We delve into the secrets to a long-lasting relationship with the digital parenting duo, Mother and Papa Pukka, who reveal their top tips to rediscover your long-term love...
When does the gloss dull on a shiny, happy marriage? For author, presenter and journalist Anna Whitehouse, it was precisely eight years and two children after saying “I do” – the moment she discovered one of her husband’s jagged toenail clippings in her cosmetics bag.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” admits Anna, whose filter-free parenting blog, Mother Pukka, has become a go-to for frazzled parents. Over the past six years, Anna has “cracked open the very real issues” of her life, sharing her innermost feelings with her 241,000 Instagram followers, about everything from five miscarriages, PTSD, anxiety and postnatal depression, to working in pyjamas, getting “spangled” with her mum on a rare night out, and swimming with two kids (FYI don’t do it).
During the hard times, Anna, 38, credits her hubby – fellow journalist Matt Farquharson, 43 – with being her rock. She recalls with heartbreaking clarity when she first miscarried in A&E. “Matt just held me and that was the point where we got married – not the day I was worried about favours, the live band, and 5,000 Scrabble tiles spelling out our guests’ names,’ she says. “We got married in a hospital ward during one of the darkest moments we’ve experienced together.”
But by the beginning of last year, Anna and Matt’s solidity had weakened. Confused by the seemingly gaping chasm between “I do” and “The End”, and tired of daily frustrations with each other, the couple became disillusioned by marriage.
“It’s easy to cruise along and think ‘everything’s fine’, but you let little disappointments go, and ignore things that should be dealt with – that shortness with your partner, that sarkiness about mundane nonsense, starts to build and affect someone,” explains Matt, aka Papa Pukka, whose hilarious take on fatherhood has turned him and Anna into digital parenting royalty.
Anna agrees. “It was never one thing, it was an amalgamation of things that were chipping away at our happiness, and wearing down on what was once a really shiny thing,” she says, adding that such issues were compounded by “exhaustion, postnatal depression, redundancy, the weight of finances and admin”.
All of this led Anna to one place – hunting for an escape route.
“I’ve said to Matt a couple of times ‘Maybe I should just fuck off,’” she confesses. ‘You get to the point where you wonder ‘Is this it?’ and ‘If this is it, do I want this?’”
To find answers, Anna and Matt committed not to a divorce, but to writing a book “separately but together”. They agreed on nine topics, from going it alone to porn, and then wrote down their deepest thoughts while interviewing experts including residents of a love commune, monks, and their own parents. They only read each other’s contributions before penning the final chapter. The process, says Anna, “nearly broke us, then mended us again”.
“One psychiatrist said ‘being married or in a long-term relationship is about as close as you can get to being in therapy without being in therapy’ because the other person is this mirror, reflecting back to you your very best and worst traits,” says Matt, who believes the process helped them reframe the meaning of the “elusive” happily-ever-after by getting real about the dynamics of a modern-day relationship.
“It’s taught me patience and a rediscovered mutual respect. We’ve now worked out what the next stage is, and that it can be just as happy if not happier.”
Stop chasing what Google wants you to find, what Getty Images are telling you love looks like. Stop looking for that Disney happy ever after
But Anna and Matt, whose 2017 book Parenting The Sh*t Out Of Life became a Sunday Times bestseller, refute the suggestion that they are now bonafide relationship gurus.
“We’re just two exhausted people who found divorce one administrative thing too many,” laughs Anna. “Matt and I are still on a journey… but I haven’t told him I want to fuck off for a very long time!”
With high marital quality linked to lower stress and depression is it any wonder we’re all hungry to get long term love right? Here Anna and Matt share their top ten tips for making true romance go the distance.
1. What does love need now?
“I spent a few days in a free-love commune in Portugal, a community that’s been built up over 30 years,” says Matt. “One guy I spoke to talked about selfishness in relationships, and how we all need to stop and say ‘What does love need now?’ It sounds naff, like something you’d stick in an Instagram square, but in the moments you’re being a bit ratty or selfish it’s a good way to assess ‘What does our relationship need? What do we need together?’ We’re all essentially toddlers at heart, wanting to get our own way. Thinking about this question helps us to take a breath, and think about what’s best for the relationship.”
