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What a Happy Marriage Really Looks Like

Yes, you're happily married. It's just that you're not always on the same wavelength. Here's why you absolutely shouldn't sweat it.

By Brian Alexander

I truly believe -- and I know I can get a lot of backing from my fellow husbands on this -- that women worry way too much about The Relationship, worry that even the smallest problem is the first step on the road to divorce court. I would be the last one to deny that there are a certain number of marital stress points. But many of them -- certainly the five detailed below -- are not worth one moment of lost sleep.

More from Redbook

Repeating the Same Stupid Argument

What our parents somehow neglect to tell us when they talk about marriage is that it isn't about kids or souls communing. It's about having the same old argument. You know what I'm talking about here. In every marriage there's an argument you two have so often you could tape it, play it next time the issue comes up, and save yourself the energy and aggravation of loud voices and long sulks.

Maybe it's you haranguing him , yet again, about his inability to aim his dirty socks so they come within striking range of the laundry hamper. Or maybe it's him telling you for the thousandth time that the plates really belong on the bottom rack of the dishwasher rather than on the top rack, which -- according to the manual -- should be reserved for glasses and small bowls, thereby maximizing use of interior dishwasher space and thus conserving water and power and several cents' worth of soap. He delivers this little talk while standing with his arms folded, watching professorially -- while you do the hard labor. Remarkably, you do not appreciate this advice. Even more remarkably, you refrain from throwing one of those glasses or small bowls at his very big head.

"I'm the kind of guy who says that everything has a place and it should be in its place," says Dan Higgins, 39, a public relations executive in Orlando, FL. "That way you can find it, right? But my wife's always looking for her stuff, and she'll ask me, 'Have you seen my X, Y or Z?' And, naturally, I have no clue. It drives me up a wall. I'm always bitching at her about putting her stuff where she can find it. And she's always bitching at me about not being helpful.

"She's made comments that she thinks I'm dissatisfied with her in a big, global way," he adds. "But that's not it at all. I'm just dissatisfied with her stuff being disorganized." And he probably always will be. The thing is, no two people, however compatible, however committed to each other, will always mesh like the gears in a fine Swiss watch. The stuff that bugged you early on -- like his refusal to answer the phone until the fifth ring -- is going to keep bugging you. Ditto the things that annoy him. (Yup, his list is probably as long as yours.)

As the years go on and we develop fresh new foibles, we'll come up with fresh new arguments. The latest in our house stems from my tendency to go online every 15 minutes to check the stock market and report the results ("My God! We've just lost $703!"). I think if I do this one more time, she may seriously think of selling -- me.

Periods of Noncommunication

Let me say this about my wife: She rarely has an unexpressed thought. I have learned the hard way that if she suddenly starts making like a sphinx, I'd better do some investigative reporting. I learned this via the following exchange:

She: I can't believe you're going to let me go on and on like this.

Me (baffled): Like what?

She (with a glare that cements my position as World's Most Insensitive Man): Why don't you hold me?

Me (baffled): Do you want me to hold you?

She (glares silently)

Contrast this with my own recent silent funk, a three-week bender of noncommunication, related -- I suppose -- to the fact that I am no longer 25 or even 30. I did not want to be held, I did not want to be analyzed: I wanted my gloom to get lost and knew that discussing things -- despite prodding from my wife -- would lengthen its stay. She, meanwhile, assumed that my silence meant I had begun scanning the personals for ads headed "Former Gymnast Seeks Parallel Bar."

My wife isn't the only one who fears the worst when her husband clams up. Guys I've polled agree that any time they get quiet, whether because of a work crisis, a life crisis or a period of gentle contemplation, their wives assume bags are being packed. "I have to be in public a lot," says Mark Kayser, 35, a marketing executive in Pierre, SD. "And when I get home I am often antisocial. I am just plain talked-out. My wife will say, 'Oh, you are being so uncommunicative.' But it has absolutely nothing to do with my love for her.

"There are those times that I am really worried or stressed out," he acknowledges. "But I don't want to bother or worry her with it."

Obviously, you may have reason to question the state of your marriage if you're married to someone who is never more forthcoming than Harpo Marx or the Statue of Liberty. But the occasional news blackout is no reason for the blues.

Pursuing Different Hobbies

Yes, there was a time when you both loved late-night reruns of The Honeymooners, staying in bed-and-breakfasts when you traveled and eating beef chimichangas from La Posta Number 6 Taco Shop. You thought the same thoughts, inhaled and exhaled in unison, and felt that any time apart was time badly spent. But now it's three, six, nine years into the marriage, and he's going fishing while you play tennis. He's checking out the offerings at The Sharper Image while you cruise Bed, Bath and Beyond. You're watching CNBC while he tunes in to ER.

