Surprising (Little) Things that Improve Your Marriage

If trying to improve your marriage feels like pushing a boulder up a hill, maybe you're trying too hard. Louisa Kamps traverses the small moves a couple can make to get big results.

It's the little thingsIt's the little thingsOn 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.

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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.

The Natural Tendencies of a Husband and Wife

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? 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, 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!'")

Hug It Out-Seriously

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 6-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."

To hit our quota, T. and I often end up awkwardly hugging halfway up the stairs, one or both of us coming or going in a fat down coat. But when we get a good grip going-spontaneously cooing like our baby when he's digging into a bowl of applesauce-the effect is lovely and loving: a palpable reminder, as Stosny says, of every married person's highest (yet often neglected) goal of handling her spouse tenderly. Burrowing my nose in T.'s neck, I have Proustian flashbacks to those lazy prekid afternoons when all we did was lie in bed, marveling over each other's skin (his so insanely soft and sandalwoody!) and simple, three-dimensional selfhood. I also feel any beefs that might be building up against T. or the world losing their "Must express now!" immediacy. (Which prods me to consider whether my discontent should be expressed at all, and, if so, how I might do it without leaving T. feeling attacked.) Pleasingly to me-always jonesing for proof my man loves me (hey, it's just the animal in me)-T. often stretches our hugs out to nine, 10, even 24 seconds. On days he's stressed and grumpy, I think I actually feel him degrumpify in my arms. And when I ask, he confirms my hunch that our wordless huddles give him a big bump too: "They make my day," he says emphatically.

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Have a Conversation-Not About the Kids

After a couple of weeks of power hugging, we also start practicing what Terri L. Orbuch, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and author of Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, calls the 10-minute rule: setting aside time for brief daily conversation to, as she writes, "talk about anything under the sun-except kids, work, and household tasks or responsibilities." In her ongoing study tracking married couples since the mid-1980s, Orbuch, aka "the Love Doctor" on her nationally syndicated radio show, has found that happily married people-those also more likely to stay together through big life upsets, such as job loss and death-report having a solid sense of their partners' emotional lives.

Because we have such eerily similar funny bones, I've always prided myself that T. and I are aficionados of each other's thoughts, but sitting down on the couch in the evenings-studiously avoiding household accounting and our children (surprisingly tricky, these topics being our daily bread)-we both discover things we had no idea were knocking around in the other's head. It isn't pleasant at first, realizing how rusty we are at heart-to-heart conversation. When T. tells me one night that he really wants something big to change in his life, I freeze like a startled bunny. What I'm wondering-and struggling not to blurt out (Orbuch has told me in her velvety voice that this time is for "really listening to our partners" with the same "curiosity and excitement we felt in the first days of our relationship")-is whether by "something big" T. means a new woman, one with fewer anxieties and a tighter ass. But with this mother of all worries on my mind, I realize I can't actually hear what T.'s saying. So I ask in a tiny squeak if that's what he means. T. laughs gently-"I'd wonder the same thing if you said that to me"-and pulls me in for a hug, reiterating (and now I hear him) that, after years of not being in a band, he really wants to play music again seriously.

Once we get past the initial first-date-ish awkwardness-does he (still) like me? Do I (still) like him? Whew, yes, we do!-trading notes with T. on everything from what we want our lives to look like in five years to what we'd really like to do on Saturday afternoon to why we deeply love certain Prince songs becomes a new high point of the day, even if our chat has to be by phone. Since Orbuch's research has shown that couples who actively cultivate interests outside marriage are happier together-more confident, less needy- T. and I also start making the effort to see friends separately, something we've let slide. A nifty side benefit of talking to other people-obvious, perhaps, but a revelation in the fog of young-kid parenting-is that it gives us new ideas to ponder together. Our furthest-ranging talks can be unnerving: acknowledging there are parts of our lives we want to upend takes steel and understanding (and nixing TV-when important stuff comes up, we need longer than 10 minutes to talk). But riding the wave of a real grown-up conversation with T. is thrilling, reminding me of how we communicated in the flush of new love: with patience, trust, and a genuinely open mind.

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Making Sex Better-By Scheduling It

Then there's that other matter I promised to get to. Feeling closer physically (thanks to the prescriptive hugs) and emotionally (from the no-kid/money/broken-appliance chats), we'd be gloriously triumphant if only we could have more sex. (Sorry, can't give the average here: Some months, there's a flurry of activity if the boys are unusually compliant at bedtime; others, I'd have to squint hard to remember whether the last time was two weeks earlier or three.) In a weird way, though, feeling closer has actually made dialing up our sex life more daunting: Now if we're going to do it, it's really got to be great, right?