2. Embrace the mundane
“Realise that the mundane is the happy ever after, that the banal cheese and pickle sandwich, and a cheeky bum squeeze by the fridge, are the things to celebrate, not big romantic dinners where there’s so much pressure to have the perfect date,” advises Anna. “We now know that beauty is in the trip to the chewing gum-splattered park at the end of the road as much as it is in a five night stay at Alton Towers. “Stop chasing what Google wants you to find, what Getty Images are telling you love looks like. Stop looking for that Disney happy ever after.”
3. Choose your words carefully
“It’s easy to stop trying when you’ve been with someone for a while,” admits Matt. “It’s worth stopping to think: ‘If I was to give my best self to this person, what would that look like, and what would I be doing?’”
“Be vocal about your needs,” adds Anna. “I recently said to Matt, ‘I just need you to ask me sometimes, ‘How was your day? How are you? Who are you?’ We have lost each other so very much in the last few years, because we haven’t checked in enough in this pursuit of the bigger, the better, the faster, the richer.”
4. Strike a balance between being supportive and over-dependent
“One of the things we learned is the huge value in being able to bugger off and be by yourself,” says Matt. “Everyone needs a little bit of time in their own head and you don’t often get that, especially in a family set-up. Creating a bit of space purely for you, whether through exercise, going to a museum or watching a film, is incredibly important for helping you appreciate the time you do have with your partner.”
5. Find your 'something'
“When one person feels like they’ve lost themselves, maybe after giving up their career, there’s often a sense of ‘who am I now?’ For a healthy relationship with yourself and with your partner, you have to have that something,” says Anna. “The minute I stopped putting heavy expectations on other humans in my life to fix me and make me happy was when – through writing this book – I found happiness. It was such a simple shift.”
6. Worship your partner as much as the kids
“A psychiatrist I spoke to said problems creep into relationships when parents worship their children in a way that they don’t any more worship their partner,” explains Matt. “Remember that if you’re doing the basics – feeding them, cleaning them, and showing them interesting things – the kids are probably fine, but if you don’t focus on the person you’re raising them with it can potentially be damaging. “What kids need to see is a loving, mutually respectful relationship between whoever is raising them. It’s easy for people to overlook that, and I’ve definitely realised I need to make my best effort with Anna as much as I do with our kids.”
Traditionally, guys haven’t always been great at sharing emotions. We’re taught to suppress our feelings, but that doesn’t make the feelings go away
7. Get physical
“On a really primal level, the more you have sex, the more you want to have sex, the more you feel connected, and the healthier and happier you are. The physical side can just be contact – a hug or a fruity WhatsApp message,” says Anna. “That said, the other day I messaged Matt to say ‘let’s get it on tonight’ then by the evening I was really tired, I’d dealt with a doctor’s appointment over a potential bunion, and I wasn’t there! Actually, what mattered was that contact, a hug, and recognising that those little moments build up to a bigger picture.”
8. Treasure the tough times
“Recognise that tears can be just as good as laughter,” insists Anna. “If you Google romance and love, you’ll see pictures of sunsets and cocktails on holiday in warm weather with a very heteronormative couple holding hands. The images should be those when you’re in a million pieces, sobbing on the floor with mascara running down your face, unable to find a way out of the door through anxiety, or postnatal depression, or post-miscarriage trauma, and your partner is there lifting you up, holding you up as you sob, saying ‘It’s shit and I’m here.’”
9. Get real with gender equality
“When I started out-earning Matt, it was initially really emasculating for him. Now we’re re-educating each other on how you can find happiness in equality of emotion, finance, or parenting,” says Anna, whose Flex Appeal campaign for flexible working for parents has helped get a bill read in parliament.
“There’s definitely a little adjustment that sits in the back of your head, that Neanderthal man-bit, saying, ‘I should be the one that earns more money,’” continues Matt. “You can either ignore that and let a little bit of resentment fester, or stop, address it and think, ‘Why do I think like that?’ Traditionally, guys haven’t always been great at sharing emotions. We’re taught to suppress our feelings, but that doesn’t make the feelings go away. They just come out in less healthy ways.”
10. Be content with the now
“The desire to get on and do better is part of the reason people end up having affairs,” warns Matt. “People remember the great relationship they had with their partner in their 20s, then 15 years later, with kids and a mortgage, hanker after that with someone else. Marriage vows say ‘for richer, for poorer’, but ‘the poorer’ is more important. Tackle that. Money isn’t going to buy the joy that you’re seeking.”
‘Where’s My Happy Ending?’ by Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson is available now (Bluebird, £14.99)