My wife’s nostrils flared as she cornered me by the dishwasher. Her face was inches away from mine and it felt as if she were holding me by the lapels.
“We’re not connecting anymore! I’m just a round-the-clock nanny changing diapers and you’re just a workaholic! We’re not close. We’re not having fun! We’re no longer soul-mates! And sex….when was that ?!! This isn’t why I married you! What are we going to do about it ?!! “
The North Carolina state legislators hadn’t nicknamed Helen “Dragon Lady” for nothing. As principal of the state’s program for multi-handicapped children, she had put the bite into them for funding. Here, she was doing the same to me about the sorry state of our relationship.
I immediately knew the right answer:
“You’re right. Let’s get on it!” I said.
I knew it was the right answer because I knew that Helen had been speaking the truth. I wasn’t going to allow my pride to eclipse that fact. We had been fighting terribly for several months since our new adopted daughter had arrived from Korea. She was ADHD and demanded a lot of attention round the clock. I was still struggling to get my psychology practice robust to take the full financial burden since Helen had quit her job.
With all of these demands, we had fallen into the rut of constant responsibility: co-parenting, earning money, doing chores and all the survival business of a marriage. But we were no longer pairing off as a couple to enjoy our emotional intimacy. We had “let our relationship go.” It was as if our relationship had been living on a diet of junk food. Constant responsibility is like junk food in a marriage. It doesn’t nourish the soul. It just keeps you hidden from each other.
What we did together as a couple
As I said before, I wasn’t going to let my pride eclipse the truth that Helen was right. But I also chose to be smart by not doing the passive male thing. I wasn’t going to give Helen a dumb look and ask her “What should we do?” I chose to take the initiative instead. I immediately proposed that we get in a babysitter one night a week so that we could get away together. Not for a date night but for an intimacy night. Every Thursday evening, the baby-sitter would arrive at 6:00 PM. We would take off for a little Italian restaurant where it was quiet and they wouldn’t bother us for hours after we had our dinner. We initially brought all sorts of self-help books to use their exercises to try to get more connected. After a while we learned we didn’t need the exercises. We learned that we just needed to stay away from discussing any topic that would put us into a problem-solving state: No talking about job, child, money, house, car, chores, in-laws or the relationship. The relationship?!! That’s right…..the relationship! Because most often discussions about your relationship will not result in close intimacy. It will result in problem-solving and defensiveness instead. So instead of discussing problem-solving and goals, Helen and I began discussing fantasies, memories, the meaning we placed on our memories, the things we wondered about the world, the private thoughts we sometimes had in the dark when we got up to pee in the middle of the night.
A funny thing happened. After about 6 weeks of our new intimacy program most of our fights disappeared. We enjoyed each other again. The relationship tooled along just fine like it had before we adopted the child and turned ourselves into responsibility robots. And then the baby-sitter moved. We got complacent. We let ourselves go again because we had been getting along so well. You can guess what happened. In the pharmaceutical industry, they call it a time series study. Change the dosage level and see if there’s a change in the symptom level. Our fights started back up again. And then we corrected it again with more scheduling of emotional intimacy. I finally figured that if I could change the oil in my car every 3,000 miles then we could regularly feed intimate attachment in our relationship.
John Gottman’s research on relationships bears on our experience. He has found that even good attachment repair techniques won’t work for a couple if there’s not a good friendship bond in the background. The take-away is that you usually can’t resolve relationship conflicts with good technique alone. That’s like saying that you’re going to get the hospitalized patient well by doing more surgeries…..but nobody has noticed that he hasn’t been fed in over a week. In a relationship, attachment deficits will often condense into narcissistic fights. It’s as if the unconscious says that “since I’m not important in his mind then at least I’ll be important right now by winning this argument.”
“Attachment” is the neuroscience word for our need for feeling “close” in a relationship
We have an instinctive need for this kind of human connection. It’s not just human. Most mammals tend to release the neurohormone oxytocin when touching or relating to their kind. If we don’t get it in our relationship then we’re more likely to bite our partner like a dog in pain. We’re usually not even aware that our unconscious is in pain. Another metaphor is that our attachment needs are like vitamin C in a diet. If we don’t get it often enough then our relationship gets scurvy.
