Thursday, Jan. 2 — Q: I’ve always loved surprising my wife with expensive jewelry and lavish vacations. However, I lost my job, and my new job pays far less. There’s barely money for necessities, let alone luxuries. My wife has been very supportive, reassuring me, “I’d love you if you were flat broke,” which makes me feel even more of a desire to wow her. But realizing we have no funds for a big trip this year, I suggested a “staycation” (where we’d just stay local and lie around and relax). She agreed to it, but I could tell she was disappointed. I'm worried that the “magic” of our relationship was based in part on the lavish gifts and that we’ll lose it now that our resources have dwindled.
A: A staycation doesn’t have to be a bummer — provided you don’t make it sound like it’ll entail your wife’s climbing a mountain of dirty laundry while you go sightseeing in the basement. Sure, it’s better when living hand to mouth means being fed chocolate-dipped strawberries at a spa in Gstaad. But it wasn’t just the lavishness of your gifts that made your wife happy. The money you were able to spend camouflaged what you were really doing to delight her, which was employing the element of surprise.
Over time, relationships, like powdered substances available on dodgy street corners, stop providing the buzz they did at first. Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz found that unpredictable rewards are the most exciting kind for the brain — maybe even three or four times as exciting as expected ones. And research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies happiness, finds that one of the most effective ways to keep a relationship buzzy is by injecting surprise — the novel, the unexpected. (Unexpected good things, that is, not having your partner come home to find you in bed with the cleaning lady.)
People think they have to go big on surprise, and this keeps them from doing much that’s surprising. But it’s the surprise itself that counts, not whether you rented elephants. Recently, I was having a particularly craptastic day — until my boyfriend, who was away on business, told me to look above the molding over my kitchen doorway. Most awesomely, he’d hidden a little bar of my favorite French chocolate there before he left. In other words, don’t worry; there should be “magic” aplenty if you just shift your surprise pipeline from, say, Tiffany the store on Fifth Avenue to Tiffany the postal worker who delivers your mail — including a handwritten love letter you’ve mailed your wife.
Likewise, in staycationing, you just need to go places and do things that are exciting and new. This takes only imagination, the events calendar from the paper, and what you’ve already shown you have: love for your wife and a desire to make her happy. While you’re out there watching the sunset instead of your bank balance, consider that there is an upside to your downturn: finding out that your wife didn’t just love you for your money. Of course, there’s no telling whether she’s just been using you for sex.
Q: My boyfriend of two months doesn’t seem insecure. But last week, after we left a party, he said it was humiliating that I was flirting with this good-looking guy in front of all of his friends. That guy is a professional photographer, and I was just asking for some tips. I'm annoyed because I don't think I did anything wrong.
A: If you go to a party with your new boyfriend and spend a half-hour mesmerized by another guy, it helps if the guy’s wearing a feather boa and size 15 women’s shoes. Assuming your boyfriend isn’t insecure and you aren’t covertly on the prowl, it’s the optics that are the problem. A guy’s buddies are both supportive and competitive — sometimes looking out for him and sometimes looking for his Achilles’ heel so they can poke it with a sharp stick. So, what to you is a totally platonic conversation, to the guys standing across the room with your boyfriend, comes off like you’re sitting in some dude’s lap and licking his earlobe. The good news is the optics can also be the solution. Engaging in sporadic touchyfeely with your boyfriend — hugging him, kissing or stroking his cheek — can be a sort of ad for “I’m with him, and I plan to continue that.” It’s bad to let a boyfriend curtail who you are, but it helps to be sensitive to how even innocent extraversion can come off to an audience, especially in the early stages of a relationship. No guy wants to bring around his hot new car and then watch as some other guy gets his fingerprints all over the hood.
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