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The Day We Forgot Our Anniversary

How Small Changes Saved Our Romance

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 were 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 sweet and 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. ...Read More

If it were just me cruising Amazon, then 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? The typical guy feels ashamed of his own inadequacy, Stosny says, and masks it with low-grade aggression (criticizing or otherwise behaving contemptuously toward his wife) or by withdrawing (tuning her out to avoid what feels like an assault on his manliness).

When I ask T. if he ever feels ashamed in our relationship, he shrugs—which I take as a no, though Stosny points out that many powerful emotions operate beneath conscious awareness. But I feel a gonglike ring of familiarity when he describes how women—when missing the closeness that is for them an evolutionary imperative—ratchet up the nervous chatter and angry asides. If we had a dollar for every night I've stood in our dining room, prattling on about sundry worries, while T. sat at the table bathed in the blue light of his laptop, effectively worlds away, prompting me to accuse him of not listening and him to accuse me of bulldoggishly worrying problems beyond reason, then we'd be rich.

In this common marital feedback loop, a woman like me rarely gets what she's after: "You're trying to get him to reassure you that he's not a total jerk, but all he's hearing is that he's a total jerk," Stosny says. But with practice, he adds, couples can break out of the "fear-shame dynamic." Learning to recognize it when it occurs takes away much of its sting and makes it easier to short-circuit. ("We train our clients to say, 'Hey! We got triggered! It's not you doing this to me, it's not me doing this to you—it's a primal emotional mechanism!'")

An even simpler way to avoid the fear-shame sinkhole is to build a bulwark against it. "The one thing that regulates fear and shame," making men and women feel better simultaneously, "is physical connection," Stosny says. To help couples share more empathy-building basic touch (less fraught than sex, which—patience, dear reader—we'll get to), Stosny prescribes six six-second hugs per day, with additional signals of affection (even a quick locking of eyes) sent both ways four times a day: when waking in the morning, before leaving home, upon returning at night and before going to sleep. Research has shown that positive emotions tend to "lead one into another," Stosny explains, "like a stream that extends throughout the day."

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  • Small changes can make a big difference in your relationship.

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The Day We Forgot Our Anniversary
How Small Changes Saved Our Romance
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