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‘Being in a relationship with anyone can be difficult, no matter how much you love each other’

Marking the passing of time: are significant dates worth celebrate or not?

We all talk about the passing of time – how fast it’s flying by and how birthdays and anniversaries seem to come about faster each year.

I have really been feeling this lately as I got married in 1993 – when I was 22 – so this year will be my 30th wedding anniversary. I’m finding this very hard to believe as it seems like only yesterday we were a young couple in our 20s, embarking on a new adventure.

Now, three decades and three sons later, we are definitely older and hopefully wiser and will be marking the occasion with a glass (or two) of bubbly to celebrate how far we have come and how grateful we are for the life we have.

Sheila Barrett and her husband, Martin, are also celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. After 40 years together, the Dublin couple say they cannot believe how far they have come and, having overcome many hurdles along the way, they are determined to enjoy as many “positive moments” with their children and grandchildren for as long as they are able.


“When Martin and I got married in 1983, everyone thought we were just a pair of silly kids who wouldn’t last the test of time,” she says. “I was only 19 and he was 20, but we had been going out with each other for three years and just knew we didn’t want anyone else. I remember my sister openly mocking me and saying that I didn’t have a clue about real life and was only ‘playing at being an adult’. She said that I’d soon come running back home looking for our parents to help.

“Those words really made me determined to succeed and, although we had virtually no money in the beginning and it was very difficult to make ends meet, we had each other and that was all that mattered. Martin had a job in the Civil Service and I was working as a secretary, but when our first son came along, I had to give that up so it was really hard as we had very little money and I was home alone all day. Things got even harder when our second child arrived but we didn’t ask anyone for a penny and cut our cloth to suit our means for many years.”

Today, with four children and 11 grandchildren, the couple are the epitome of matrimonial harmony. There were, of course, many ups and downs over the years, but the 59 year old says the key to their happiness can be attributed to give and take.

“Being in a relationship with anyone can be difficult, no matter how much you love each other,” she says. “There will be days when they drive you mad for the smallest thing and other times when you don’t even notice the irritants. I recognised early on that while somethings my husband does might get on my nerves, I also have traits which probably annoy him, so unless it is something which is of some importance, it’s not worth getting in a strop about.

“Of course, we argue, but we try to be respectful and not hurl insults around, no matter how heated the debate, because some off-the-cuff comments, which you might not actually mean, can be really hurtful and not easily forgotten, as I’ve learned to my cost. And it is crucial, even if you don’t agree with each other, to keep a united front when it comes to the kids. You can discuss or disagree when they’re not around, but if one of you is permitting something and the other vetoes it, then your children will find a weak spot and dive in. So we developed a system early on that if one of the kids asked us for permission to do something, we would say that we would tell them later, and then would discuss with each other first.

“We also give each other space and have our own separate hobbies and friends as well as having mutual ones; I think this is also really important.

“Being together for 40 years is a really big deal, and because we were so young when we got married, it could have gone badly wrong. But thankfully we were right for each other from the start and have been able to ride out the storms life has thrown at us along the way. To celebrate the anniversary, we are planning a family dinner out and then the two of us are going to head away for a night in a swanky hotel and pretend that we are young ones again.”

Marking the date can bring about a lot of mixed emotions but they can also help you to focus on where you are in your life

—  Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist

Give and take seems to have worked for the Barretts and clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne says compromise is an essential part of any relationship. “Each person in a couple is different, brings different strengths to a relationship and has their own personality traits and interests,” she says. “So part of continuing any healthy relationship is compromise as it’s about trying to figure out priorities and sometimes someone needs to make a sacrifice. But if one is always doing that, then it can be problematic as relationships are all about fostering mutual trust and for each person to be giving.

“It’s about balance and respect and if one person feels they’re compromising all the time or they seem to be dominating, then it becomes an unhealthy and difficult relationship. So it’s really important for both parties to be comfortable.”

Being in a happy relationship for many decades is undoubtedly an achievement, and Coyne says it is important for some people to mark anniversaries as they remind us of important events in our lives, but there is no one size fits all.

“I think it’s good to celebrate these times in our lives. It’s a healthy thing for us to acknowledge that time has passed,” she says. “Anniversaries can be positive and joyful but they can also be sad if it’s the anniversary of someone dying or if it is a birthday or wedding anniversary and they are no longer there, so marking the date can bring about a lot of mixed emotions but they can also help you to focus on where you are in your life.

“So, it really depends on the time in your life and whether you feel like celebrating a particular anniversary or not. I don’t think there’s any blanket rule on what people should do. They certainly don’t have to be public events but it’s important that everyone feels comfortable with the way the date is marked or announced, especially in these days of social media, as both parties need to be happy with the level of sharing to the public about the relationship.

“Some people are happy with marking notable events quietly, some are big into gifts and others into gestures like a nice dinner or card, and this is equally special. It’s all about spending quality time together as a couple and doing the best to keep the relationship healthy and continuing on.”

Sheila Barrett agrees and says that having different wants and needs is what has kept her relationship going after more than 40 years.

“Life would be very boring if we were all the same and, on paper, Martin and I seem to be at odds with each other personality wise,” she says. “If I had my way, I would have had a wedding vow renewal at each decade of our marriage but it would be my husband’s worst nightmare. He hates fuss and can’t stand to be in the limelight, so we have always celebrated our anniversary on our own at home or with the kids.

“I respect that he doesn’t like that sort of attention and he has compromised over the years by throwing me a big party for my significant birthdays so that way, I get to be the focus of the night while he can fade into the background doing the cooking and pouring drinks. So when it comes to celebrating our 40th, I’ll have a lovely weekend with him and the family and then next year, for my 60th, he will organise a big ‘surprise’ birthday party. Thinking about what the other person wants is key in any relationship and that, I believe, is one of the reasons we have stood the test of time.”

But parties, champagne and flowers aside, some relationships are not meant to be and this, says Coyne, is also perfectly fine and normal and no one should berate themselves if it comes to an end.

“Relationships evolve all the time and we are also changing as people,” she says. “If our partner can evolve with us and accept these changes and the direction that we are going, then that’s great, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. But I don’t see the breakdown in a relationship as necessarily being a terrible thing as we learn and grow with every relationship and friendship we have.

“So, just because we don’t last together forever, it doesn’t mean that we have failed. It helps to make us stronger and identify the things that we need, the people who we are and the fact that we are constantly evolving.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories