Are you in need of a love makeover?

‘Make do and mend’ is a mantra that works just as well for our relationships as it does for our wardrobes. In these straitened times, it makes no sense to chuck out a marriage just because it’s lost its spark – savvy types improve rather than move on

Make do and mend

Brad Pitt proved himself a man for our troubled times when he said recently that he wanted to ‘mend and strengthen’ his relationship with Angelina; that despite the strain of looking after six young children, he’d rather improve than move. Suddenly make do and mend is cool.

Fashion writers say the new-outfit-every-lunchtime-era is over; that it’s time to pull that neglected little black dress from the back of the wardrobe where it has lain unworn only for the want of a dry clean and missing button. But, as Brad shows, this new-era thinking applies just as much to your personal life as to your wardrobe.

Just as Channel 4’s The Home Show is helping people fall back in love with their homes, so a little attention can help you fall back in love with your partner. This is, in part, common sense – but for some, it’s also become a necessity.

Right now, many of us can’t afford to go elsewhere, so we might as well, to quote
Sid James, ‘shut up moaning and make the best of it’. Research by estate agent Savills has revealed a strong link between house prices and the number of divorces over the past ten years.

When house prices are up, so are divorces; when they plunge, and there is no longer the equity to make it feasible, people stick together. Divorce is expensive, painful and you don’t necessarily end up in a happier relationship – just a different one.

Now I’m not suggesting stay when you hate each other – no. But this is a genuine opportunity for people whose relationship is basically sound – but has gone off the boil thanks to the distractions of temptation, children, chores and work – to reinvest in it while stocks are low.

In a recession, investors plough their money into safe government bonds. Your long-term relationship is another kind of bond and, at times like these, your best bet.

Even happy couples need new buttons on their relationship from time to time. And it makes sense to do it now.

There is a lot of evidence to show that people are seeking out previously overlooked opportunities for romance and fun that don’t cost much money. Scrabble sales are up and there has been a dramatic increase in purchases of what are politely called ‘bedroom toys’. A spokesperson for Private Shops, the adult entertainment chain, told an interviewer that their sales were up 420 per cent since the start of the credit crunch.

'If we focus on the positive we will be more likely to want to stay put'

My friend Sally was always criticising the quality of her relationship with her husband Sean. His director job in couture paid well, but they paid a higher price in his long hours away from the family. Six months ago, she was on the point of leaving him. ‘I want more,’ she said. ‘He just slumps in the evenings. He’s exhausted at weekends. He doesn’t pull his weight with the children.’

Then something strange happened. Like much of the luxury goods market, Sean’s company is struggling financially, so he’s been working even harder. I expected Sally to be more resentful, but was surprised that they seemed to be getting on better. ‘Things are so bad out there now, I have to be nice to him,’ she laughed.

The funny thing is that because circumstances forced her to be more tolerant, the relationship has become better. They can’t spend money on evenings at the theatre any more, so they have had to look each other in the eye at home – and communicate.

Sally started looking for the positive in her husband. In turn, he responded to her more friendly approach. Amazingly, in a difficult time, they are pulling together and laughing again – albeit with gallows humour: ‘What’s so great about private education anyway?’ Sean quipped last time I saw him. ‘Children learn much faster being sent up a chimney.’ Sally was in fits.

This is the Blitz spirit paradox. That in bad times – the Second World War being an example – many people are more resilient and more grateful for their lot. With less money to spend, you have to be more creative about enjoying time with a partner.

Literary novelist Stella Duffy, hot from presenting a BBC4 programme where she had to learn to write in Mills & Boon style (its sales are booming; romance is what people want in a recession), says that being without a kitchen for a couple of months while workmen were in added a spark to her relationship. ‘We were huddled up eating baked potatoes and baked beans by candlelight; it was actually quite lovely. Being frugal can make you more creative.’

According to Relate, this is exactly what we should be doing anyway – ‘finding the gratitude’. To find out what this means, I turn to a Relate internet counsellor. ‘One of the determining features of the success of a relationship,’ says my anonymous therapist, ‘is the way we think about the relationship. If couples can concentrate again on the positives – the “turn-on messages” – and minimise the “turn-off messages” they will see the benefit of staying in the relationship.

