged up with resentments and slights that the good feelings go away.”
“Often by this stage in life our relationships are full of no-go areas and disappointments; things that couples are scared to talk about, for fear they will blow the whole thing up – an affair, say. There can be anxiety about addressing the real issues and that’s where a midlife MOT or reckoning can be crucial if the relationship is going to last.”
Silva Neves sees many cases where one party has been “ground down” by the other taking them for granted, not being thoughtful, or not recognising their contribution. The middle-aged couples she deals with often arrive with the same complaint. Their partners seem to expend effort on their careers and friends, hobbies, children and pets … but the person who often comes bottom of their list, or certainly feels that they do, is their partner.
“How is it,” Neves says, “that we kick off our relationships with that jittery feeling of love – our significant other rocks our worlds, we’ll do anything for them – then, a couple of decades later, they are the person for whom we make the least effort?”
It made me think about my own marriage – we’ve been together for 20 years next month. How often do I put my husband at the top of my endless to-do list?
Almost 20 years on, small gestures can help keep love alive
One of the reasons I am still married is because of his thoughtfulness; whether thinking about what I might like to eat, or sending me a message he knows will make me smile. One day I had to give a talk and was really stressed, so he dressed up in one of my work outfits and got one of our daughters to photograph him in it. He sent the message just before he knew I was going on stage: I laughed so much when I saw him in my grey trouser suit that I forgot to be nervous. It is those small gestures which keep love alive.
That kind of love often falls to women, and research into women aged 45-60 found that many of them feel passionately that they’ve had enough of looking after everyone else and want to do something for themselves before it is too late.
“This flourishing of women in midlife can be hard for men,” says Susannah Abse. “I see a lot of blokes who feel disaffected, lonely and neglected. Many are affected by the loss of status which comes with work not being their primary focus anymore. Men aren’t as good as women at making new friends or keeping up with old ones. They worry about the passing of their own strength and youth. They are not equipped for the transition.”
So how can couples stop that becoming a serious problem?
“The key is to start talking, really communicating. Stop being avoidant – your resentment, all those things you have parked over the years as too difficult, have to be addressed,” she adds. “You need to develop shared pleasures and have treats together. Become a couple who can sit down and take stock: ‘what is working, what isn’t, what do we both want for the coming decades?’. Those who do that are much more likely to stay together.”