After endless weeks of shelter in place, your partner is beginning to get crusty around the edges. He’s no longer shaving. She’s no longer wearing a bra.
The concept of lasting love feels long lost, and perhaps you no longer feel the instant love as well for your partner.
Neither of you has taken a shower in days, and both of you are seriously considering whether to experiment with the “No Poo Method” of ditching shampoo altogether and washing it with a gentle alternative, such as apple cider vinegar or baking soda.
Finding instant love
Your eyes are averted on your daily walk, and, using the vocabulary of coronavirus, you decide to “social distance” by walking in the middle of the street, six feet apart from the passers-by on the sidewalk. Fist bumps, hip bumps, and side-hugs are out of the question!
Your partner at home is “safe,” but the idea of hugging them has lost its appeal. Instead, your mind turns to the cashier at the grocery store for some instant love.
Hopping on a plane to Jamaica together, when the uncertainty of COVID-19 is over, suddenly seems like an exciting idea. But, wait a minute. The cashier at the grocery store?
What can instant love with the cashier teach us about lasting love? The first thing a friendly cashier does when a customer approaches is to ‘notice’.
Their smile and eye contact directed at you may be enough to spark an attraction. Humans are inherently social; we like to be seen. Interacting with others “is simply what we are built to do, and we do it without trying to do it…” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 66).
Psychologists who study relationships long have observed how children become inconsolable when parents withhold interest by staring at them blankly with a “still face” (Tronick, 2009).
Watch this video for the still face experiment:
So, when you come in the door from your walk, don’t just shout “I’m home!” and run to your computer. Notice your partner. Find them, look them in the eye, and smile!
Like a “horizontal strange loop” (Mitchell, p.76), where our internal and external experiences are continually being reshaped by each other, when you smile at your partner, not only will they feel the connection.
In fact, when they smile back, you’ll feel it, too.
The next thing your friendly cashier will do is ‘talk’ to you. Specifically, she’ll ask a question. “What do you think about the spicy hummus?” or “How are you staying healthy during COVID-19?”
Like taking notice, asking questions is an easy way to feel connected. Couples therapy experts Julie and John Gottman developed the concept of “Love Maps.”
The Gottmans research showed that resilient couples “developed a “map” of their relationship and its history – one that embraces each person’s concerns, preferences, experiences, and reality.” (Gottman & Gottman, 2019).
They decided to develop an exercise where couples ask each other open-ended questions. For example, what is your favorite season? What do you dream of achieving in the next ten years?
What is your favorite position for making love? So, after you’ve acknowledged your partner with a smile, ask them a question or two. Then, look at them attentively and listen to their answer.
Smiling and asking questions may win you a fantasy trip to Jamaica with your friendly cashier, but it will probably not be enough to sustain love for a lifetime.
Finding true love is relatively easier as compared to maintaining the relationship for life. So, what makes a relationship last?
Lasting romantic relationships thrive when there is an emotional bond between partners.
Understanding and caring about each other at an emotional level, fortifies relationships. Identifying what you feel, being able to know what you feel without it overpowering you, and sharing what you are feeling with another person is an intimate experience.
To be able to “know what one feels and to live with the consequences” is a hope that some psychotherapists view as the purpose of psychotherapy (Jurist, 2018, p. x). Being known can help us feel safe and secure in romantic relationships.
So, go ahead, and shift your focus from the instant love to lasting love.
After you smile and ask your partner a couple of engaging questions, as long as they are not under quarantine, give them a big, sloppy hug.
The instant love for a friendly cashier may appeal today, but in the long run, the effort put into lasting love is far more rewarding.
Reference: Jurist, E. (2018) Minding Emotions- Cultivating Mentalization in Psychotherapy. New York; Gilford Press
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Caroline Steelberg, Psy.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with offices downtown and Andersonville, Chicago. I private practice for over 20 years, she specializes in the treatment of individuals and couples who have experienced trauma, loss or life transitions.