But according to Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, journalists who show in their new book, Spousonomics, how couples can apply principles of behavioral economics to familiar marital quagmires, this kind of thinking is counterproductive. Failing to recognize that no matter how well things are going between us, we've moved beyond the boom-boom years keeps us anchored, in econ speak, to a standard of excellence tough to achieve. The upshot? Sex tends to stay on a shelf beyond our reach, an all-too-rare treat easier to wistfully remember than actually partake in.

Anderson and Szuchman's tips for increasing the odds sex will happen? Stop comparing today with yesterday, actively decide the new marital status quo isn't all that bad (passive decision-making always defaults to the old way of doing things), and increase the transparency of what's become an opaque market. Make plain to your partner "exactly what you want, when you want it" before you hit the sheets to "avoid the awkwardness of asking for sex, or refusing sex, or getting shot down asking for sex." By putting everything on the table, some mystery is lost, admits Anderson, herself a mother of young children. But when "we have limited resources: limited time, energy, and money"-a factor if, say, sitters must be hired so parents can scuttle upstairs-then spelling everything out, on a Google calendar if necessary, becomes merely a matter of rational resource allocation.

Despite wincing memories of the wife in Tom Perrotta's Little Children scheduling sex for 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, we agree to experiment with the technique. And to my surprise, preplanning works for us. It's not skyrockets in flight; lying there at the appointed hour with T., both of us breathless from having hustled the kids into bed 20 minutes early to make this important meeting, I sometimes think we might as well crown our nakedness with Bluetooth headsets, such efficiency freaks we've become. Still, realizing that all it takes to get steady action again is a bit of phoning and e-mailing to pin down sex dates-plus slightly lowering our sexpectations-is a big relief. We've still got (at least some of) it!

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Making the Marriage Better-By Being Friendlier

Underlying our tendency to focus nostalgically on sex of yore is couples' struggle to face the inevitable disappointments of long-term relationships, according to psychiatrist John W. Jacobs, MD, author of All You Need Is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. Even though half of marriages end in divorce, the "fantasies we've been fed by Hollywood since we were very small"-of princes and princesses living happily ever after-are so powerful, he says, that people almost always go into marriage overconfident, sure they'll beat the odds. The result is they're sorely unprepared when they hit bad patches.

A proponent of systemic psychotherapy, which examines how one person's state of mind affects another's, Jacobs understands keenly how small, seemingly insignificant interactions in a marriage can have big reverberations, positive or negative. His great, graspable analogy is that in a marriage "each individual is like a very sensitive tuning fork that receives and transmits emotional impulses." And for me-still struggling to manage my own disappointment and temper on those tense evenings when, say, T. comes home in a dark mood and forgets the hug (in the movies this never happens!)-it's a breakthrough to be able to step back and remember that I actually can influence how the night unfolds.

In the past, I've practiced various meditations in hope of becoming more compassionate and less volatile in the moment. But, Jacobs says, sometimes it takes "embarrassingly little" to dampen negative vibes and activate good ones. So when my husband comes home cranky, instead of trying to picture myself as a mountain strong enough to bear the buffeting of this passing storm cloud, my new move is just to say to myself, "Be nice." From there, I might take his thermos out of his hands and start washing it. Or say, "Sounds like you've had a rough day. Why don't you go upstairs and chill before dinner." But the details aren't important. The magic of being nice is that I feel better instantly-stronger, more in control, and more like the soft, loving person I think of myself as being down deep. And T., tuning fork that he is, usually responds in kind (though keeping score isn't the point here), coming downstairs later in a better mood, or the next day offering to take the kids out so I can relax.

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What The Two of You Will Learn

To sum up the impact of these subtle changes, I'd say that a good deal of scale, the hardening that built up between us over time, has sloughed off. T. and I-hugging, talking, having sex, taking care of each other better than we had been-are moving together more fluidly and cooperatively. We're less sardonic, more joyful. By Valentine's Day-get this!-there's even an exchange of handmade cards and fine chocolates. But rather than dusting off our hands because now we're done with marriage repair, what we must do to protect this new feeling of spaciousness and flexibility is, really, more of the same: continue to steadily check in with each other and ourselves to assess what is and isn't working, and correct course as needed. At least that's according to James V. Córdova, a professor of psychology at Clark University, who's assessing in a large, federally funded study the (so far overwhelmingly positive) impact of regular "marital health" examinations, a program he elegantly outlined in his recent book The Marriage Checkup. "You and your partner are engaged in an endeavor that at its heart is constantly changing and will constantly change for the rest of your lives," Córdova tells me. "So the only way to relate, the only way to be truly intimate, is to pay attention." A simple instruction-my favorite kind.

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