"Sweetheart. What's up?" The husband's voice as he answered his cell phone was hushed, and a little stressed. "Oh, I was just thinking about dinner and wondered if you'd like to barbecue this evening. If you want steak, I can stop by the supermarket and -- " "Can we talk about this later?" "Well, sure," the wife said, a little hurt. "It's just that it's Friday night and -- " "Sweetheart," he said firmly, his voice still lowered. "Not now. Please. I'll call you back." The man hung up and went back to a tense budget meeting at the Washington think tank where he works. He'd been yanked from serious affairs by her frivolous query, made to feel bad for hurrying her off the phone, and, truth be told, it rankled. His well-meaning wife, meanwhile, who recounted the exchange to me the next day, returned to her own domestic business feeling rebuffed and rather bruised. She'd been trying to do something nice for him and the children. Was that so wrong? Telephone protocol: It's a subject that seems to bedevil every marriage at some point. One spouse calls the other at a bad time. The interrupted spouse reacts abruptly, and with perhaps less tenderness than the caller expects. Each hangs up the phone feeling affronted and a bit irritated. And if the couple isn't careful, the incident gets slipped into that invisible dossier where each keeps a record of the other's transgressions. Ease of communication is a wonderful feature of modernity but it does, for people who share lives and homes, raise irksome questions. Should spouses be available at all times to one another? Is it OK to ring your beloved at work with a trivial thought, or an anecdote about something sweet a child just said? If not, how serious does the matter have to be to justify interrupting the other person's day? And is it ever acceptable to hit "ignore" on your cell phone when the person who's trying to reach you is your helpmeet, your soul mate, and the father/mother of your children? After stewing all day, that evening after dinner (not steak; he never did call her back) the injured wife raised the issue. "If you were in a meeting, why did you pick up the phone?" "Because If I didn't, you would worry," he said reasonably. "And you would keep calling. You would try my office line. Then you'd call my secretary. Then you would start texting me." "You make it sound like I'm a stalker!" his wife said, a touch resentfully. "I just get anxious when I can't get in touch with you." "Well, I know." "I mean, what if it were an emergency? What if something happened with the children?" "That's why I picked up the phone." "But ... it wasn't an emergency," she admitted sheepishly. "No, it was barbecue," he said, and they both laughed. For this couple at least, there would be no fresh entry in the invisible dossier. Not this time, anyway.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at ">mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.