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30 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

After a row in St Ives I reflect that there is no great secret to a good marriage

We blunder on, doing our best, accepting our differences. Good days, bad days.

By Tracey Thorn

When Ben and I were in a band together for all those years, we would be asked in interviews, “How do you manage to be a couple and work together? What’s the secret of your success?” Neither of us ever had an answer, and would either bluster or stonewall, wary of being dull, smug or confessional.

Sometimes I wondered if it was a silly question, implying that something was difficult when in fact it was a breeze. We’d been handed an easy life, full of variety and fun and reward; it surely shouldn’t be hard to swing through it together as a happy couple?

Then in 1992 Ben’s illness happened, leaving us both traumatised in different ways, and I wondered whether the opposite was also true, and whether the extremity of the awfulness acted as a kind of glue, sticking us together in sickness and in health. Good luck, bad luck. Different sides of the same coin, all of it out of your control.

It’s 20 years now since we worked with each other, and in the meantime we’ve added kids to the mix, and separate jobs, and ageing, and the pressure of mounting decades. And still in interviews I am asked, “What’s the secret of your success as a couple?” and I’m even more loath to answer, to tempt fate, to talk as though our endurance into the future is inevitable.

We’ve just been on a short holiday together. It was a deliberate act – we’d both been focusing on our own work and worries and had become distant, occasionally irritable. Claire Dederer’s recent book Love and Trouble is good on these sorts of fluctuations within a marriage; the struggle to keep romance alive, to stop yourself from wilting within a familiar embrace, or disappearing entirely into the self-sacrificing requirements of parenthood. “The two of you pass the big tests,” she writes. “You still talk; you still fuck. But sometimes you ruefully recall Ethan Hawke’s character in Before Sunset, when he describes his marriage: ‘I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date.’”

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That spoke to me. Hence this holiday, to a converted fisherman’s cottage in St Ives – the first trip without kids or friends in a while, a chance for peace and solitude and rediscovery. And it was idyllic, except for this one fact: on the first night there we had a huge, tempestuous row. The “I’m about to storm out of this restaurant” kind of row, which carried on into the street, and the lounge at home, and then curdled into silence, and separate beds, and simmered on into breakfast, before finally evaporating on a long walk along the coastal path.

We set out still tense and mute, but as we walked, everything about the holiday began to work its magic. The ever-present sea with the view out to Godrevy Lighthouse. The path bordered with wild garlic, mallow and aquilegia. The huge pristine beach with its tiny cave entrances and waterfalls, the layers of granite, the beautiful greeny blue of connellite. It was impossible, and self-defeating, to remain angry.

By the time we reached Carbis Bay, where Virginia Woolf came to recover from a suicide attempt, we were back in love, and strolled the two miles back to St Ives, where we bought Cornish gin, curled up and drank it, full of mutual understanding and regard.

So did we need the row? Was it cathartic? I’ve no idea, and it feels dangerous to say so. My instinct tells me there is no “secret”: we are blundering on, doing our best, accepting our differences. Good days, bad days.

Back in London I watch the royal wedding on TV and am moved to happiness by the frocks and to tears by the vows, and I think of our own wedding, planned at short notice after a 25-year engagement, for random reasons we have now forgotten. We chose the shortest service possible and it was over in five minutes, though both of us still found time to cry, and our three kids were there, and when we emerged into the December air of the King’s Road a fire engine was stuck at the lights and put on its sirens for us while all the firemen waved, in a kind of uniformed serenade.

I wore green, which is meant to be unlucky. We are still married.

This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead