Absence Makes the Heart Grow Harder

My wife and I fell in love over the phone.

Although I suppose that's not entirely fair. We had about seven months or so before we both left for college that we dated in person, but our relationship blossomed after we left high school and went to two different universities in Texas.  This was before social media, before Skype, and before all the luxuries that I now covet for the moments I could have spent looking at her instead of only speaking to her.  It was an absence, but it was a blissful one, each moment we were apart strengthening our affections for each other on those consistent but infrequent moments when we shared a weekend or the occasional holiday. 

People ask me how we did it.

I get it.  It seems like a big deal.  And maybe at the time, it was.  But now as I look back, the four-year absence was only one part of the story.  Our relationship started together. We were grounded in our devotion to each other before we went our separate ways.  Although then we were too young to know with any certainty that we would be married, I think we both felt in our guts that we belonged to each other.  Sure, that was tested.  It waned here and there (mostly because I am stupid), but eventually what was once the sandy footing of youth became the solid ground of a mature relationship.  

And it all started with presence.

I'm lucky because I am married to a person who gets it.  She knows that half the relationship is just about showing up.  It's just about being present.  Just being there. You're going to mess up, but at least you can't be blamed for apathy. I've said this before and I'll say it once more: the enemy of a healthy relationship is not conflict, but indifference.  Anyone will put up with conflict for a while, even a few years maybe, before they reach out for help.  But indifference? No. Our hearts cannot take it.  If we get the message that the person we expect to have our backs, to hold our hands, to take our crap, or to hold our hair back when we're sick does not care enough to show up, we'll go find affection elsewhere. From an affair. From food. From a bottle. 

So how were my wife and I able to make this work? It's a pretty simple answer.  Even though we were physically absent from each other, we were always emotionally and psychologically present. Her presence was so powerful, it was able, and is still able to soften the blows of life.  But when that bond is threatened, life is a little more unbearable.  Studies on attachment point to this truth. An amazing experiment conducted by Dr. Sue Johnson revealed that women who were insecurely attached to their husbands experienced the pain of an electric shock more severely than women whose relationships were secure. 

Presence is love at the atomic level.

Presence is the building block of adult love, of secure attachment. Folks who know they can count on someone to love and accept them live longer, feel happier, and feel less pain. By contrast, when you expect your partner to show up, and you are disappointed, you retreat behind walls that serve only to make you feel miserable and disconnected.

But when your partner shows up, even if they show up loud and obnoxious, you know you can count of them.  You know it so well that during the day when stuff hits the fan, you think of them and your anxiety levels decrease.  Your brain recognizes the soothing response and decides you should reach out with a phone call.  So you do. And just hearing your partner's voice on the end of the line calms you even more.  But it also reassures you that you are not alone. That you are loved. 

So maybe we all fall in love over the phone.

One phone call, one answer at a time.  The more she or he answers, the more connected you feel.  No matter where they are.  But the more frequently you are cast aside, the more often you feel discarded, the easier it will be to hide, to run away for fear that you will be rejected again. 

Do yourself a favor this time. If your partner's absence has hardened your heart toward him or her, reach out for help before you make a decision you might regret.  What you find may surprise you.

Dr. Mathis Kennington