So go ahead and buy him a toy if you feel like it. But if you want to make him so happy he skips right past "Thanks, hon," to "I’m married to the woman of my dreams," give him one of these seven tokens of devotion. No shopping required.
Give Him a Cushion
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: You and your husband screech home from work. While you hug each kid and liberate a Boboli from its plastic wrap, your husband is very busy, too…studying the mail. Seeking a way in, you ask how his day was. No answer. He’s home, but he’s not.
You’re fuming, and that’s understandable. But it turns out that men really do need a tiny buffer zone ‑- call it a cushion ‑- between work and family, says Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and an expert in communication between the sexes. That cushion helps them change from "political" male with territory to defend to "loving" male with territory to share. "Many women use talk to reinforce the bond, but many men see talk as something they had to do all day to make sure they didn’t get pushed around," says Tannen.
What’s a woman to do? Tell him you understand his need to retreat but you just can’t indulge it every night. Then discuss how ‑- and how often ‑- the two of you can build in a cushion without leaving the whole domestic load on you. For example, you might agree that one night he’s with you and the kids, the next he gets to pull his turtle act for 10 or 15 minutes. The upside when he puts the mail or newspaper first? He’ll feel more energized and ready to give you the break you’ll need once he comes out of his shell.
Give Him Your Ear (Even When the Subject Seems Less Than Pressing)
Next time your husband demands your undivided attention to talk about the cool new office coffee machine, consider this: "For men, it’s emotionally meaningful just to have a conversation," says New York clinical psychologist Alon Gratch, Ph.D., author of If Men Could Talk: Translating the Secret Language of Men, even if that conversation isn’t about something that strikes you as emotionally meaningful. Politics, sports, the pros and cons of a push mower versus one that’s gas powered ‑- these talks can make him feel as connected to you as you feel to him when he opens up about his emotions. And when chattering children and uncut vegetables interrupt the give-and-take, Gratch says, "it can make him feel he’s not being heard."
Of course, putting down the paring knife and pulling up a chair can be a hard gift to give ‑- multitasking, after all, is what gets dinner on the table. But a little ingenuity can go a long way. Naomi Williams, a Website producer in San Francisco, catches conversations with her husband on the fly. "My husband’s uncomfortable talking about his feelings, but he loves to talk about other stuff, so we call each other on our cell phones while we’re driving or walking," she says. "He’s always so happy when I call him. He’ll say, ‘Oh, I was hoping it would be you.’"
Give Him "Guy Time"
You are your husband’s best friend, as he’s likely to profess after a couple of beers. But sometimes he wants to go out with someone who won’t roll her eyes when he turns into a human whoopee cushion. That "someone" is…The Guys. "Men get energy from being away," says JoAnn Magdoff, Ph.D., a New York psychotherapist. "They hang loose, talk or not talk. It gives them great intimacy without tremendous demands."
That said, we’re not suggesting that he get a free pass every night while you deal with baths and bedtime. If you have two children under 3, for example, one evening out a month is generous. This is about meeting his needs within the realistic demands of family and work ‑- not about your being a martyr. (While you’re at it, remember to pencil in girls’ nights out.)
Bonus: If you each use some of this free time to pursue your separate passions ‑- whether it’s dragging a friend to see the jam band Phish or taking Brazilian dance lessons with a pal ‑- there’s likely to be an extra spark when you get back together. Maintaining separate identities keeps alive those parts of you that you two fell in love with in the first place.
Give Him What He Wants (Before He Knows He Wants It)
My husband becomes disproportionately happy if I replace the box of Mallomars before it’s empty and equally pouty if I don’t pour him a cup of coffee with my own in the morning. These reactions aren’t out of whack, says Pat Love, Ed.D., author of The Truth About Love.
Little acts of thoughtfulness, or lack thereof, relay something bigger to our partners. "It’s about tuning in to his needs, making the discovery of them a priority," she says. So try this next time he has a lot of job stress: If he ordinarily picks up the groceries, tell him you’ll take over for a while so he can have some time to himself. "Actions like that touch his soul," says Love. "He thinks, You’ve been watching me. I’m important to you."
Of course, anticipating his needs also obviously applies to the bedroom. But if "give him sex before he has to ask for it" sounds too much like advice your mom would give, try looking at it this way: Being pursued reminds your man of when he was single and actually got hit on fairly regularly. And when he’s feeling that manly and attractive, there’s no telling what he’ll want to do to you.
Give Him Your Admiration
A lot has changed over the last 40 years, but one thing remains the same: Your guy’s self-esteem is tied up in how well he handles the job of being a "real man" ‑- his performance at work, in bed, as a dad. Stay mum about these subjects and it won’t matter if he’s a superstud with a six-figure salary. He’ll…wonder.
"Men are still trying to get their mothers’ approval, and you represent that feminine approval," says psychologist Gratch. So give freely, and give often, making sure you keep your praise genuine and, well, masculine. (Sad to say, complimenting him on his sensitivity will please him because it pleases you, but it won’t massage him in those little-boy spots that most need the rub.) And remember to focus the compliment on him. If he gets a promotion, for example, instead of saying, "Great, we can use the extra money," try, "Wow, they finally see how hard you’ve been working."
Give Him His Adulthood
You can lecture him about his McDonald’s habit and stock the kitchen with fresh fruit. You can count out loud the number of cocktails he has with dinner. But you can’t — repeat, can’t — make him take care of himself, drive more carefully, or work out his relationship with his parents. He will handle those things when he decides to. Too much input makes him feel guilty and harped on ‑- and will probably backfire.
"Mother him and he’ll act like a child," says Gratch. "You give a great gift to a man when you stop trying to control his irresponsible behavior. He’s got to learn from his own mistakes."
You also give a great gift to your marriage, because the risks of playing mommy are insidious: You’ll slip from being equals to being parent and child, and that makes it awfully hard for you to respect him and for him not to resent you. (Of course, if the problem is serious ‑- he’s drinking or gambling too much, taking drugs, or seriously risking his health ‑- you must decide for yourself what you will and won’t live with.)
Give Him His Dreams
If he tells you that someday — not tomorrow, not next month — he’d really like to hike the Appalachian Trail, try biting your tongue before you say, "Uh-huh. And who’s going to take care of the kids while you’re gone?" We all need dreams. With days that are packed with demanding jobs, exuberant children, and circles of friends and family, life at this stage of the game is rich and rewarding. But it also leaves little room for real adventure. Dreams connect us to a past that felt limitless and promise a future that’s a bit freer.
"Just try to make your interactions more positive than negative," says author Love. "It may be honest that you can’t afford his dream, or that it’s impractical or unrealistic. But the bigger truth is, do you want to be connected and supportive, or do you want to be the one who rains on his parade?"
Be the sunshine, Love advises. If you are, you can rest assured that he’ll do his best to keep you warm too.