Guy and I have had 27 Valentine’s Days together, all of them happy. People have asked, “What’s your secret?”
I first want to acknowledge our privilege. We are lucky to be educated, well-employed, and white. It awards us right out of the gate an ease that not every married couple has. According to census data, our demographic has the lowest divorce rates in the U.S.
We were also lucky to be madly in love with each other when we got married. Being so in love gave me a palpable feeling of connection with my husband. I could feel in my body when our connection was “on,” and it felt good. I could also feel in my body when our connection was “off,” and it felt bad. I felt lucky to have such a strong guide built in. Not only was this guide infallible, it motivated me powerfully to work out our differences and re-establish our connection, because I physically hurt until we did.
That feeling was the genesis of our secret. Early on, as we were forming our relationship, it guided us to prioritize our connection over our own egos. This grew into a habit of turning towards, rather than away from, one another in thousands of small moments in the years that followed.
That’s our secret: turn towards your partner.
What Turning Away Looks Like
In order to be aware of the choice to turn towards your partner or away, you first must to notice when you feel disconnected. You will feel yourself stiffen, pull away, or make a face. You may then:
- Pull further away and withdraw altogether. Sometimes withdrawing temporarily is the right thing to do, such as when you feel too upset to talk. As soon as your head is clear, though, re-engage
- Withdraw and distract yourself with things or other people. This way leads to unhealthy behaviors like overeating, overdrinking, overspending, and inappropriate intimacies
- Pretend everything is fine, even when it isn’t. This evasion never lasts for long, though, because your true feelings will either fester and explode later or they will leak out in passive aggressive ways
- Go on offense or defense. Going on offense is being critical or contemptuous – obvious bad choices. Going on defense, or being defensive, may be less aggressive, but it’s not much better, because when you are defensive you are not listening.
What all these strategies have in common is that they deepen the disconnection, rather than repair it.
What Turning Towards Looks Like
Go back to the moment you noticed the disconnection.
First, take as much time as you need to calm yourself down – one deep breath or a ten-minute walk around the block. These intermediate strategies are turning towards your partner because they are preparing you for productive engagement.
Next, as soon as you’re ready, turn towards your partner. Begin by acknowledging, “We have a problem,” and then ask, “What’s going on?” Notice there’s no blame. Assume the attitude of a detective: you’re looking for the moment the misunderstanding or hurt occurred. It might sound like, “So when I did x, you thought it meant y? That wasn’t my intention. Now I understand.”
One thing my husband and I discovered is that we stayed calmer if we held hands while we had these conversations. Something about touching soothed us both – it does release oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding.
Turning towards your partner is, I think, what is meant by the “hard work” of marriage. It can be a humbling exercise, but it is one you are in together. You’re on the same side, and you both reap the rewards.