PaulHutchinson

Ph.D. Relationship Advice for Improving Closeness

Psychologist and Therapist, Individual Therapy,  Bellevue, WA

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How to Get Closer to The One You Love

What is it about a romance that makes it feel like a romance?  In our romances, we are hungry for a certain experience, a certain set of feelings. We try to capture it in words like love, closeness, connection, and intimacy, and we sort of know what we mean. But in most love relationships the immediate feeling of closeness waxes and wanes. We can wake up in bed with someone we have loved for years, and find that today we aren’t feeling very connected at all. Today we are wishing we could get more of that feeling back, and we aren’t entirely sure how to do it.

This article is about how to rekindle the feelings of closeness and connection, and how to understand how closeness works, and what seems to help us feel close to one another.

Before we talk about some of the various ways that people can become closer, let me describe a few key ideas to hold in mind about how closeness works.

  1. When it works right, it builds on itself.  You want to get that momentum going again.
  2. It is good to have a thermostat for closeness.  If things start to get a little chilly, a thermostat tunrs on some heat to get things warmer again. 
  3. Most of us have some defenses that get in our way. We pull away when we feel unwanted, and then things get even more distant.
  4. We want closeness, except when we don’t.  It is natural for couple to not always be syncronized on this.  

Let me say a bit about each of these four ideas. 

The Idea of the Virtuous Circle

When romances start, the closeness and connection seem to happen without our even trying. Couples often feel as if they are just made for each other, and just naturally bring out the love and tenderness in each other. The closeness seems to just happen on its own, and that makes us believe that in this wonderful relationship the closeness will happen on its own forever. Then a few years later we realize that the love and tenderness isn't happening as naturally, and we are afraid that we somehow botched our judgement, that we were wrong all along.

What actually happened is something more like this: In those early days, we were being enormously warm and loving toward our partner. They were feeling loved and wanted, and found themselves being warm and loving back without even having to try. I’m feeling loved and pouring warmth in your direction, and you are feeling blissfully loved and pouring warmth and love back at me. Your warmth reinforces my warmth which inspires more of yours which triggers more of mine. It’s like the ease with which a fire burns once it has gotten going. This pattern is sometimes called a positive feedback loop, or a virtuous circle. (Like a vicious circle, only with good stuff rather than bad stuff.)

Early in most relationships there is a positive feedback loop, and it is breathtaking and wonderful. The couple thinks, “this is just how we are. If we get married we will have closeness forever without even trying.”

Think about the warmth of the relationship as something which can have momentum, and can also lose momentum. And the problem is, once it loses momentum, once I am no longer feeling the warmth coming off of you like a glowing campfire, then I stop sending so much warmth back in your direction. I’m not really aware that I am doing it, and neither are you. It’s like when you take a campfire, and move the logs apart. When they were close, each one was giving off raging heat that heated the other log and helped it burn. Moved apart, the flames on both logs start to die down and fizzle out.

So, applying this to your relationship, think about it this way: Positive feedback loops are possible, and they are wonderful. Your job is to get one going again. We know that the two of you are capable of it, because you had one going before. But, when you are trying to get something started ( or restarted), you have to put more heat and kindling into it for a while before the fire catches. The key is to keep trying, to keep pouring warmth into the relationship, even though you are discouraged because this thing that used to be so natural now feels unnatural, and takes effort.

A Thermostat For Closeness

In a relationship, it is completely natural for me to respond to your warmth with my warmth, and to respond to you chilliness and distance by cooling off and pulling away.  It is natural, but it sets up the vicious circle that I was just talking about.  What we want instead is for us to notice things getting a little chilly or a little distant, and using that as our signal to reach out to each other, and try to warm things up again.   

To get out of your chilly patches, I suggest that couples agree to try to use the “thermostat principle.” What does a thermostat do? It notices when things are starting to get a little chilly, and reacts to that by doing something to warm the place up. That is the model you want to keep in your mind.

Many couples do some version of this automatically, but we want it to happen more, and happen consciously. Most couples have some kind of gut sense of “we’ve been apart a bit; we’ve been caught up in other things; I’d like to connect again.” When that mechanism works properly, it kicks in and moves one partner to try to connect with the other, to talk to them or touch them with a bit of warmth. Suggest to your loved one that you both operate on the thermostat principle, and if either of you notice that things are a little cool, that you do something to warm things up. You can even have an expression or two that you use as shorthand to suggest you would like to reconnect.  "Hello stranger" implies that you are feeling a little more like a stranger than usual.  "Feeling friendly?" could be a way of suggesting that I am looking for a little friendliness. 

