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‘My relationship anxiety nearly ended our marriage’

Cat sims, blogger, 
and Jimmy, musician

‘I was angry at him for 
failing to understand how hard it was for me’
Cat Sims, blogger, and Jimmy, musician ‘I was angry at him for failing to understand how hard it was for me’ Credit: Rick Pushinsky

Another day, another loved-up Insta couple to make the rest of us – and our relationships – feel inadequate. Alix O’Neill finds out how to stay (happily) together in the social-media age

At the lowest ebb of her marriage, Cat Sims would quickly jump into the shower on waking each morning to avoid speaking to her husband, Jimmy. ‘I knew he’d end up saying the wrong thing as far as I was concerned,’ she recalls. ‘Nobody had done anything wrong. We’d just come to the point where we felt constantly disappointed by one another.’ 

When she first met musician Jimmy at a gig in 2007, Cat, who runs the lifestyle blog Not So Smug Now, felt instantly at ease. ‘I was more comfortable with him than I had been with anyone else. We just clicked,’ she says. Five years later they had a low-key wedding in France and went on to have two daughters, now aged five and three, but cracks started to appear after their first was born. 

‘It was a traumatic labour, then a month later Jimmy had to go on tour. I felt lonely and isolated. He’d come home and thought the right thing to do was take the baby off my hands, but it made me feel like a terrible mother. Jimmy resented me for not holding it together while he worked and I was angry at him for failing to understand how hard it was.’

It took three and a half years of therapy for them to work through this. At one stage, for three long months, the therapy conversations were the only time she and Jimmy actually spoke to each other. ‘We knew everything we said outside of counselling would end in a fight.’ But over time, they worked through it. ‘It took us a long time to realise there wasn’t anything wrong with our relationship – we’d just found ourselves in bad circumstances.’

Few marriages are immune to the strains of modern life. Who hasn’t kept a mental score sheet of their partner’s domestic efforts (or lack thereof)? But we live in an age of curated perfection where the pressure to get it right – from our bodies to our relationships – has never been greater.

Not long ago, an unsolicited box of Hotel Chocolat would have been considered romantic. Now, social media is setting the bar higher – remember Kim Kardashian’s Instagram post last Valentine’s Day, when Kayne West treated her to a private audience with saxophonist Kenny G amid a sea of single-stemmed roses? 

Kanye and Kim Credit: GETTY IMAGES

‘You see these “perfect relationships” and it’s easy to compare your own marriage,’ says Cat. ‘Even friends rarely admit they’re struggling in their marriages. We complain about wet towels lying on the floor, but nobody actually says, “This towel is a sign of a bigger thing to me and I’m really miserable.” 

‘Jimmy and I hated each other for a while. I even had a flat ready to move into. But [for friends and family] we were faking it. In the end I said, “We have to stop pretending that everything is OK.”’

We all compare our relationships to others’ at times, explains Sheryl Paul, the author of a new book, The Wisdom of Anxiety. But the danger lies when we allow unrealistic expectations of love to take hold – a phenomenon known as ‘relationship anxiety’.

‘This is an obsessive doubt that you’re with the wrong partner despite being with someone loving, with whom you’re well matched,’ she says. ‘It can come after three, five, even 20 years together. One cause is when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re sold a message that our partner is supposed to make us feel fulfilled, alive and rescue us from pain. When we don’t have that, we think there must be something wrong, that we’re not in love enough. But real love includes doubt, fear and feeling irritated with our partner.’

For Cat, the turning point was recognising the impact that postnatal depression had on her marriage. ‘For the first time, I realised we were in this place because we both went through a tough period. [Today] we go on dates and communicate regularly. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re happier than we have been in a long time.’

A study last year by match.com revealed that 60 per cent of those in a relationship feel that films, TV and social media have given them unrealistic expectations, while a quarter confessed that their relationship looks better online than it is in real life. Influencer Marissa Fuchs and her partner Gabriel Grossman came under fire last month for posting a video of their elaborate ‘surprise’ engagement – reports suggested that it was in fact carefully marketed. How are lesser mortals meant to compete?

Stockport-based Victoria Jennings claims the pressure to have the perfect relationship intensified an already difficult period in her marriage. After her first daughter Ana, now 10, was born, Victoria, the 39-year-old founder of Bloom baby classes, says she struggled to relate to her husband Dave. 

Victoria Jennings with her husband Dave Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Jennings

‘I felt he didn’t understand me, how I was feeling. We wouldn’t speak in the evenings or at weekends, all I wanted to do was sleep while he looked after Ana.’ Going through Dave’s emails and discovering he’d been looking for an alternative place to live, she says, was the wake-up call she needed to help get her marriage back on track.

‘Nowadays we’re bombarded with images of the ideal relationship. But things change when you have children. Before kids, our texts were all, “I love you, can’t wait to see you tonight,” followed by lots of kisses. After you have a baby, it’s, “Can you bring home some maternity pads?” – no kiss. I questioned whether Dave was right for me, but I now realise that what we went through happens lots of people.’

Psychotherapist Lola Borg explains there’s often a gap between what we have in a relationship and what we think we should have. ‘For example, if you have a relationship that doesn’t start with a thunderclap, you might wonder if you’re missed out. The reality is, if you’re with someone for a long time, things can get flat. To expect it to be otherwise is a mistake. But if you’re critical of your partner, it’s worth looking at your own life and your expectations of yourself. It might be about you and not about them.’

When the second of their two children left home, former stay-at-home mum Lauren*, 53, started to question her 30-year marriage to Andrew*. ‘We never had any major disagreements. But I started to wonder if I’d settled down too soon. I started to feel taken for granted. I remember watching Diane Keaton’s character in romcom Something’s Gotta Give. She went to Paris for the weekend with Keanu Reeves and came home with Jack Nicholson. I thought, “Now that’s living”.’ 

She decided to spend a month with a friend who lived in Italy after explaining to Andrew that she hadn’t been happy for months. ‘I read books, explored villages, went for lunches by myself. It was the adventure I needed to put things into perspective,’ she says. ‘When I came home I realised just how much I’d missed Andrew and our life together. I guess I took my marriage for granted.’ 

High expectations of romantic love is something Natasha Lunn has encountered frequently, as the founder and editor of biweekly email newsletter Conversations on Love. ‘The problem is the assumption that finding love will fix all of your problems and make you happy. Actually, unless you find a way to build that happiness outside of a romantic relationship, it is difficult to be a good partner – and to receive love too.’

Borg suggests examining how you are with your partner and asking certain questions: ‘Are you yourself, and can you talk honestly? Can they listen? Do you share the same values? And do you respect them? All the other stuff is icing on the cake and can be dealt with.’

For Lauren, the time apart gave her the chance to ask those questions. ‘I knew deep down Andrew wasn’t the problem. It was me. I just didn’t know what to do with myself after the kids left. And actually, Andrew is a bit of a romantic at heart. Every night he’ll put toothpaste on my toothbrush and leave it out for me. It’s not Jack Nicholson pouring his heart out on the Pont Neuf, but it’s our love story.’ 

Do you think we expect too much from our relationships? What do you do to keep your marriage strong? We want to hear form you in the comments section and on the Stella Facebook page