If “absence makes the heart grow fonder” (1) then what the hell does prolonged exposure do to us? Make the heart grow colder? It can, but it doesn’t have to.
My wife works in a hospital. I won’t say that makes it easier on our relationship as there’s a whole other bucket of stress that goes along with having your partner at a hospital during a pandemic, but it does mean that we spend the workdays apart. That’s a relief valve for the pressure that builds up with constant proximity.
But we are still dealing with the fact that I am there every day when she comes home. My job used to involve being on the road one week out of three (sometimes one week out of two, depending on the time of year). After thirty-four years of marriage, we both appreciated that time to ourselves. For a few days, what to eat, what to watch on TV, when to go to bed, and when to get up were individual choices, not part of the ongoing negotiation that underpins a healthy relationship.
Ten years ago, the friction of constant proximity might have devolved into bitchiness, bitterness, and cold shoulders of artic frigidity. But we were lucky that when our marriage was at its rockiest, we were introduced to something called Retrouvaille. I’m not going to do a sales pitch for Retrouvaille. If you are interested, you can visit the website yourself (2). I’ll just say our involvement with Retrouvaille is the genesis for the three techniques that my wife and I are using to stay sane and committed to each other in this time of weirdness.
1. Communicate about more than the superficial shit.
I used to think that my partner and I communicated well because we ran a house and took care of the kids. But when it came to understanding each other, we didn’t know dick.
Ask each other how you are feeling. “Fine” is not an acceptable answer. If you are feeling happy or sad or depressed or angry, talk about why. Give some examples that your partner can relate to. I’m feeling happy like when we got a good deal on our first car. Or, I’m feeling anxious like when we were waiting for the outcome of our son’s surgery.
2. Listen and empathize. Don’t solve.
Your partner is not an idiot. They can figure out what to do. What they need is to know that you understand what they are feeling. And remember, feelings are what they are, they are not right or wrong. The early part of our marriage was spent patiently trying to explain to each other why what we were feeling was incorrect. It’s amazing we are still together.
3. Make a shit ton of decisions.
I’m not talking about a decision to buy a new TV, or a new mattress or where to go out for dinner, or which bar to visit. Under shelter-in-place, you can’t do that crap anyway. Decide to forgive your partner for something they did yesterday or two years ago. Decide to trust them again if they did something to betray your trust. This does not have to apply to big events. Maybe you need to forgive them for burning your late grandmother’s tea-towel when they used it as a potholder. And most of all, decide to love them. I used to think love was a feeling but it’s not. Lust and infatuation are feelings. Powerful feelings, but fleeting. Loving your partner is a conscious decision you make every day.
Try these three things with your partner. You are stuck in the same space with them anyway, so why not? Maybe you’ll find that you don’t need absence to make your heart grow fonder.
- Thomas Haynes Bayly, 1850
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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