The thermostat idea sounds straightforward, but there something important that gets in the way: If I am not feeling wanted at the moment, it can be really hard to reach out to my loved one and risk feeling more unwanted if they don’t reach back. The thermostat idea is that I reach out to you with some warmth, but most of us feel pretty bad when our bids for closeness are rejected.  Here is the game plan that I suggest:  If your loved one reaches out to you, especially with a thermostat shorthand, indicating they would like to reconnect, reach back if possible.  And if the timing just isn't right, see if you can turn them down with a warm rain check, indicating that you do want to reconnect, but just not right this minute. 

Your Defenses May Get In The Way

I’ve been talking about how we respond to warmth from another person, but we are also always responding to signals from inside ourselves. We all walk around with a set of feelings inside of us left over from every close relationship we have ever had. In particular we have a deep set of feelings left over from our relationships with our parents. Did we feel loved and wanted? Did we feel loved just as we are? Did we feel safe and certain that our loved ones would stick with us? There are also feelings left over from our previous love relationships. Have we been cheated on or dumped? All of these translate into a set of reactions that we typically call “defenses.” Our defenses are designed to keep us from getting hurt emotionally. They take the form of an internal impulse that signals, “that stove is hot. Get away from it and you won’t get burned.” Or rather, “get away from that love relationship, and you won’t get hurt by it.” We may be partly conscious of these impulses, but typically our defenses also operate somewhat unconsciously, outside of our awareness.

The basic, classic defense that many of us have is to avoid vulnerability to avoid getting hurt.  That is at work when I don't ask someone out, because they might say no.  It is also at work if I don't reach out to my wife, because she has been a bit distant lately.  I want to be wanted, and I don't want to be where I'm not wanted, so maybe I just won't take the risk...

 Our defenses build up in layers, and include a whole set of rationalizations and interpretations to justify what we do.  With one slice of our defenses, we tell ourselves that we don't actually have the needs that we have.  "I'm fine.  I don't need anything from them anyway."  If I'm strong and self-sufficient then I'm not at your mercy, waiting for you to give me some of the closeness I need.  Another slice of our defenses is trying hard to make this problem your fault and not mine.  You should know what I need: I shouldn't always have to ask.  This all started when you pulled away; I was just following suit.  As you might guess, my internal tendency to blame you for all this does nothing to make things warm and fuzzy again.  

There is another set of defenses that gets in the way of me showing you how I really feel.  What if my real feelings are messy and complicated, and possibly not much fun even for me?  Do you want to get close to all that, or do you just want the tidied up version of me that I show to the world?  Distance can happen in a relationship when one partner is having a rough time.  Many of us aren't very good at letting others into our rough times.  This too is tied to how people have dealt with my needs and my pain throughout my life. I may have internalized a sense that “you’d better show everyone happy you, and helpful you. No one wants to deal with sad you, grumpy you, scared you.” If I don’t think you want to deal with me when I’m feeling bad, I’m likely to pull away and keep my distance when I am feeling bad. Over time that can take away some of the closeness and bring some distance into a relationship. And this one is particularly tricky, because you can entirely misinterpret why I am pulling away.  I may have a long habit of pulling back and licking my own wounds when I am feeling bad.  But to you it feels like I am pulling away from you, that I am distancing myself from you.  I withdraw when I am having a rough time, and you feel rejected and hurt.  Now we have the double problem that I am having a rough time, and our relationship feels distant and chilly.

These defenses operate in a way that has its effect slowly, cumulatively, and in the background of a relationship. And you can’t entirely turn your defenses off. The best you can do is try to become more aware of your defenses, and try to push by against them, by turning left when your defenses tell you to turn right. For example:

If you are aware of these tendencies in yourself, you can work on them by pushing back against them, and particularly pushing back against them in your relationship.

Push yourself to reach out to your loved one with warmth and affection, even if you have doubts about whether your love will always be wanted. Naturally it helps a lot if your partner is receptive and understanding. But let’s assume that your loved one is pretty good in this regard, but not perfect. It is still part of your job and your project to push back against your defenses, and reach out. Otherwise the risk is that the chilliness and guardedness in the relationship is coming substantially from you.

