When Bill and Denise Allenbaugh married in 1989, they were just 23 and 24, respectively. Nine years and three kids later, they realized the joy had gone out of their relationship. "Life was fine," says Denise, a part-time greeting-card merchandiser, "but it wasn't fun. We were both so busy with work and the kids that we stopped paying attention to each other."
Bill, a firefighter, agrees. "We would sit down to dinner and have nothing to say." In addition, says Denise, she felt constantly criticized by Bill, who had a habit of using hostile phrases such as "I have a bone to pick with you." Deciding that there had to be something more, Denise sought counseling from Susan Townsend, PhD, in nearby Towson, Maryland, and invited Bill to join her. Dr. Townsend recommended a weekend seminar sponsored by the highly regarded program PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills), as well as a series of private follow-up sessions. "We left that seminar feeling on top of the world," says Denise. "We learned a technique using cards printed with the words 'Appreciation,' 'New Information,' 'Puzzles,' 'Complaint with Request for Change' and 'Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams.' Each phrase prompts a nonconfrontational statement that helps couples talk — and listen — to each other. For us, it meant being able to connect emotionally — and to have fun again!"
The Allenbaughs were in counseling in 1998 and again in 2001. Have the lessons stuck? We checked in with Denise and Bill, now both 38, to find out.
Denise: The two of us still use the cards to "take the daily temperature," as it's called. We turn off the TV, hold hands, and look into one another's eyes. It's very powerful.
Bill: I care about her feelings now and she cares about mine. It sounds basic, but it makes all the difference.
Denise: Bill is truly my best friend. I'm never afraid I'll be hollered at.
Bill: We use the PAIRS tools with the kids, too. Parents forget to show appreciation; they'll notice only when a chore doesn't get done or homework isn't finished. Yet a simple "you did a great job" is all it takes for a child to do what's right the next time.
Denise: Not that we don't have problems. Who doesn't? It's just that we know how to discuss them calmly without resorting to put-downs.
Bill: Couples have less time for each other these days. So you have to make the most of the time you have.
Denise: There's a bonus. When you snuggle on the couch and talk intimately with your husband, you're more interested in going upstairs to the bedroom later. I used to feel like I was having sex with a stranger. Now, I'm making love to the person who means the world to me.
Bill: And so am I.