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The heart as a pie chart? Self-help books leave much to be desired

Oh, I know. It's Valentine's Day.

It's one of those "peg" dates publishers love. Over the years, I have seen books on how to train your mate like a killer whale (Amy Sutherland's What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage) or how to make a man materialize in your single life (it involves mantras) and now, this year, a new book, Spousonomics, by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, on how to engineer a happy marriage using economic analysis.

Pause here for a sigh.

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It's hard not to feel a little sad about all the reductive self-help instruction on how to love. This is the frenetic click-for-information world we live in. Instruction in love is like being told how to eat or how to sleep or how to breathe. Isn't it innate?

Well, it should be, but it often isn't. Or it was, at one point in childhood, and then somehow it got squished out of you. (Just ask any therapist worth her $200-an-hour fee for that little insight.) Or maybe, like the authors of Spousonomics, you're newly married, career-oriented and popping babies - in what Ms. Anderson, a New York Times reporter and mother of two, calls the "rush hour of life" - and you're thinking how this marriage thing, so rich with promise, is no cake walk; a study, should you see it that way, in the allocation of scarce resources. How much love and time do you have to give to your husband, to your kids and to your job?

"We're not touchy-feely types," Ms. Anderson says of herself and her co-author, Ms. Szuchman, also in the early years of her marriage, a mother and a journalist. "It's an unromantic look at marriage."

Economics (including charts, mathematical formulas and graphs) can be applied to many marital issues, they show, including division of labour, frequency of sex, trade-offs, incentives to get him to do what you want, and that niggling feeling that your life is just not as much fun as it used to be.

Feel a little pissed off that your new domestic life involves Ambien rather than an all-night sexathon? It can all be boiled down to the behavioural economic principle of loss aversion and status quo bias. Most people gauge happiness on how they felt in the past compared to the present. The solution? Acknowledge the principle, make adjustments, and otherwise, just realize that with the loss of some things comes the gain of others.

Well, duh, if you ask this been-around-the-block midlife woman.

Ironically, Spousonomics is proof of the problem it sets out to solve. Marriage may have begun as an economic deal of chattel exchange, but if we thought we had evolved beyond that, think again. Love is still transactional. Or as Leonard Cohen once lamented to me about contemporary love: "[It's]the old horror story...You know, I'll give you this if you give me that. You know, sealing the deal. What do I get? What do you get? It's a contract."

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Make the case for considerate romantic intimacy, I say. The breath in the house, the warmth of demands of someone who needs you, because no one else will do, is our buffer against an insensitive world full of little treacheries. Like many people, who have been divorced and found love again, I realize how rare it is, and how important it is to treasure when you have it.

Smooch your guy. Rub his back. Lose your gonzo individualism and fry him an egg and some bacon even if you've gone a little vegan.

Don't act all surprised when listening to experts like Jim Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, who conducts research on the neuroscience of emotion. In his breakout study in 2008, he asked a woman to lie in an MRI machine to test her neurological response to anticipated pain with or without her spouse holding her hand. Told that when an X appeared in front of her face, there would be a 30 per cent chance she will feel an electric shock on her feet, she reacted in dramatically different ways.

Alone, her brain lit up like a Christmas tree when she saw the X. The shock hurt. With her husband holding her hand - they were in a loving marriage - the brain did not light up in the same way and she said the shock was merely uncomfortable. "It's roughly comparable to taking a drug," opined the good doctor.

Did you need researchers to tell you that we're wired to form attachments, that a happy, loving relationship is good for your health? The poets have been telling us that for centuries. Maybe we have just forgotten how to feel something without the aid of someone telling us that we should because it's normal.

Sometimes the best self-help is in a movie that can communicate what all the best-intentioned pointers fail to illuminate. Consider that scene in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams, who plays a shrink, tells Matt Damon that he may think he knows a lot, but he can't pretend to know what it's like to really love, to realize that the "good stuff" in life is sharing the private realities of the person you adore, that you could be in bed with your wife, and she could fart in her sleep and roll over, and you could laugh about it and worse, miss such intimacy when she's gone.

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And if unaccustomed to the sort of loving kindness we intuitively know is crucial to connecting, platonically or romantically, we can read about the actions of others, my favourite being the description of how a friend of Caroline Knapp, an American writer dying of cancer, brought a bunch of lilies-of-the-valley to her hospital room when she was in a coma. He knew that one of the last sensations to go is the sense of smell, so he held them under her nose.

Ms. Anderson acknowledges that Spousonomics is a "tool kit" for couples who are in the throes of the busy years of early parenthood and marriage when so much changes and each partner is exhausted with sleepless nights and dirty diapers. She and Ms. Szuchman interviewed many couples some of whom had been married for a long time. "Perspective helps a lot," she says of couples who survived the years when one spouse or both may have felt unhappy about their marriage. "There's a moment when you realize, 'Do dishes really matter?' And the idea of arguing over it seems petty."

Ah yes. But there's no economic principle to explain pettiness. Just a shortcoming of the heart. And hopefully a temporary one.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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