We Want To Be Close, Except When We Don’t

There is an old joke about how the secret of comedy is ...  (wait for it) ... timing.   That is also the secret of closeness.  The problem is that, yes, of course I want to be close to you.  But what?  You mean right now?  Right now my head is all filled with something else, that seems really pressing.  Or right now I'm in the mood for some solitude, some time with a good book. 

There is always a balancing act between closeness and separateness, between the wish to be close to you and the wish to simply be me. Yes, I want to be close to you, but don’t want to have to pay attention to you all the time. I don’t want to have to watch the TV show you also want to watch. Sometimes I want the quiet of my own thoughts. I don’t always want my mind melded with your mind. I don’t always want to listen to what you want to talk about. This isn't a sign of anything gone wrong, it is just the way that we are all wired.

So, in this particular moment, you want connection.  You may want a connected conversation.  You may want sex, or some cuddling.  In general, on the planet, I want all of those things too.  I want to be close to you, just not right now.  But we all experience our lives moment by moment.  If I want some closeness right now, and that isn't where you are at, I am going to feel unwanted and rejected right now.  It will feel like small consolation that you might want some closeness or some sex tomorrow.  In the way we experience the world, tomorrow never comes.  It is always right now, and right now we are out of sync. 

And if I feel unwanted right now, and a little rejected right now, that may cast a shadow over what happens next time you want to be all warm and close.  I felt a little hurt.  My guard went up a little bit.  Four hours later you are ready to be close, and now I'm not in the mood. 

A part of the puzzle is figuring out how to keep those moments when you are out of sync from casting too long a shadow.  To do that requires some acceptance.  Being out of sync isn't a rejection, a rejection of you and the whole idea of closness with you.  You are still loved.  Being out of sync is just being out of sync.  As mentioned above, if your loved one wants to be close right now and you don't, see if you can give them a warm and encouraging rain check. 

How To Get Closer

So, I spent some time talking about how closeness works, with defenses and reinforcement loops and timing. Now let me give you some guidelines for how to be closer, how to strengthen a bond of love and attachment. I’ll be talking about an assortment of things, some obvious, some less so. The things range from companionship to physical touch to various forms of emotional connection.

  1. Self disclosure and vulnerability.  Let your loved one in.
  2. Mirroring.  They should love the version of themselves that they see reflected in your eyes.
  3. We want to be held in mind.  Show your loved on that you are holding them in mind.
  4. Humor and playfulness brings burst of closeness and connection.
  5. Touch each other.  Yes, sex too, but also just touch each other.
  6. Shared experiences and companionship build closeness, especially if there is novelty and excitement.

Vulnerability and Self Disclosure

We have all had the experience of the closeness that comes when we really open up to someone, or when they open up to us. We share something personal and important, and they respond with kindness, with understanding and compassion. These can be really important moments of connection and intimacy. This kind of closeness, when we let someone else really know us, is wonderful, and also complicated.  It is wonderful and complicated enough that it kept spilling out into additional articles.  So, check out my article on Emotional Intimacy, and also my article on the Definition and Description of Empathy.  There is a lot of discussion there about letting someone else really know us, and about trying to know and understand them.  That form of closeness is extremely important for couples. In the rest of this article I will explore a number of other routes to closeness.

We Crave Positive Mirroring

One of the things that can be so wonderful in a love relationship is when we have someone who simply sees so much that is good in us. When we are with them we see ourselves reflected in their eyes, and we like what we see. If I’m with someone who loves me and likes me and admires me, I feel loveable. It’s easy to feel good about myself when I see my good qualities reflected in your perceptions of me. This experience of seeing ourselves reflected back to us through other people’s perceptions of us is called “mirroring.”

We form our sense of ourselves from the reflected perceptions of other people. This has been going on all of our lives.  Oursense of self was heavily shaped by the mirroring of our parents and others when we were growing up. But mirroring goes on all throughout our lives. All of our lives, it feels great to be around someone who thinks we are interesting and funny and kind, and it feels kind of lousy to be around someone who thinks we are lame and clueless and irritating. Each of those experiences affects our sense of self, at least a little bit.

