It’s the little things

On our anniversary last October, finally in bed after a marathon day, I gave my husband, T., a card — the one my mother had just sent cheering on our union, hurriedly revised by me in red pencil to read as if it were intended just for him. As if I’d actually had the time and foresight to buy a pretty card myself and fill it with observations on the magnificence of our marriage seven years in. Ha!

We both chuckled at my little joke, arf-arf-ing at how anniversary celebrations had slipped completely off our list of priorities. (He’d not gotten me anything either.) Afterward, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about it — about our rueful laugh followed by a chaste kiss. How far the mighty had fallen! The year before we married, T. and I coupled up so hard and fast — with so much tender mind-melding, such feverish grappling, sheesh — that if you’d told me we’d be blanking on our anniversary not 10 years in and cackling about it like two callous sitcom characters, I would’ve thought you high as a kite. Don’t get me wrong: Mostly our marriage was chugging along fine. T. and I were splitting kid management without much rancor, we could still bust up laughing together (with and without bitter irony), and on our best days, we were sparky, sweet, awesome. But I also couldn’t help noticing more bickering — usually over stuff as stupid as, yes, spilled milk and whose turn it was to wipe it up — and, in its wake, creeping alienation. It made me sad to detect this pattern taking shape: one of us snapping, then retreating to separate corners to regroup (me phoning friends to bitch and gab, him mooning over guitars on eBay). And seeing more acquaintances divorce every year, I figured we’d be smart to break the mold before it got too set.

Couples therapy seemed daunting for the time, cost, and headache of dragging T. to weekly sessions (he’s therapy averse, as more men than women tend to be). But when I proposed small fixes — things we could do around the edges to decrease friction and increase affection — he was down with the program. Luckily, it didn’t take long to locate a number of simple yet powerful steps almost any couple can take to get their relationship rolling in a more positive direction.

If it were just me cruising Amazon, I would have clicked past Steven Stosny and Patricia Love’s How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It — a preposterous title to my loquacious female self. But after T. heard about the book from one of his friends (a family physician, no less) who said it had demystified his own marriage, I ordered a copy. Stosny, a Maryland-based psychologist who developed a program used to treat anger in prison inmates, roots a key conflict-causing difference between women and men in evolutionary biology. The male social animal, he says, is innately sensitive to abrupt changes in stimulation and, sensing approaching danger, prepares to fight or flee. You’ve no doubt heard that before, but the twist Stosny adds is the gut-punch of shame in the jungle of modern marriage. When females signal that they’re feeling anxious or fearful — by directly complaining about their partners or merely chronicling the bumps and stresses of the day — men immediately try to figure out how to protect or soothe them. And when they can’t?