As an anthropologist, I arranged to conduct a test on my 10-year marriage

It’s been a long time since I’ve conducted a sociological experiment. Trained as an anthropologist, my usual research locations were tropical climes, not my own home.

But this time it’s personal. The subject of this experiment will be Steve, the man who’s been sleeping in my bed for the last 13 years. The one who, maybe, I might take for granted.

Last year, we renewed our 10-year wedding vows and in doing so renewed some long lost romantic spark… but, now, the day-to-day has again started to wear us down.

Within couplehood, how do we ward off the mundane and preserve its romantic core? Will kindness engender kindness? And does investment in the little things keep the most important thing alive?

Experiment Take one grumpy wife plus one long-suffering husband and see what happens when wife performs 10 secret acts of kindness over 10 days. Explore the effects on said relationship. (Caveat: in order to prevent suspicion, acts of kindness will commence in a subtle, low-key manner. Would not want to risk husband having heart attack.)

Day 1: “I love you”

Involves Three seconds. Before hubby goes to work in the morning, I say, “I love you” meaningfully. As opposed to, “Mate, you’re seriously just going to walk out of the house and leave your @#$%^&* everywhere?”

Relationship effects None.

Day 2: “If I were in your shoes…”

Involves Empathy, changing viewpoint. Everybody stars in their own movie. The human mind is preoccupied with the self. But not so when first falling in love. During courtship, the other person is the clear movie star. What would he like? How does he feel? In other words: how can I make him want me more? In long-term relationships, rather than co-starring, over time, we cast our partners in less favourable roles: servant, villain, or even worse, bit character who inspires no intense emotions either way. Today I will be the director and focus my lens on my leading man. I will practise partner empathy and try to see everything from his point of view.

Relationship effects Slightly warmer between us. He calls me “Hun.” Pardon? It’s been ages since he’s used a cutesy name like that.

Day 3: A grand gesture

Involves Thoughtfulness, planning. The romantic pulse is often dulled within the confines of monogamy. To sharpen it, never underestimate the power of a grand gesture, especially if it’s a surprise such as a weekend away or tickets to a favourite band. Hubby’s birthday is tomorrow. (Yes, I know, a convenient time to conduct my “be nice missive”). Anyway, I book a restaurant and conspire with his mother that she fly over and surprise him at his birthday dinner.

Relationship effects Husband effortlessly steps into “starring” role. Whispers to me just before falling asleep, “Thank you so much for my birthday surprise.”

Day 4: Pen a love letter

Involves Gratitude, reflection. Husband is away for work. I write him a love letter about the things I admire and value in him. To throw him off, I get the kids to write him gratitude letters, too. Before kiddies leave for school the next day, we give him our letters.

Relationship effects Underwhelming. He reads them, smiles, and chucks them on the bedside table.

Day 5: Tender touch

Involves Physical love. My plan is to offer husband a massage. “Want a foot rub, honey?” I’m aware that this may cause deep suspicion and blow the experiment. Admission By the time hubby gets home from airport, this is so not going to happen. The next morning, however, I practise, er, “tender touch”.

Relationship effects Husband is happy but very confused.

Day 6: Total loving

Involves Extreme patience. Not one eye roll. Not one huff. I will step over his dirty ice-cream bowl left beside the couch and say nothing. I shall bite my fiery tongue. I will practise love through actions. Is this possible? Seemingly not. I fail the mission before we’ve even had breakfast. We bicker over little things throughout the day. I will try again tomorrow.

Day 7: Day 6, take two

Fail! Again. Urggggghhh! Hypothesis: Even if there is overriding goodwill between a couple, all can be instantly undermined by the murky sea of unresolved issues. Usually, for me, this pertains to gender division; for him, wishing I’d chill out.

Relationship effects Desire within me grows… to end this stupid experiment.

Day 8: Lie in

Involves A small sacrifice. I surprise hubby by not waking him on Saturday morning. Somehow he sleeps through the kids doing Just Dance and singing Despacito on repeat.

Relationship effect He is definitely smiling more.

Day 9: Freedom

Involves Space. I suggest he go out that evening and catch up with some friends.

Relationship effects Who knows? I’m fast asleep by the time he returns home from the bar.

