Every Sunday morning throughout 2017, I posted an article about a different way to show love. Touching, the second essay in the series, has been one of the most popular. In July of 2019, "A Refresher Course on the Importance of Touch" drew many interested readers as had the May 25th reflection, "Is Fear of Intimacy Becoming the New Normal?"
The popularity of the “52 Ways” posts, Learning to Love and be Loved, and my earliest posts on close relationships, long-term love, and mid-life love, which had originally been written to contextualize the science that informed my memoir, attest to the deep and abiding human need to connect to other living beings and our willingness to search for ways to do so.
With the “social distancing” recommended during the pandemic, this need is now greater than ever. We struggle to keep the attachment pathways in our nervous system’s wiring alive while they are battered by the threats that the novel coronavirus brings to our physical, financial, sometimes residential, and often relational welfare.
Here are six thoughts for today on staying connected when you cannot touch:
- Appreciate the opportunities and limitations of electronic communication. Those of us who have navigated long-distance love relationships over a period of time are quick to appreciate their benefits and challenges, as well as the role of alternative means of communication in keeping them alive and stable, and making them “work” over time. Begin by acknowledging that real-life energy differs from that which can be delivered by screens or other electronic devices.
- Consider words and images from new perspectives. Whether the words and images are connected to each other, embedded in emails or videos, filtered through social media or Zoom meetings, sent through old-fashioned snail-mail or by a third-person delivery system, choose them carefully, with the awareness that the likelihood of misinterpretation increases the more removed a communication is from the literal presence of the person who sends it. Risks of distortion can occur in both the sending and the receiving, so be sure to check that what you meant to convey was indeed what was received.
- Remember the multiple meanings of silences. Listening is a formidable way to express love. When a person feels heard and understood, trust expands, and with it, the opportunity for intimacy. One of the most valuable tools of the careful listener is silence, even though two people need to establish a joint notion of the meanings of silences and may need to check with each other as those notions are developing. Silence can easily be confused with withdrawal, a type of silence with very different meanings.
- Reconsider ways (and what) you can share. Love comes in so many forms — caring, nurturing, encouraging, understanding, and the list goes on, well beyond any 52 adjectives or gerunds. But few expressions build trust, goodwill, and appreciation as reliably as simple sharing. By traveling through experiences together, people can seize opportunities to build a full bank of memories to look back on and dreams to explore in the future. Best of all, they can go through current events mindful that, as the Swedish proverb says, “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half the sorrow." Whether it is done from a communal space — sharing a meal, applauding first responders, grieving a canceled celebration, and thinking up ways to reconfigure it — or from a distance (through conversations by phone, letters, email or Zoom), the emotions elicited need to be evident. As Gottman and his colleagues have amply documented (reference below), sharing happy moments predicts long-term successful love relationships. Sharing pain builds trust, knowing that challenges can be weathered.
- Keep the big picture in mind. When the energy of the love relationship begins to slip, you can help bring it back by returning to the Big Picture of why you are together in the first place. Return to the meaning you bring to each other, as well as the emotional or logistical or practical support; remind yourself of moments when you have felt the love most strongly. Try an imagery exercise to remind yourself. Allow the broader view to inspire you with a way to surprise the one you love by finding a meaningful way to reach out. Produce or send a photo of a unique shared moment or a place or activity that symbolizes the times spent together. Bring up a song that evokes memories or expresses what you feel when your own words fail. Find an intermediary (teddy bears anyone?) to hang on to when a hug is not available. Share a recipe that worked out well and that you believe your loved one will enjoy. And remind yourself that this period in history will not last forever. The one thing we can count on is impermanence.
- Respect periods of separation. It is easy to feel lonely or isolated when separated from someone you love, someone who is usually available for emotional or social support. Yet we all need moments to re-center ourselves. If we do not take responsibility for our own needs — that is, treat ourselves with love and compassion — how can we have the resources to love another? When we ask of them what we can better provide for ourselves, are we missing opportunities to grow from our loving? Are we promoting codependence rather than interdependence? Asking for help is one thing — refusing to help yourself is another. Do what you can to show love and compassion to yourself so that you have the energy available to reach out to others.
In what ways have you nourished your relationship during times of physical distancing? In what ways are you nourishing yourself? Can you see the correlation between the two? What signs do you notice when you are needing a tune-up either for yourself or for your love relationship?
Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower
Gottman, John M. and Silver, Nan (2013) What Makes Love Last? Simon and Schuster.