Minimum weekly attachment diet
This brings me to my suggestion for your Minimum Weekly Attachment Diet (MWAD). Most couples can get along OK with 3 different attachment points in their week: Mealtime conversations, bedtime touch and weekly emotional intimacy. Let me elaborate.
It’s fairly universal that eating together is a way to reinforce human connection. All of our important celebrations involve shared meals. Weddings, funerals, Thanksgivings and other holidays usually involve ritualistic “this is us” meals. Back when we were hunter gatherer tribes we no doubt bonded over the latest sloth meat. Modern mealtimes are important too. I remember when my daughter was 10 years old our dinner time usually started when she would blurt out “Can I talk about my day now?” I’m proud of that because it showed that we had taught her to have high self-esteem. She had learned that her personal experience was important to the rest of us. Couples can similarly reinforce affection the same way with mealtime conversation.
It’s also universal that mammals release oxytocin when touching their own kind. Bed-time is the second important time for feeding attachment. Older couples are often too tired for sex on most nights. But cuddling, back rubs, foot rubs and affectionate touch have a powerful benefit when coupled with casual talk. On nights when I know that I will be staying up late I will still go to bed with my wife at 8:00 PM. After we talk and I rub her back, I will get up later when we turn off the lights. Our bedtime connection isn’t appetite driven. I do it because I’m smart and I care about our relationship. I know that our affection needs to be nourished by this kind of experience.
The third attachment point is the most difficult for many couples. When partners become bruised and defensive around each other then it’s difficult for either party to be interested in the other’s experience. But that’s exactly what’s needed. Thirty five years ago my own therapist told me “Bryce, adult loving has more to do with receiving than giving.” What he meant was that affection is nourished when each partner explores his partner’s mind with curiosity. It’s not merely knowing each other’s’ “love maps” and it’s not merely expressing love in the 5 love languages. It’s the active exploring that really strokes your partner most dearly. If you’re struggling with thoughts like “What’s the right thing to say?” then you’re not in the zone because you’re not being curious.
Intimate curiously is effortless and is devoid of self-consciousness. If your partner sees that you want to know her inner experiences, her hopes and her felt meanings about her experiences……..and she sees your face light up with pleasure as you learn about her inner world……..then she will intuitively know that her core is being appreciated. And when this occurs fairly regularly, say one evening a week, then she will feel loved. That is exactly what happened with my wife and me 29 years ago.
Let me address the concept of a “date night”. I suggest that you may want to avoid that term because it suggests fun activity like when you first started dating. It’s fine to have fun. When we’re young we have a lot of time to do that. But when we’re older and buried under responsibilities then we have to make our minutes count. We have to fuel our attachment with a high calorie diet of more intimate attachment. When you have a date night and do something interesting then your focus is mostly on the outside world. You occasionally discuss your experiences but your minds are connecting maybe 3 % of the time. I call this “affiliation.” It’s like eating cabbage soup.
When you’re engaged in intimate conversation then the outside world fades to the background. Your focus is on your partner’s inner experiential world. A good definition of intimacy might be this:
“Intimacy means ‘into-me-see’”
It’s like high calorie beef steak. If you’re having only a very limited time each week to feed your relationship then you don’t want cabbage soup. Mere affiliation is thin gruel. You want beef steak instead. I like to say that one minute of intimacy equals 100 minutes of affiliation in terms of attachment nutrition.
Try to invent another term for your emotional intimacy other than “date night.” You might call it “us time”, “together time”, “connection time” or “close time.” I had one couple invent the term “feature night” because they knew that the main feature would be each other instead of an activity.
So there’s my suggestion for your Minimum Weekly Attachment Diet (MWAD): Daily meal time conversations, bed time touching and one evening a week involving genuine “into-me-see” intimacy. This is what I recommend if you want to avoid the consequences of a junk food attachment diet. Don’t hide from each other in perpetual responsibility. Don’t get relationship scurvy.