Getting married and hoping for the best is a little like buying a car in your twenties, never servicing it, and hoping it will still be running okay by the time you reach old age.
Two years ago, my husband Ben and I began seeing a therapist. Back then, we had no idea if sitting in somebody's front room in East Dulwich would help us, but things had reached a crisis point. Ben, who ran his own business, had got into financial difficulty and had filed for insolvency. I knew things weren't great, but he hadn't been truthful about exactly how bad things had got. Then, we had a 2-year-old and a baby – we now have a third – and now I can see he was just trying to protect me.
We were in a dark place and I was staring down the barrel of divorce. But the therapy, which we did for a year, helped us scrabble through the mess and realise whether or not our marriage was worth fighting for, which it was. So I'm not surprised that official figures show the number of women divorcing their husbands has dropped to its lowest level in a generation. There were a total of 62,712 who filed for divorce in the UK in 2017, almost half the number that did in 1993.
In New Zealand divorce rates have also been in steady decline since 1992. According to Stats NZ, the rate in 2017 was 8.4 divorces - per 1000 existing marriages. That's down from 1992 when the rate was at 11.9.
An improvement in men's behaviour
Experts suggest the drop in women seeking separations is down to an improvement in their husband's behaviour. Harry Benson, who worked on this latest study and is research director of the Marriage Foundation, says: "At a time when men's past bad behaviour towards women is being challenged, and quite rightly, we are now seeing clear evidence that men's behaviour in their marriages at least has improved substantially over the past 25 years."
My generation – I'm 36 – sit in a weird place. Many of my friends' parents are divorced, and I too am the child of divorce. Our mother's generation often gave up careers they loved to raise families. Traditionally, husbands were encouraged to work every hour under the sun to support their families, which meant they couldn't be as involved as modern fathers. In fact, my father, a barrister, is in his sixties and still works full-time.
And if you are doing it on your own child-rearing, while joyful, can also be lonely, relentless and exhausting, not to mention the damage it can do to your self-confidence and self-esteem. I can see how frustrating this must have been for many marriages, and why these traditional structures lead to unhappiness and marital breakdown.
Equally, the generation that followed – the women I worked under in my twenties who are now in their fifties or thereabouts – saw this and thought they could and should work as hard as their husbands. But they almost killed themselves with stress in the process.
Each generation learns from the next, and I think what is interesting now is that our ambitions for our marriages and family life are shifting.
Among the married couples we know, we no longer talk about wanting to climb the property ladder into the bigger house, on the nicer road, closer to the better schools, at whatever cost (the cost being more stress). We talk about finding balance and working together to do so.
Success now, for both men and women, means feeling fulfilled and happy at work, but not to the detriment of seeing our kids or the happiness of family life as a whole. For both, these are the things that matter more than status symbols like big houses or cars.
For this reason, most of the parents I know – male and female – are working harder at our relationships and looking for a different shape of work, one that suits a balanced family life. Ben has recently given up work to be a full-time stay-at-home dad, while I'm the main breadwinner in my job as a creative strategist and social influencer. Which means we can empathise with the other in a way our parents' generation never could.
Unlike either of our fathers, Ben knows what it's really like to be at home with young children all day, which makes him more mindful of how I felt when I was doing the same. And, unlike my mother, I also can understand the pressure of being responsible for all the bills, which helps me be more mindful of how Ben felt when he was going through difficulties at work.
Throughout a marriage, things and people change: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. A marriage isn't just going to work and you need to check in with each other every now and then. When we first went to therapy, it was because we were in crisis, but now we go to fine-tune things. It's like a marriage MOT.
We've learnt how to be mindful of how we speak to each other. Many of us speak more kindly to our friends and colleagues than we do our husbands or wives. My parents stayed married longer than they perhaps wanted to "for the sake of the children" – but that can be damaging, too, because children hear the way their parents speak to each other.
We've also learnt to be more mindful of each other's triggers: when the going gets tough, I get busy and all over stuff. Ben, on the other hand, buries his head in the sand. Each trigger exacerbates the other, and I can easily burn out and become horrible to him.
Our big lesson
The big lesson from our marriage MOT is that we need to keep communicating. Like most mothers, whether they work or don't, I still carry the "emotional load". Ben is hands-on in a way that many men have never been before in their marriages, but he still wouldn't think to buy a birthday card ahead of a birthday party. So one day I sat him down and reeled off every single item on my emotional load, from watering the plants to buying a birthday card, to getting new school plimsolls for our eldest.
If the washing pile stacks up, I get stressed. It may not be rational, but it makes me feel out of control. So our therapist has helped Ben understand about the small triggers, too.
Now I've turned my emotional load into a real list and stuck it on the fridge, and Ben is happy to work through it. Lastly we know to play to our strengths: who is good at doing bills, or hates the ironing, or enjoys buying presents for friends and family? These are divvied up according to what we are good at, rather than along gender lines.
So, would I agree that these latest statistics are down to men behaving better and more responsibly in a marriage. Yes, having a successful marriage in 2019 means being mindful of what the other is feeling and experiencing. And if it means learning from the generations who went before us, we seem to be doing pretty well.
As told to Maria Lally. You can follow Clemmie on Instagram here.
What it means to be a husband in 2019
By Ben Telford, Clemmie's husband
I agree with Sir Paul Coleridge, founder of the Marriage Foundation, when he said that the only sensible explanation for this downturn in women filing for divorce is that men are behaving better when it comes to marriage. Also, with Joanne Edwards, head of law firm Forsters, who analysed the findings and says she found a "sea change in the sharing of childcare responsibilities within the home, and fathers who are ever more hands-on".
Men are also trying to be more mindful of how our other half is feeling. Our third child was born last February, and a few weeks ago I quit my job to be a stay-at-home dad. When Clemmie had our first child, I had no idea what it was like being at home all day with a baby.
But, following our most recent arrival, I asked my boss to take shared parental leave. He's a bit of a dinosaur and said: "Why on earth would you want to do that?" The answer? I want to hang out with my kids more, and support Clemmie in her career. It's hard and lonely at times, but I love it. And it helps me be more mindful of what it is to be a mother.
I'm not surprised fewer couples are getting divorced. We're talking and listening to each other more than ever.