It's a shame nobody asks for my advice about marriage harmony. I think I have some good stuff to offer. My wife disagrees.
I already have an answer if someone were to ask me, "What is the most important thing about a successful marriage?" I would say it's the development of the "neutral face." This face, when executed correctly, should show no emotion whatsoever.
It's tricky. This face should show no anger, no joy, no disappointment. Yet at the same time, your eyes cannot be lifeless, soulless holes in your head. I practice my neutral face in the bathroom mirror.
You have to practice it a lot. Just like military training, when it becomes automatic in times of stress, that's when it will save your life. My wife will tell me something or ask a question, and then she studies my face for a reaction. I need time to process what she is saying and putting up the neutral face gives me that time. Here is a recent example.
Laura: "We haven't seen my sister in a while."
Me: Neutral face.
Laura: "Maybe we should drive down to Maryland soon"
Me: Stone face.
Laura: "The only weekend both my sister and we are available is the weekend of your birthday."
Me: Mount Rushmore.
Laura tells me often that she wants my honest reaction. She doesn't. My honest reaction often would be a string of obscenities uninterrupted by other parts of speech. The neutral face shields both Laura and my daughters from this reaction.
Am I advocating disingenuous reaction and false communications with your spouse? Hell, yes. Your partner doesn't want to hear everything you think about them. If you told them your complete thoughts, the relationship would be over in 15 minutes.
With this column, I am stepping forward to help others. Everyone has a variation of the neutral face. Let's admit it and embrace it. Let's all admit that we practice faces in the mirror, including our fake photo smile.
In addition to practicing my neutral face, I need to start practicing my concerned face. I found out that you need quite a few faces. Here is another example from last weekend.
Laura: "I'm very upset with the girls"
Me: Neutral face.
Laura: "I told them they needed to have their room clean and beds made before they went downtown, and they didn't do it."
Me: My mind starts to race. My neutral face will not work here. I need a concerned face. Not overly concerned but not lightly concerned. The perfect level of expression can only be achieved with practice in front of a mirror. This is not something you want to wing.
Laura: "Are you even listening to me?"
Me: Note to self to practice listening face. "Yes, I was." Unrehearsed concerned face.
Laura: More and more upset face. "Are you on my side on this?"
Me: Panic. I am completely off script. But this is where the training comes in. On the outside I have a neutral face. "Yes, I am."
Laura: "They think of me as someone to drive them places. I'm a taxi service? They don't listen to me. No one listens to me."
Me: I wish I had a mirror. Maybe if I used my iPhone's camera I could do it inconspicuously. Maybe I'll pretend to look something up. "Did you say you wanted me to look up taxi services? I read in the paper there are now two taxis in Fairfield. I'll look them up."
My wife not only reads my face but also other people's faces. And her biggest pet peeve is when people smile with their mouths but their eyes don't smile. They just fake smile with their lips. It drives her crazy.
I'm going to be in the bathroom a long time. I need to practice my:
Fake sincere smile.
Fake sincere smile with fake-smiling eyes.
Come to think of it, maybe I know why people don't ask for my advice about family harmony.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" column appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.