Part of what is so wonderful about being in love is the sense that we have found someone who just adores us, who thinks we are wonderful. We always want positive mirroring from those around us, the sense that someone thinks that we are talented or interesting or kind. But the mirroring that we can get from a loved one feels particularly wonderful.  At its best, a loved one can leave us feeling that we aren't just pretty good; we are wonderful and adored.  But the mirroring in a love relationship can get complicated, especially as the feelings in the relationship get complicated.

The mirroring at the beginning of a love relationships is gloriously distorted. In fact, you and I form a conspiracy to make it distorted. I show you my best side, trying to be kind and warm and fun. You want to believe that I could be the one. You know about 30% of me, and mostly the best bits that I have been trying to show you, and you fill in the other 70% with your hopes and dreams. And you mirror me back to myself as if I were that wonderful guy crafted out of your hopes and dreams. And that feels awesome to me, and I decide that you are the best thing ever. What we have going is a conspiracy to love each other, a conspiracy to find each other wonderful, even if we have to ignore a couple of minor red flags in order to do it.

And I’m not saying it is all a fraud. When this works well, I try to be the good person that you seem to think I am. I try to be worthy of your admiration and love. As the old saying goes, “you make me a better man.” But you make me a better man because I try to be one.

As a relationship matures I no longer feel like you think I am perfect. You used to know 50% of me, and fill in the blanks with your positive fantasies, allowing you to see me as your knight in shining armor. Now you know 90% of me, and my armor has gotten pretty tarnished. You see that I have faults after all, and a few of my faults have become your ongoing pet peeves, the irritating things I do that just make you nuts. What happens to your mirroring of me when I am making you nuts?

In the worst case scenario, the mirroring goes from wonderful to pretty lousy. Yes, you’ll admit that I have a few good points, but you are working on trying to get me to change the things that annoy you. If I’m lucky, the mirroring that I am getting off of you is, “you’re a good guy, but you did that annoying thing again.” If I’m not so lucky, you make little mention of those things you like in me. We both know about those, so why mention them? You are focused on your pet peeve, so the mirroring I get feels like, “really? You did that thing again? Aren’t you even trying to change it? Don’t you even care how I feel?” I’m just doing what I have always done, including the annoying thing, but now the mirroring feels like, “you must be some clueless uncaring lout to be doing what you are doing when you know how much I don’t like it.”  So, I'm around you.  You are still my most important source for mirroring.  But now most of what I see reflected in your mirror is that I'm a knucklehead and a disappointment.  Clearly something has gone wrong.  Can it be put right again? 

So, what to do about all this? A part of what I am emphasizing here is just how important it is for us to get positive mirroring from those we love. That means that it is your job now and always to tell and show the people you love all of the ways that you like and admire them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever criticize someone, or lobby them to change their behavior. But if someone asked your loved one what mirroring they had gotten from you in the last week, would they that they feel mostly liked and admired, or that it feels hard to be good enough? John Gottman did some wonderful research on how couples can remain happy and close as the years go by. One of his better known findings is that couples stay happy if the ratio of positive to negative interactions between them is at least 5 to 1 positive. He was referring to all interactions, not to mirroring in particular, but let that number sink in. 5 to 1 positive. I’m making the pitch to you that you very much want your loved one to like your mirroring, to like the version of themselves that they see reflected in your eyes. That might not be your habit, especially if that wasn’t the kind of mirroring you got growing up. But it is your job to make your mirroring positive enough that your loved ones feeling lifted up by it rather than torn down by it. How to do that?

Work On Your Ability To Deal With Your Own Ambivalence

In telling you that your mirroring should be positive, I don’t mean to suggest that you should be wildly insincere, and be faking positivity while feeling annoyed and resentful. The puzzle comes in figuring out how to deal with your actual feelings. Let me start with the idea of ambivalence. Ambivalence is a wonderful word that captures the complexity of human emotions. Ambivalence means that you are feeling positive and negative emotions about the same thing, all at once. If I take anything as complicated as a love relationship, it would be truly weird if you didn’t have a mixture of positive and negative feelings about it. Fairy tales and romance movies seem to be selling a fantasy version of how love actually feels. “They lived happily ever after” doesn’t really capture what really happens. What really happens is this:  “They loved each other and were mostly pretty happy with each other, except when they were annoyed or saddened or occasionally angered by the things that the other one did in the course of being fallible and human.”

