Can an iPhone App Save Your Marriage?

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Smartphones are very useful if you’re dating. They’re almost essential if you’re having an affair. They have handy apps for planning weddings and trying to conceive. They even offer sex tips. But can they help out on the real heavy lifting? Can they save a marriage?

The PAIRS Foundation’s DTR app lets spouses share a “daily temperature reading.” Mind Over Marriage offers a menu of solutions for common problems. Marriage Fight Tracker will record your feuds. And Fix a Fight treats mending a marriage as if it were as simple as changing a tire.

Since real couples counseling requires talking, a method of communication my husband considers inferior to thinking something and then expecting me to know it, I decided these might be worth trying. Plus, all the celebrities I asked to participate said their marriages were too stable for the apps to have any demonstrable effect.

A word of advice to anyone considering using apps to save their marriage: clue in your spouse to the plan first. When I initially emailed my beloved my “DTR” — a little note in which couples communicate five different things about their feelings, hopes, dreams and cares to each other — his reply had the same first letters as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Once I explained the exercise, he replied that he’d love to get a cover for the grill.

I don’t think this was the type of dream the PAIRS Foundation (for Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) had in mind when it suggested that spouses “begin by being fully present to the person you’re thinking about as you write.” But it was a helpful indication that digital marital mediation might be not be as simple as playing Angry Birds.

The Pairs app also offered you the chance to share your DTR on Facebook. You can opt out, but it’s one way to get your heart pounding—in panic.

The Mind Over Marriage app offers what would seem to be amazingly personal service. Email your problem and the Mind Over Marriage folks will email you back some advice. While waiting for the reply, users can browse through a list of solutions to common marital problems, arranged by keywords.

Mind Over Marriage’s advice for each is basically to speak more courteously to your spouse about everything, which is fine — as far as it goes. Under the menu item Infidelity, for example, the app suggested that the wife should address in a levelheaded fashion how her husband’s affair is a bit of a drain on the family finances: “Money is just flying out the window.” Ah, if only Elin Nordegren had read that.

In due course, some counsel arrived in my iPhone’s in-box. The problem I’d sought help with was that neither my husband nor I were very organized and this led to disruptions in family harmony. The app’s advice was not to blame each other when things went pear-shaped and to buy a whiteboard. Which my husband was totally supposed to have done already.

The Fight Tracker app has the most bells and whistles, including a list of the 10 “Nevers” of Communicating with your Spouse: “Never Win,” it suggests, and “Never Use Sex to Win an Arguement [sic],” which explains a lot since those are the only two hobbies my other half and I both enjoy equally. Tabs for Videos and Advice link to YouTube or website search results with the words “marriage advice” in their title. Some of these may be educational in a way the app’s developers were not expecting. (I’m looking at you, Republican Sex and Marriage Advice.)

To use the tracking part of Fight Tracker, you need to list all the details of your marital spats. You can record the spats in real time, although it’s unclear how this would work: “Would you mind blowing up again about how infuriating I am while I find my iPhone and switch it on and open the app and press record? … O.K., go!”

Over dinner one night, my husband and I did try to track one recent fight. First we fought about what the fight was about. Then we fought about how to use the app, and why did he have to participate in this article anyway? Then we fought about how he never supports my career and why my dad does that strange thing with his throat all the time. All in all, it was a pretty good date, considering the couple we were with got sick and had to leave early.

The only app that my husband almost enjoyed using was Fix A Fight, possibly because the developers had shrewdly analogized settling a marital spat with the really concrete unemotional activity of mending a puncture. The app makes you give your fight a funny name and then takes you through eight steps (letting the air out, preparing the patch, applying the patch and so on), during which you hand the phone back and forth and explain to the iPhone your side of the story. (Say what you will about dropped calls, my iPhone 4 is a really good listener.)

Our fight, a.k.a. “The Pancetta Punchup,” centered around a shopping excursion from which I’d brought home not bacon, but pancetta, under the belief that it would make an adequate breakfast substitute. My husband, in the middle of cooking said breakfast, did not concur. As it happens, he was right, but had I brought home a wild boar with a gastrointestinal disorder he could not have acted more inconvenienced.

Fix a Fight listed a series of emotions, such as “angry” or “disappointed,” then asked us to tap the ones we felt and rate the intensity of the feeling. “But these are just describing words!” said my perplexed spouse — seriously, he didn’t recognize them as emotions — in what may have been the most revelatory moment of the whole exercise.

Then we had to listen to a couple of illustrative anecdotes, own up to our part in the fight and suggest what each could do next time we faced the problem. My list for him had about 12 helpful pointers. His list for me had just one: “Buy bacon.”

By the end, when the app proclaimed we’d had an “80% reduction in anger,” I’d learned a lot, but mostly that marital apps are quite a lot like marriages. They need work.

NOTE: Initially this story incorrectly described the Mind Over Marriage app as offering the option to share on Facebook. The writer regrets the error.

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