Day 10: The way to a man’s heart

Involves Old-fashioned wisdom. Maybe once a week, I ask the kids in the morning, “What would you like for dinner?” (Son: pizza; daughter: sadly, two-minute noodles.) Around 5pm, miraculously these items appear on the dinner table. When is the last time I asked my husband what he’d like for dinner? Honestly, it was probably BC (before children). You know what my husband gets if he’s lucky enough for me to prepare his evening meal? Salad. Yep. Or, as the more hipster among us call it, a “dragon bowl”. I’m a vegetarian, so that’s usually what I’m eating.

Note My husband has never once complained about his raw vegetable meals. Although once I did catch him emailing a picture of his dinner to his mum. Half an avocado, a small pile of kidney beans and a bouquet of spinach leaves, undressed. Hubby is going to get the shock of his life tonight when I prepare him a steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. I may even light candles. Typical. Although husband said he would be home early, he is not. So dinner ends up being served the way he’s used to getting it – cold.

Relationship effect Despite lack of heat, he appears full and content. Me, as I do the dishes afterwards, not so much.

In conclusion, during this experiment, although there were many wonderful moments, the same unresolved issues kept cropping up. To be really happy, we must dig further, beyond kindness and sweet gestures, and fix the deep underground stuff.

Over the past 10 days, my husband’s perspective and his happiness were at the forefront of my mind. When I was kinder, he was kinder. The mood between us has shifted. It’s now more playful, more patient, more loving. Marriage is not a single experiment but a long-term one that takes continuous effort from both parties.

Dance like no one’s watching? How about, love like you’ve never been married. Why not see what happens if you put your relationship to the same 10-day experiment? Feel free to write in and share your experiences.

Henry Sapiecha

Conversations To Have Before You Get Married

Couple playing in water at sunset
Couple playing in water at sunset

You know exactly what they’re thinking with the glimpse of an eye, have weird personal jokes together and literally, have zero clue what you did before they came into your life — yep, you’re in love — and the future has never looked so bright.

However, without getting all Grinchy on you, there are certain conversations you should have before locking that love down.

According to leading relationship expert Dr Karen Phillip, and author of new book, OMG We’re Getting Married – 7 Essential things to know before we say I Do, increasingly, couples are finding themselves at breaking point — post-marriage — as a result of not discussing important issues before tying the knot and having children.

“There is this assumption, because a couple is so in love and know each other so well, that they are on the same page, but it is incredibly important to talk about your finances, career goals and whether you want kids plus a whole range of other things before getting married,” said Phillip.

Surprising, right? That a couple wouldn’t talk about the prospect of kids before getting married. But according to Phillip it is more common than we think.

The same goes for finances. “I see couples who have been married for over 10 years, that still don’t know what the other earns,” Phillip said.

So, why the silence?

“We’re marrying later, we’ve been very independent all our lives — it’s been your own money, your own career and your own goals — but when you become a couple, that all changes and what you spend affects the other person — and that’s something people struggle to accept and understand,” she said.

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Phillip advises discussions around finance should begin when you start living together.

“Not only should you disclose what you’re earning but also what you’ve spent — so any debts — because once you’re married, whatever financial problems your partner gets into, well, you own half of them,” she said.

Phillip said a joint account is a good idea for things like bills, groceries and social outings while still depositing a small amount of money into your own private account for yourself.

And when it comes to kids, whether marriage is on the cards or not, having the conversation — and revisiting it regularly is imperative.

“It’s not simply about how many you want, and how many years apart they will be, but you should also be discussing parenting style, whether the child will be baptised and who will be the main parent,” Phillip said.

If your career is going to escalate, who is going to be the first point of call at daycare or school and also, can you afford to put the kids into daycare if you are both going back to work?

Observing how your partner’s family interacts with each other will also give you an idea of what kind of parent they’ll be.

“Whether they’re complacent, firm, loving or dismissive — that teaches you a lot about the parent you’re going to have by your side,” she said.

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And rather than assuming your partner is a mind reader, communication needs to continually evolve which in turn, will hopefully improve your relationship.

“Couples need to have date nights pre and post children. It’s usually only during these times, when you’re sitting alone with your partner over dinner, without any distractions like social media or the television, that you’re able to talk,” she said.

It’s here when there’s an opportunity to really pay attention to how the other person is feeling and what they’re thinking about.

“Couples who are a bit more logical might even list down what they plan to talk about to see where the other person is at. Sometimes you find that you are thinking differently about something,” Phillip said.

And if you’re able to do that regularly, without the infringement of friends around you all the time or social media always in your hand, the risk of future disagreements about the bigger issues will decrease.

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Henry Sapiecha