The tough thing about writing a definitive guide to anniversaries is that every couple should, quite rightly, handle them differently.

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Some couples are GO BIG OR GO HOME types. Some are far more low-key. And some get off on the strange tension that arises when one half of the couple wants to GO BIG OR GO HOME, and the other half wants to GO HOME. But whatever your personal style, there is broadly applicable wisdom I can offer, so today we shall talk about your anniversary—specifically, your wedding anniversary—and some ways in which you might become better at its observance.

The Rule of Anniversaries

The only rule of anniversaries is, “Don’t forget.”

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Now then. At some point in your marriage, you will probably forget your anniversary—which is, naturally, pretty much the reason the rule exists. As I’m fond of saying, “They don’t make laws against sheep-fucking if sheep-fucking isn’t a problem in the community.”

In a perfect world, forgetting your anniversary wouldn’t be that big a deal, but the world is imperfect, and forgetting your anniversary is an official Bad Thing To Do, like dogfighting or participating in SantaCon. So set a recurring calendar reminder—not just for the actual anniversary, but also for a a random day two to six weeks in advance.

That’s actually the most helpful and practical piece of advice in this whole thing, so let me repeat it: Set a calendar reminder two to six weeks in advance of your anniversary.

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That reminder is going to serve two important purposes. First, it will prime your brain that ANNIVERSARY TIMES ARE COMING; also, it’s going to give you some time to plan. That two-to-six-weeks range allows you to tailor the reminder to your celebratory needs. On the low-key end of the spectrum? Two weeks will be plenty of time for you to, say, make a dinner reservation and get a funny card. If you’re more of a jump-out-of-a-plane kind of couple, six weeks should be plenty of time to execute whatever knock-her-socks-off schemes you’ve got in mind.

Which brings us to this related piece of advice: Take some time to think about how you are as individuals and as a couple vis-à-vis celebrations, both generally and lately. Is the anniversary is a milestone? How was the past year for you guys, challenge-wise? How are your finances? Those are all factors that can help you decide how big to go in a given year.

The Traditional Gifts

Before casting about for the perfect gift and/or experience, set a budget. You can have an awesome time with a little cash, but spending can quickly spiral out of control if you don’t take a little time to set some parameters for yourself.

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There are, of course, common anniversary motifs: jewelry, a romantic getaway, a fancy dinner, etc. But there is also a more formal set of “traditional wedding gifts,” which are a little … strange. Example: The traditional third-anniversary gift involves something leather. Is your mind reeling with the possibilities? A leather-bound book! A beautiful new attaché case! Assless chaps! [CHORUS: “All chaps are assless!”]

More recently, a group of librarians out of Chicago banded together and came up with a more modern list of proposed anniversary gifts by year.

AnniversaryTraditionalModern
1stPaperClocks
2ndCottonChina
3rdLeatherCrystal/Glass
4thFruit/FlowersAppliances
5thWoodSilverware
6thCandy/IronWood
7thWool/CopperDesk Sets
8thPottery/BronzeLinens/Lace
9thWillow/PotteryLeather
10thTin/AluminumDiamond Jewelry
11thSteelFashion Jewelry
12thSilk/LinenPearls
13thLaceTextile Furs
14thAnimals*Gold Jewelry
15thCrystalWatches
20thChinaPlatinum
25thSilverSilver
30thPearlDiamond
35thCoralJade
40thRubyRuby
45thSapphireSapphire
50thGoldGold
60thDiamondDiamond

What To Say On An Anniversary Card

Figuring out the right words to say to express the depth of your love for your spouse is so much trickier than getting the gift right. I can’t actually tell you what to write—while templates are fine for thank-you notes, they’re so totally wrong when it comes to expressions of romantic love. I can, however, share the response I sent to a reader who wrote to me seeking some help.

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I just read your article on How to Write a Note for Any Occasion on Deadspin, and I am curious if there is a similar template you have to what is in the article for a 1st anniversary? Mine is coming up soon, and I understand the first year is the Paper Anniversary, so I thought a handwritten note would be a good gift (to go along with a night out on the town and spending the night at a nice hotel) … problem is, I am a terrible writer and not very creative. Any help/suggestions you may have would be greatly appreciated!

My suggestions: If you’re nervous or unconfident, keeping it short is a perfectly fine way to go. The rule of thumb I gave for thank-you and condolence notes was that three sentences will do it—for expressions of love, you may want to go slightly longer. Four sentences sound good? Sure.

In terms of substance, are there any small details that you remember from your wedding day that you can talk about? Maybe something sweet or funny that happened on your honeymoon that you could recollect? How about a line or two about how you felt when you were proposing? This is a time when typing something out before copying it longhand into a card or stationery will prove helpful—pretend like you’re writing an email, and then spruce it up from there.

Don’t Forget! But If You Do ...

Since we’ve established that you will, at some point in what I hope is your long and happy marriage, forget your anniversary, it’s now time to talk about how to cope when the inevitable happens.

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Victoria Pratt, co-proprietor of the etiquette blog Uncommon Courtesy, offers this advice to the poor souls who forget an anniversary:

First, apologize profusely. Maybe have a discussion about how you as a couple would like to celebrate your anniversaries and what the expectations are, and which anniversaries you celebrate (some married couples just do the wedding, some continue to celebrate their dating anniversary and then add in the wedding one). And then set a reminder on your phone to repeat annually!

I would add this: Prepare for a humbling. This is actually about as far away from a personal philosophy as you’ll find this side of an unmade bed, because I’m a woman who doesn’t much care about anniversaries, but for many people, the anniversary celebration is a tremendously important part of feeling loved and respected. For those people, the forgetting will sting terribly; a kindness you, the absent-minded jerk, can offer is to submit to the anger borne of sadness and pain. Put plainly: Let her yell. Don’t yell back.

When the yelling abates, you will probably find yourself staggering out your front door and heading, blindly, in the direction of a local florist. The human survival instinct is an incredible thing. Personal bias alert! I’m of the opinion that this is a TERRIBLE thing to do—it’s so obvious and clichéd that it almost becomes insulting—but it’s such a common response, and so commonly accepted as The Thing To Do When You Foul Up, that I must put aside my own feelings on the matter and address the traditional buying of flowers by way of apology.

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I asked Victoria for her take on the practice of buying an “I screwed up” bouquet or arrangement:

I guess it would entirely depend on your partner—do they like flowers? Do they like apologetic gestures? I think this is a good time for the Emily Post Institute “platinum rule”: Treat people as they want to be treated. Theoretically, the person apologizing knows their partner best.

So yes, you are likely to know if you are coupled with someone who appreciates Apology Flowers, or if you’re married to someone whose appreciation of Apology Flowers begins and ends with the satisfying crunch they make as they’re smashed into a trash can.

I take most of my life advice from Bravo reality programming, and now I’m going to pass two pieces of collected wisdom on the matter of Apology Flowers along to you. The first comes from Mercedes Javid, of Shahs of Sunset fame: “Only guilty men bring flowers.” [MEANINGFUL LOOK.]

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The second is from my personal hero and Friend of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Faye Resnick, and is a philosophy that I suggest we all agree to live by: “Forget the flowers. Send her an orchid.”


Jolie Kerr is Deadspin’s resident cleaning expert/kind and helpful soul and the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Plume). Follow her on Twitter, or email her: jolie@deadspin.com.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby. Traditional and modern gift chart via Hallmark.

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Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.