Monday 30 August 1999 Love and other catastrophes By RACHEL GIBSON

'TIL death us do part.

Once upon a time it was more than just a romantic sentiment uttered at the altar when couples tied the knot. It was for real. Marriage - like love - was for ever, an enduring commitment that held on, until one of you snuffed it. Or so the romance novels and the women's mags led us to believe.

These days, it seems that if you make it past your third wedding anniversary you deserve to be congratulated. Modern marriage is tough going - and many of us are deciding it's just not worth the hassle.

According to the latest data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 51,370 couples divorced in 1998, 25per cent more than in 1988. Of these, almost a quarter had separated within the first three years; 36per cent within the first five years.

The statistics, released last week, showed more couples divorced between the third and fourth years of marriage than at any other interval. The sevenyear itch is dead, it was claimed; now we're getting sick of each other in half the time.

The good news is, this isn't true. Most couples are now living together before marriage, so the old adage about the sevenyear itch probably still holds true. The bad news is, regardless of whether couples have lived together before or not, the first few years of marriage are probably the toughest.

According to those who have worked with married couples or studied their relationships, the early breakdown of marriage is no modern phenomenon. Despite popular rhetoric about this being the throwaway age, the first few years have always been a time in which the potential for conflict within a relationship is particularly acute.

For many couples, this is the gettingtoknowyou time, the time when they are adjusting to living together and to their different expectations about marriage and relationships.

``Each person comes into a relationship with rules about how that relationship should go and the two sets of rules people bring into the relationship are different,'' says Rosalie Pattenden, psychologist and senior counsellor with Relationships Australia. ``When a couple gets together they need to work out couple goals and that always causes some difficulties.''

It is also the period during which there is often the greatest confluence of stresses on a couple. One or both partners may be trying to establish their career, working long hours and sometimes weekends to get ahead, leaving less time for the relationship.

Money is often tight, perhaps because one partner is still studying or looking for work. Yet, it is often a time in which couples are saving to buy their first home, or renovating a house in preparation for the arrival of their first child.

According to Dr Don Edgar, the founding director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, there are several key flashpoints in a marriage, but probably the most critical is the period after the birth of the first baby.

``That changes the nature of a couple relationship forever,'' he says. ``The couple is no longer just two people living together. They have to face all of those issues of parenthood and it really is very stressful.''

Pattenden agrees. Often the husband will feel that he has been displaced in his wife's affections, while she may feel she is not getting enough support. Then there are the physical pressures: the sheer exhaustion of caring for a tiny baby, resolving who will get up during the night and who will bathe and feed and change.

To a lesser extent, the birth of the second child is also a fractious time for many couples, Dr Edgar says. As is the period after a woman who has cared for her children at home first goes back to work.

This is a time when the division of household labor must be renegotiated, when couples must learn how to manage the demands of two jobs while still reserving energy for their children.

These problems are not unique to Australian couples. International research by the American anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love, has shown that divorce rates around the world peak at about the fourth year of marriage.

Dr Fisher - and American psychologist Professor Cindy Hazan, from Cornell University in New York - has blamed much of it on the expiry of passion that occurs when the chemical effect associated with the first flush of love wears off.

According to recent findings by Professor Hazan, reported in the London press, the excitement associated with falling in love - supposedly caused by a cocktail of chemicals in the brain - lasts only 18 to 30 months. After that, couples either split up in the hope of reexperiencing the same sensations with someone else or commit to a different sort of relationship, based on friendship or children.

Rosalie Pattenden believes this natural demise of passion in the first couple of years of a relationship can have a destructive impact on a couple. ``It causes people to think that there's something going wrong with the relationship or maybe that they're not in love anymore,'' she says.

But clinical psychologist and sex therapist Dr Janet Hall blames immaturity, rather than chemical dieoff, for such attitudes. Many young couples marry thinking the romance will last forever and when it doesn't they become disenchanted, she says.

``Young girls particularly have that romantic image about weddings. Look how those glossy bride magazines sell,'' she says. ``The first two years (of marriage) are the hardest. That's when the reality about living together sets in ... The lust factor wanes and then you're stuck with the everyday things like household budgets.''

Dr Warwick Hartin, a sociologist and the former national director of the Marriage Guidance Council of Australia, believes couples are misguided if they think that the passion of the first few months can be retained for the long haul. It is a false expectation, he says, sustained by the mythology that true love lasts forever. ``I don't hold to any chemical theory. I think that's a lot of nonsense,'' he says. ``But yes, I do think that romance usually wanes in the first couple of years and that's because of constant exposure to the other person. But it's replaced by more substantial things like affection; things the couple have built together in common.

``Romance is like the launching pad that gets the relationship in motion, but it doesn't provide sufficient energy on its own to sustain the relationship over 40 years.''

SO how do couples survive the first few years of a marriage? Both Dr Hartin and Rosalie Pattenden believe the expectations two people bring to a marriage are very important. Couples should expect to have difficulties. They should not interpret them as a sign they have married the wrong person or that love has evaporated.

It is also important to try to talk through problems in a cooperative and nonaccusatory way, and, failing that, to seek the help of an experienced outsider.

``Every relationship will strike its problems but resolving those problems is also possible,'' Pattenden says.

``Rather than being frightened away, people should be encouraged to learn that relationships, like life, aren't happy all the time and that working through the difficulties, being able to resolve differences and find a comfortable way of being together, is an achievement worth working for.''