So, how to work on accepting your ambivalence, and accepting your loved one? How about this for a start: The person you fell in love with is not you. They are a unique and quirky individual, with their own likes and dislikes, and their own perceptions and life experiences. Because they are not you, they often won’t want exactly what you want, or do things exactly the way you would. This is not because something terrible went wrong, and you failed to find your soul mate. It is a myth that if you had only found the right person you wouldn’t be having this problem. You might need to take a deep breath and decide that your loved one’s habits and preferences aren’t wrong simply because they aren’t yours. The solution here isn’t, “if I can just get them to see things the way I do, and do things the way I do, we won’t have this problem.” Your loved one will go right on being their own unique, quirky, and maddening self, and very much not being you, and it is your job to love them anyway.

It is OK for you to occasionally lobby your loved one to change their behavior. In order to live with someone who is not you, you will have to find compromises, and each of you will have to try to adjust some of the things that bug the other one. But I am recommending that you first approach your loved on with a whole lot of acceptance, especially the acceptance that they are human, and the acceptance that they are different than you.

Here is the way that we hope your mirroring can work. If I can feel it that you know my faults and foibles, and accept and admire and love me anyway, that is far more powerful than an early infatuation. Early in the romance I got that amazing mirroring that you thought I was nearly perfect, and I loved that. But now we have been together for some years, and I can actually get something even more precious: You know that I’m not perfect and you still love me anyway.

Bring To Mind Your Loved One's Good Points

There are mental mechanisms that can sometimes lead to us dwelling on the negative parts of things. If I have high or nearly perfectionist standards, I may have approached the world by constantly noticing what is wrong, noticing anything that isn’t quite up to my high standard. Or I may have had parents who tended to push for excellence, where pretty good just wasn’t good enough. What that can lead to is a relationship where things are 75% good, and what I notice, both inside myself, and in what I say out loud, is the 25% that could use improvement. I’m not going to ask you to pretend that 25% doesn’t exist, or to stop trying to make improvements. But I want your loved one to get constant positive mirroring about the 75% of good stuff going on.

To do that, you need to constantly bring to mind that 75%. This isn't denial or self-delusion.  It is just trying to turn off the habit of focusing on what is wrong, and what you would like to change.  Bring to mind what is good about your loved one, and constantly put it into words. Push yourself especially hard at this if you realize that this isn’t the type of mirroring that you got as a kid. If you are married or having children, it is important for your marriage and your children that you interrupt a pattern of not-very-positive mirroring. This will take practice, because your habit, what is likely to come most naturally, is the pattern you got growing up.

 To have someone constantly telling me how they want me to be different is to be steadily worn down, to find that again and again you make me feel bad about myself.  Remeber John Gottman and his 5 to 1 ratio.  Five to one is a really high ratio.  But if you want your loved one to feel loved, step up your game.  Approach your loved one with lots of kindness and compassion, almost all the time. 

We Want To Be Held In Mind

Naturally we live our lives inside our own mind, inside our own consciousness.  So every moment of each day, we are aware of our own experience.  But in a random moment of a random day, is anyone else thinking of me at all?  Does anyone else know what I am going through.  I am in my own mind, but am I in anyone else's mind? 

If I love someone, if someone is important to me, I may well find that they simply come to mind regularly, come to mind without my even trying to think about them.  They are part of my internal mental and emotional landscape.  I'll find myself thinking, "I should tell her abou this," and "she would really like this movie," and "I wonder how her day is going.  Did the big meeting go OK?" 

Typically it is the people that we are closest to who are a part of our mental landscape so that they come to mind without our even trying to think of them.  And usually it is touching to know that someone else has us in mind, that someone thinks of us when we are not around.  We tend to feel closer to people who think of us. So, your loved one will probably feel closer to you if they know you are thinking of them.  So, make it a project to show your loved one that you are holding them in mind.  The easy part of this is to just make contact in any form at all. Any text, any email contains the implicit message, “I was thinking about you.” That is especially true if it is clear that I was thinking about your tastes, about who you are, about important things that are happening in your day or your life. “I thought you’d like this article.” “How did your meeting with your boss go?”  Sending that text both means "I was thinking of you," and "I like connecting with you.”

