Long Reads

“This advice from one of Britain’s longest-married couples saved my marriage”

Looking for some relationship advice? Disillusioned, exhausted and wondering if this is it, married journalists Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson went in search of that elusive happily ever after for their book, Where’s My Happy Ending? Here, Anna shares the one piece of advice that truly saved their marriage – and restored her faith in love.

I’m sat next to Matt at my best friend’s wedding and the bride’s sister Kate comes over and sits next to us. She’s a surgeon, looks like Natalie Portman and drunkenly asks if we know anyone we can set her up with. 

My friend Abby suggests her friend Steven. I clumsily ask why Steven isn’t married and Kate jokingly slurs: “You judgemental crow in your average sexless marriage, asking why someone is single. Brilliant people are single. I am single.”

She is right, even if she herself is being equally judgemental. I apologise and Kate stumbles away, leaving me to question if my marriage is average. And if I am a crow.

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Matt and I have been married for 10 years. We’ve trodden a fairly well-worn path of marriage, mortgage and babies. But now a gaping chasm of five decades has opened up before us where the next big life moment is ‘Til Death Do Us Part’. 

After our wedding we questioned why it was meant to be the best day of our lives. What happens after the wedding? Is it just a slow and steady descent to The End? I felt like I married Matt through miscarriage, redundancy and postnatal depression – not on a day of frippery and tulle.

Relationship advice: “I think we need to stop putting pressure on one person to be The One.”

I needed some answers. So I went to visit the UK’s oldest fisherman Derrick West, 90, who has been married to his wife June for 76 years. 

It’s 6.25am and the sun is slowly pooling over Whitstable Harbour. The air is briny and warm. Derrick is keen to meet me before his shift starts at 7am; a shift he’s worked since 1938. He’s never lived outside of Whitstable and owns West Whelks, a fishery on the harbour front that specialises in crustaceans. He has a tattoo of a ship on one arm, a faded seagull on the other and his face is set to a weathered smile.

How did Derrick and June reach platinum status? How did he get to celebrate seven decades with one person? And how is he still smiling?

“I think we need to stop putting pressure on one person to be The One,” he says. “I get very cross with these young boys who go out there alone fishing. You have to think in case you go overboard, who is going to help you out?”

He reaches over to me and I’m a little taken aback but it’s equally kind and anchoring. I wonder when I last reached out to a stranger.

I question if June is his maiden in shining armour. “She isn’t” he says quietly. “I won’t always be here. She might not be. But this place I have [he gesticulates towards the harbour], these people I see every day on the sea front. My son Graham. My next-door neighbour. Happiness is all around us and to pin it to one person, well, that’s never going to end well. I love June but she’s not the only one who can save me. 

“Stop with all this ‘one and only’ and ‘together forever’ stuff in Valentine’s cards and be together today. But don’t take the rest for granted.”

Relationship advice: "The world puts happiness at the centre of aspiration: it’s the golden carrot we’re meant to chase like donkeys along Brighton Beach."

It’s good advice. I wonder if the pressure I’ve put on Matt has in some ways broken us. I wonder if I’ve expected him to be this hunk of rock that can mend me and fix things when he’s needed to break and be fixed, too. I love him. But I cannot take him for granted. We cannot take each other for granted. We cannot live in this fantasy world of ‘love conquers all’ because as Matt’s mum (who divorced 20 years ago) has experienced, sometimes it doesn’t. Taking that enormous pressure off has, I’ve found, been a solution.

It feels like the world puts happiness at the centre of aspiration: it’s the golden carrot we’re meant to chase like donkeys along Brighton Beach. Get the grades! Bag the promotion! Marry the person! Have the kids! Buy the house! Enjoy the life!

But then what? 

There is shame in unhappiness. Google the words ‘happy couple’ and millions of images of two people sitting against a sunset drinking margaritas pop up. But we’re never shown the beauty of more difficult moments, such as a wife holding her wife’s hand through a failed IVF attempt. 

There’s beauty in brokenness. Matt and I have been so focused on celebrating sunshine moments that I think we haven’t properly appreciated the day-to-day clouds. It’s a labour of love, of course, but the key is not to expect it to be a walk in the park – or down the aisle.

Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson are co-authors of Sunday Times bestseller Where’s My Happy Ending? (Bluebird Books For Life, PanMacmillan) and is available here

Images: Unsplash, courtesy of author