"The atmosphere of my marriage set the weather for my whole life.”
Writer Gretchen Rubin spent a year researching the science of happiness and the concrete steps people can take to make their lives happier. Each month, Rubin chose to test the research on a different part of her own life. She wrote about it in her 2009 book, The Happiness Project. In May she focused on including more play in her life. November was for keeping a contented heart. In February, she decided to examine her marriage to her husband, Jamie, and see what she could do to make her already happy relationship, happier.
She makes a few intriguing points that apply to lots of relationships - not just marriage - that seem worth sharing. “Love is a funny thing,” she writes. “I’d donate a kidney to Jamie without a moment’s hesitation, but I was intensely annoyed if he asked me to make a special stop at the drugstore to pick up shaving cream....I thought hard about my particular marriage, and the changes I could make to restore the tenderness and patience of our newlywed, prebaby days.”
Rubin’s first goal was to lighten up on her tendency toward nagging and try to be more lighthearted. She quotes G.K. Chesterton, who observed that we have to make an effort to be cheerful: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” She also talks about one of her “Secrets of Adulthood,” which is, What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while. “Small, frequent gestures of thoughtfulness were more important than chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and I wanted to load Jamie with small treats and courtesies, praise and appreciation.” She writes that, since people are 47% more likely to feel close to a family member who expresses affection than one who rarely does, she started telling him she loved him more often, giving more hugs, and being more silly and affectionate.
She quotes Pierre Reverdy, who says, “there is no love; there are only proofs of love.” We have to show what we feel. “Whatever love I might feel in my heart,” Rubin says, “others will see only my actions.” As she considers the best way to show proofs of love, she asks friends for advice. One friend recounted that her Quaker grandparents, married for seventy-two years, said that each couple should have an outdoor game (golf, tennis, etc.) and an indoor game (Scrabble or cards) that they play together. She told Jamie about the rule, and the next day he bought a backgammon set.
“These were small gestures,” she writes, “but they made a surprisingly big shift in the tone of our interactions.” The February chapter is packed with interesting statistics and ideas for warming up the affections of a spouse or family member (you have to hold a hug for six seconds in order to activate the bonding and mood-boosting hormones oxytocin and serotonin! Who knew!). “For me, as for most married people, my marriage was the foundation of all the other important choices in my life: where I lived, having kids, my friends, my work, my leisure. The atmosphere of my marriage set the weather for my whole life.” It’s absolutely worth your while to remember love; reconnecting with the kindness and patience that characterized your early days together can go a long way to warming up the atmosphere of your marriage.