There is also a deeper level of holding someone in mind. That is what happens when I am not just thinking of you, but I am really getting your experience, even though it is different than mine. I know your favorite band is coming to town. I know that you were worried about the meeting with your boss. I know that you have been bummed out lately. It isn’t just “I thought of you,” it is “I have been imagining what something means to you, I have been imagining your experience of the world is.” If someone manages to pull that off, you will have a sense of being known and understood, a sense that someone gets you.  You will know that, in addition to thinking about you, this person has in their mind a pretty good mental model of you, and that they cared enough about you and your experience to form that model and to hold that model in mind. 

We Want To Be Held In Mind, And Then We Want To Be Held

Humans are born with a deep need for physical touch. There is lots of evidence that the emotional development of babies and toddlers gets quite messed up if they aren't held and touched enough. If you have spent much time around little kids you have seen for yourself that the power of touch is amazing.  If a little kid is upset, touch makes almost everything better.  And even when they are fine, kids naturally want to be picked up, want to sit on your lap, to ride on your back, to hold your hand. 

Childhood ends, and we all grow up, but our wiring doesn't change.  Physical touch is still something we need, and something that makes just about everything better.  We want to be touched when we are upset.  A hug makes us feel closer to someone.  Even as adults, touch is calming and soothing, and brings a sense of connection between two people.  Sex aside, to lie in bed and hold someone is a powerful and tender thing to do.

If it is such powerful stuff, and brings such closeness and connection, why don't couples touch each other more?  If it is so natural and so wonderful, why don't we do it?  It's a complicated subject, so let me talk about a couple of small slices of the answer. 

  1. Growing up, most of us and especially most men clearly get the message that we aren't supposed to need something as vulnerable and childish as being touched. 
  2. For many couples, touch gets tangled up with sex.  If I'm in the mood for touch, but not really in the mood for sex, am I reluctant to start touching you because I'm afraid my interest will be misconstrued?
  3. If our families weren't affectionate growing up, we have an unconscious "set point" for what feels like the right amount of touch.  At times we act that out even if it is not what we consciously want.

So, the question of touch runs really quickly into all the issues around whether we are allowed to have needs, and whether we are allowed to ask for what we need.  Culturally, Americans are huge fans of the myth that we are self-reliant, independent, frontier folk.  We idolize self sufficiency, and feel vaguely uneasy about needing someone else for anything.  And if you are American and a guy, the myth of self sufficiency gets dialed up to 11.  We are supposed to be John Wayne, Luke Skywalker, Captain America.  It's not a coincidence that none of their scripts contain the line, "I'd like to cuddle," or "give me a hug."  (If you are a guy and you just read that line, admit it, you winced a little.)

But I'm here to tell you, your wiring is the same wiring you had when you were two years old, and when you were two years old there was nothing better than getting picked up, than sitting on someone's lap, than getting touched.  Physical touch is the first and primary way that all of us experienced human closeness.  Long before we could do any of the other things that I describe in this article, we were finding closeness by being touched.  If your relationship is a little more distant than you would like it to be, physical touch is one of the best tools for trying to rekindle some closeness.

So, to touch each other more, you need to push back against the sense that you are self-sufficient and the sense that you shouldn't tell another person what you need, and you need to find good ways and figure out the timing for touching the person you love. 

And does touching get tangled up with sex?  That brings up a fundamental problem about both touch and about sex:  Timing.  What if I want to cuddle with you, and I want sex with you, but I may not want either of those things exactly when you want them?  If I reach out to you for either sex or for some other physical contact, and you rebuff me, I may well take a lesson and be less likely to reach out again.  It can hurt to be offering (and asking for) some form of closeness, and have the other person turn you down.  None of us likes feeling unwanted, and for some of us the sense of feeling unwanted can go a little deeper and be a little more painful.  If that is the case, a few times feeling rejected and I will start to avoid any chance that I will be rejected again. 

What to do about all that?  Well, this is another case in which it helps to become more aware of your defenses so that you can push back against them.  On the one hand, push back against your sense that you are supposed to be self sufficient, and your sense that you aren't supposed to need physical touch, and reach out to your loved one anyway.  On the other hand, push back against your fear that you won't be wanted.  If the timing is off, and your partner doesn't want cuddling or sex at quite the same time you do, that's life. 

