Till tedium do us part

Ours has been the summer of extreme marital discontent. From Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child to Anthony Weiner's tweets to J.Lo's divorce No. 3, dysfunction and discord have been writ large.

So what does that mean for regular folks? The ones whose marital ups and downs don't play out on the world stage, but nonetheless come into sharper focus when couples melt down so publicly?

"The attraction to someone else's scandal distracts us from the more mundane, dreary, boring problems that a lot of marriages face," says Pamela Haag, author of "Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules" (Harper). "There are a lot of marriages of quiet desperation that just drag on and on until they end in divorce."

Up to 60 percent of divorces in the United States, in fact, stem from "low-conflict" marriages, Haag writes in her book, citing a study by marriage researcher Paul Amato. Marriages that aren't marred by abuse, addiction, repeated infidelity or other "high-conflict" issues, in other words, actually account for the majority of divorces.

So where do such marriages go wrong?

Fade to oblivion

There's rarely a singular tipping point, says Edward M. Hallowell, director of the Massachusetts-based Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health and co-author of "Married to Distraction: How to Restore Intimacy and Strengthen Your Partnership in an Age of Interruption" (Ballantine Books).

More often it's a slow erosion toward cohabitating strangerdom.

Basically, we stop paying attention to each other.

"The ambient noise of life takes over," Hallowell says. "There's no big conflict; couples have just lost touch with each other, lost the fun, lost the moments of sustained attention because we live surrounded by this buzz."

Sometimes the buzz is quite literal.

"One woman asked me, 'Is it normal that my husband lays his BlackBerry next to us when we're having sex?'" Hallowell says. "I said, 'I don't know which is odder. That he's doing it or that you have to ask.'"

But technology is only part of the problem.

"People don't realize they're drifting apart because they're so overly bombarded with messages and stimuli and they're crazy, busy, running, keeping up with everything," he says. "In the absence of a major blowup, you just wake up one morning feeling, 'I'm not passionate about this person. At all.'"

Of course, some forces working against a marriage are more overt.

"There are common traps that couples fall into," says Fran Cohen Praver, clinical psychologist and author of "The New Science of Love: How Understanding Your Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship" (Sourcebooks). "Unequal power. The blame game — a disastrous war that no one wins. Self-fulfilling prophesies where this negative fortunetelling goes on between people. There's something about yourself that you don't like so you disconnect it from your conscious, split it off and project it onto the other person."

Just to name a few.

Rekindling the passion

The good news, experts agree, is that "low-conflict" problems are extremely solvable. No addictions to overcome, no affairs to forgive, no crushing debt from which to emerge.

"It's very fixable," says Hallowell. "We just need to re-create some boundaries by reserving some time for each other and not giving in to the seduction and distraction of modern life."

That may mean turning down worthwhile opportunities.

"We're victims of our own enthusiasm," he says. "Turn down the committee you'd love to serve on. Turn down the team you'd love to coach. Turn down the good things — great things — that are not time-wasters at all, but when you have too many of them, they choke out the intimacy."

It may also mean diving in to some touchy territory.

"A lot of marriages can survive if we're willing to be somewhat imaginative or flexible within them," Haag says. "The first step is to have that difficult conversation and actually hazard some honesty with your partner. 'You know, I need more from my life than this.' The important thing is to not get into this celebration of mediocrity and sticking it out, but to have a conversation about some simple ways, or big ways, to change."

By contemplating changes that will improve our marriage — big or small — Cohen Praver says, we can train our brains to once again swoon for our same ol', same ol' partners.

When you're in love, mirror neurons trigger certain brain chemicals that bolster emotional attachments, she says.

"Dopamine is activated, oxytocin, vasopressin — which triggers loyalty, attachment, bonding — testosterone, estrogen, serotonin," she says. "When the marriage is eroded, all that's on hold. But when you start to bring the marriage back, even in your imagination, the chemicals begin to get active again.

"Imagine a different kind of relationship — imagine skinny-dipping with your partner, imagine being a more powerful person in your relationship," she says. "And begin to model it. As you change your behavior, you can unlock your brain and revitalize your marriage."

Which makes sense, she says, in an evolutionary sense.

"For the survival of the species, nature had to ensure that we love and we're bonded and we're attached," Cohen Praver says. "Things go awry, but that's our basic nature. We were born to love."

hstevens@tribune.com

Fix your marriage. Now.

At the end of "Married to Distraction," authors Edward M. Hallowell and Sue George Hallowell offer a list of 40 ways to make your marriage great. Five standouts:

Remember that the key to romance is attention. Nothing is as romantic as having someone give you their undivided, sustained attention.

Never let your spouse see you roll your eyes. Contempt breeds contempt.

Divide labor evenly, trying to have each person do what he or she likes to do or dislikes doing least.

Learn to control anger. Anger should be like a sneeze, brief, clearing the air, then forgotten.

Take one half-hour and talk about "stuff," not about work, chores or conflicts, but about stuff you're interested in. Tell stories, ask questions.

— H.S.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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