For a lot of women, this sort of diverging of interests is their cue to take the temperature of the marriage and consider bringing in a specialist. I say, put down the thermometer and take a chill pill. People change, and what's so bad about that? Would you really want to live almost your full adult life with somebody who stayed exactly as he was when you met him? Would he?

Adrian Comstock, 31, an e-commerce entrepreneur in Los Angeles, works long hours during the week and likes to spend some of his downtime playing golf, a pastime he's taken up in recent years. This has been known to tee off his wife. "She likes dance as an athletic activity," he says. "It would be great if she would do that when I go play golf, but she doesn't. She stays home. And then she gives me guilt trips because she sees it as free time I could and should be spending with her." The fact that he plays through the guilt does not mean he is less in love with his wife or less dedicated to his marriage. "I'm crazy about her," says Comstock. It means -- sometimes a cigar is just a cigar -- that he likes to play golf.

It's all a question of degree. If the two of you never spend free time together, well, that's something you might want to think about. It helps to remember that free time is one of the many things in marriage that must be negotiated. If Comstock really wants that round of golf, he might want to consider offering her something in return, like a really nice lunch after the game.

Turning Down Sex

Let's face it: Lust cools. This would not be a problem if our culture did not lead us to believe that clothing is being passionately ripped off in every household but our own, that every other husband and wife on the planet -- and off -- is getting more and better sex than we are.

And, of course, the good news is that lust heats up after it cools. Then it cools again and heats up again and, well, you get my point. " My wife and I discuss our sex life a lot," says Ted Burke, a financial consultant in Los Angeles. "It does die down, but it's never that we don't find each other desirable. There are always other things going on, like the fact that I don't like my work situation or that I'm just in a sort of selfish mode."

After four years of marriage and two kids, Dan Higgins admits that he goes through periods when, frankly, he isn't especially turned on by his wife. "It's about context," he says. "You gotta have the right context." For example, seeing your wife naked in the shower, going about her business, is no big deal. But seeing her naked in high heels with pearls around her neck is like, "Whoa! Let's see if we can talk the baby into taking a nap right now."

Looking at Other Women

Remember what I just said about lust coming and going and coming? Well, the other day, coming out of the grocery store, I saw this blonde. Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever. Not that I really noticed. If I did, it was just for a second -- really, not even a second.

Okay, guilty: guilty as charged. Slap the cuffs on me and, while you're at it, on just about any guy I could name. But we're looking, not touching -- and we have no intention of doing so, whatever our worried wives may think. And while we're on the subject, my wife looks too -- at square-jawed men with dark hair and dark eyes. To a somewhat insecure, shortish, green-eyed, pudgy-cheeked fellow (like me, for instance), that could be a problem.

"I make a conscious effort not to look, because my wife takes it as a sign of interest in other women," says Jim Fitzgibbon, 31, an electronic-components sales manager in Port Washington, NY. "So I'm really working on not doing it, at least when she's around. We've had conversations about it, especially if I have not been appreciating her as much as I usually do. She'll say she doesn't think I love her as much now as I did when we first got married. But believe me, I do."

"My wife and I both check out other people," says Ted Burke. "If we are out walking somewhere and there is some really hot girl with big boobs and a mini, we both look at her, but it's not an issue. I do not ogle and she doesn't ogle. It's more like, 'Oh, look, there's a good-looking girl,' or 'Look, there's a good-looking guy.'"

Adrian Comstock and his wife regard the whole matter as a sort of release valve. "It kind of opens things up," he says. "That way we don't have to feel guilty for appreciating a beautiful person. In fact, it's taught me a few things. She thinks David Duchovny is attractive, and that's given me clues about how she'd like to see me dress."

Or as Mark Kayser puts it, "I'm married. I'm not dead. My wife knows I like to look. I think maybe sometimes she also likes to look. No big deal."

But the fact is, Kayser's marriage is a big deal. Which is why these and other marital flash points are just so many flashes in the pan. "We are both more committed all the time," he says. "And since we've had kids, even more so. We have gone through bad things together. We have brought life into the world. There is so much more important stuff than whether I look at another woman or we argue once in a while or whether she thinks I go hunting too often. We are committed to married life."

I look at my own wife sometimes, very early in the morning, before she's awake, when her face is still scrunched against the pillow, and I think about the (inevitable) friction that comes with two people trying to make their way in the world together. And like Kayser, I'm reminded of just how big marriage is. The truth is, I like that it's big, I like that it's bigger than me. It's given my life a heft it never had with just me in it. I still watch kung-fu movies dubbed in Spanish. I still look, practically by accident, at pretty women. I still spend too much time Net-surfing on the weekends, when she would like us to be doing something together. But these are just satellites of annoyance stuck in orbit around the mass -- not mess -- that is our marriage. For the record, it's a gravity I have no intention of escaping.