I'm alive because of a love letter.
The original love letter, actually. The one my grandfather gave my grandmother as they sat together, nervously, beneath a spring blossom on the University of Chicago campus. It wasn't quite the love letter you might expect from one of the world's great loves stories, more of a crude confession of love that reflects my grandparents rugged and resilient romance.
This was all that was hastily scribbled onto a cafeteria napkin my grandfather, Fred Vance, handed to my grandmother, Betty Johnson, who by this time was no stranger to Fred's pursuits. This wasn't the first time he told her he loved her. But it was the first time she'd reciprocated.
From this one exchange, an entire family was built. My grandparents' love has lasted a lifetime. Perhaps more than one. And ever since I can remember, our family has told this story like a birthright at birthdays and Christmas parties, while gifts sit impatiently underneath their tree. And although the gifts are given by many, they are unified in a single script that accompanies the name of the receiver: ILY.
No matter how frequently I see these three letters, I'm always transported to that moment under the tree on the University of Chicago campus. And even though I was never there, even though I was perhaps the hint of a dream to these two new lovers, I feel like I was there. And that's because I so often go back as my grandparents re-tell the story. As do their children. And now, their grandchildren.
I tell my clients to write love letters to each other.
I tell them to remember where they began. This is because most couples who know what true distress really is, the kind of distress that has you emailing a couple's therapist at midnight, leaves you in a place where it's hard to think positively of your spouse or partner. You feel overwhelmed with stress and pain, instead.
But most of us are still tied together by a commonly shared experience, like those Christmas presents under the tree. Though we may be impatient, we all had some beginning that endeared us toward each other. Maybe it was even blissful, the kind of beginnings that lovers dream of. Maybe if you thought if it, really let yourself remember, you could recall what it was like to fall in love with the person whose very existence at the current moments feels painful.
But we need to remember.
In North Dakota State University's Department of Psychology, researchers examined the positive impact of nostalgia and found that trips down memory lane contribute to positive emotion and happiness. New York Times Bestselling author David Linden recently released a book called The Pleasure Compass, in which he writes that we are the only species of animal who are able to generate pleasurable experiences with just a thought.
When you and your partner are in distress, shared pleasure is like a desert's oasis. We can't get enough of it, but it's waters are absolutely crucial for the energy you need to overcome painful conversations. Sometimes, you have to go digging.
So here's a possible solution.
Remember. Remember what it was like to fall in love together. Remember what it felt like when he touched you. Remember what it was like when she fell into your arms in front of all those people, to hell with what they thought. Remember the way he looked when he wanted you that way that you haven't seen in years. Let yourself feel the pain of those memories, but remember all the same.
Then write that memory. Write as much detail as you can. Every little detail counts. Remember what it was like to feel, remember the color of your clothes, remember the smells, sounds, textures and noises. Write it all down. Then, hide the letter in a place only where your partner can find them. Cultivate fondness through nostalgia. You don't even have to talk about it. Do it without expectation.
The truth is that most partners in distress, even those who act apathetically or in cruel ways are hiding a deep longing and desire. Not all. But most. And sometimes that apathy or cruelty needs to coaxed away to reveal the desire beneath.
So remember your spring afternoons. Remember your crude love notes. And share them. Perhaps the memory may revive something you feel like you've lost.