'Sometimes, it is the difference between, for example, “My partner is so dependable, I know exactly where he will be and what he will be doing – how boring” and, “My partner is so dependable, I know exactly where he will be and what he will be doing – it gives me a sense of security”.

'We can reframe most situations in a positive light or a negative one. If we focus on the positive, we will be more likely to want to stay put.’

Make do and mend2

This is the approach of another man for our troubled times, Barack Obama. With the arrival of Barack and Michelle comes a new-look White House marriage. Out is the unreal silent adoration of the cookie-baking First Lady; in is a woman who’s her husband’s feisty equal, prepared to tell the world that he has ‘morning breath’. They seem all the more devoted for acknowledging their imperfections.

The counsellor has some simple rules for a love spring-clean. ‘What works well – do more of it. What causes conflict – like it, lump it or change it.

‘We have a model called the “pinch/crunch”, which suggests that couples need to deal with “pinches” (little problems) before they develop into a “crunch” (make or break) situation,’ she writes.

I identify several pinch areas in my relationship: that as arch-worriers we can drag each other down; that he reads negative things into my facial expression that aren’t there, but that with two young children I am less patient and more moody than I used to be; that sex – despite being good – can feel like one more thing we have to get done; that conflict avoidance means we sometimes don’t talk through difficult subjects; and finally that we are both expert at passive aggression (if I’m reading the paper and he pulls it out of my hand, instead of saying, ‘Give it back’, I’ll say, ‘Yes, have it, you need a break’, then stack the dishwasher, so that guilt forces him not only to give back the paper but do the dishes too).

The counsellor advises me to look for the benefits in all these behaviour patterns – and also to consider the benefits of doing the opposite.

Clearly the benefit of worrying could prevent us making foolish decisions, but maybe it would be a boost to the relationship to throw caution to the wind occasionally. She says we should address issues with each other as if we were helping a friend – sensitively rather than like the usual petulant, grudge-bearing spouse.

Simply treating your long-term partner like a brand-new friend can make a difference. You listen more, you are more interested and you are cuddlier.

We have applied a new idea inspired by the debate over organ donation: that we will try to live by a system of ‘presumed consent’. Instead of acting cheerful only when feeling cheerful, acting cheerful and interested is our modus operandi at all times, unless one or both parties asks to opt out.

Instead of waiting till we’re both spontaneously in the mood for love, the new system means that, come bedtime, we’ll be doing it unless someone opts out (which they can do without recrimination). I have to say, it is really quite successful.

If you’re still tempted to throw away a perfectly serviceable relationship for something new, remember that new lovers turn into old lovers. My friend Maria, 40, walked out on her ten-year marriage last year. When I met her shortly afterwards, she was wearing a gorgeous Joseph coat (a gift from her new man) and told me that leaving her husband was ‘the right thing to do’. She told me she was so tired of the nagging, the grind, the bad habits. At last she had romance and excitement again.

Guess what? Three months later she was back with her husband and admitting that ‘the grass isn’t always greener’. Shiny new lover turned out to have just as many flaws as boring old husband.

So Maria and Philip got back together, went to counselling and mended their relationship. They accept that neither of them is perfect but that it is possible to grow better and closer.

Best of all, she got to keep the coat.

Relationship make do and mend
This is like looking after your home. You need to keep an eye out for broken bits and spruce up dull corners. Psychologist Dr Lisa Matthewman has a few tips.

  • Take care of yourselves to make it easier to fancy each other. Encourage ‘we-ness’ in fitness, such as, ‘We could go swimming’.
  • Avoid ‘comfy old trackie bottoms’ syndrome (COTB), symbolically and literally. Don’t slip into trackie bottoms for real, and also don’t treat the relationship like COTB.
  • To see each other in the best light, do a wardrobe detox. Fashion experts are saying that this is a time for investment in key pieces, and your partner is a key piece.
  • Reignite passion by reminiscing. Look at old photos and discuss how far you’ve come.
  • Persevere.
  • Examine your emotional style. Are you still connecting on an emotional level? If not, why not? Do you still have fun as a couple? It will never be 100 per cent perfect. Discuss where you both have to compromise.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek expert advice if, for example, sex becomes infrequent or routine.
  • Relate offers online counselling via its website (which is also full of helpful advice). The cost is £28.50 and consultations are usually e-mailed to you within four working days. Many people are turning to this kind of support as it provides anonymity and written advice you can return to. Visit


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