And on the subject of timing, here is what to do if your partner approaches you for sex, or cuddling, or a hug.  If at all possible, respond and give them the touch or the sexual contact that they are looking for.  If that just doesn't work for you right then, try to turn them down in a way that won't hurt.  For a sexual overture in particular, see if you can give them a warm rain check, and the sense that, in general, you think this is a great idea, but just not right now. 

Some families aren't very touchy.  We all tend to internalize the experience that we grew up with, and to think that is normal.  So, if I grew up in a family that touched each other, and you didn't, we may find ourselves very much out of sync.  What to do?  I have known people who really strongly felt that physical touch just wasn't their thing, and didn't feel that they could change that.  But since this is an article about making a relationship closer, you can probably guess that I’m going to suggest that the person who is less inclined toward touch would do well to touch their loved on a bit more.  Touch is a pretty powerful need, and it doesn't take much imagination to conclude that it isn't a good idea to leave your partner with a chronic unmet need for physical touch. 

So, how, when, and where to touch each other?  You probably don't need me to give you suggestions, but I will anyway.

Closeness Through Humor and Playfulness

Humor is wonderful, and complicated.  Couples with a good streak of humor in their relationships often find that their humor is one of the things that they love about each other.  Humor is a form of playfulness, and we adults are in desperate need of more play.  We play around with silliness and with the absurd.  It can be so refreshing to not have to be all serious and adult all the time.  But we also joke about things that are very serious, like the way you are totally impossible and make me completely nuts.  Humor can acknowledge a serious truth in a playful way.  If I do this just right, it may crack you up even though I am playing with an idea that could otherwise hurt your feelings.  In this way, humor about serious things is a form of playing with fire.  It is fun and even exciting partly because I am speaking the unspeakable.  I may be playing with a taboo subject that we have even fought about.  If I do it just right then we have joked about something important and true, we have acknowledged something tricky.  If I do it wrong, I hurt your feelings and you think I'm mean and an ass. 

Silly humor usually isn't dangerous.  Self-deprecating humor also works pretty well, because I am making myself the butt of the joke, and not you. Self deprecating humor can be away to acknowledge my faults, and implicitly own my part in the problem.   If I'm playing with a dangerous subject, but I lead off by mocking myself and not you, it may go pretty well. 

Humor can be a wonderful way to acknowledge the ambivalence present in any love relationship.  It can acknowledge, "you are such a pain the ass, and I love you anyway."  I can respond with, "yes, I guess I am," and we both laugh. 

It is hard to exactly describe how to draw the line between what is playful and endearing, and what is hurtful.  One very important element in whether humor works or wounds is how much love there is in the air between us.  If there is a solid sense of love, I can joke about something you do that makes me nuts, and it is still OK, because it perfectly captures the ambivalence, that you make me nuts and I still love you.  If there is a cold or a distant air between us, and I crack a joke a joke at your expense, you may well feel wounded.  You already weren't feeling the love a moment ago, and now I'm cracking a joke about what I don't like about you.

On the one hand, humor works if there is enough love and affection surrounding it.  On the other hand, humor doesn't work if there is anger or bitterness or contempt in the air.  Are we joking around, rolling our eyes about my foibles and the fact that I am human, or are you actually putting me down, actually implying that you are superior and I am inferior, rather than implying that we are both human together?

As I said, I am a fan of humor for the sake of goofy playfulness, and I am a fan of humor as a way of expressing complicated and ambivalent truths about the relationship.  But that last bit can be tricky. 

Closeness Through Shared Experiences

We humans are not solitary animals.  We are not content to roam through our lives by ourselves, much like a bear roams through the woods.  Yes, we like solitude occasionally, but most of the time we want someone to talk to, someone to be with, someone along for the ride of our lives or our days.  I don't want to see the amazing view by myself, or find the great food truck by myself; I want to share that experience with someone.  That is true for both the amazing, mind-blowing experiences and for the mundane experiences.  I want to go to the fantastic concert with someone, and then we will both have an incredible memory that we can call back to mind.  But even if I'm going to the grocery store, or raking some leaves, I would rather be doing it with you than by myself. 

There are things that I could say about how couples can wind up doing less and less together, even while living in the same house.  Some of it involves the culprits I have mentioned before:  Our timing isn't lined up, and I don't want what you want at the same time.  Someone's defenses get in the way of reaching out, thinking that they won't be wanted.  Kids and chaos make it easier to divide and conquer than to even try to do something together.  From my clients I have often heard about households in which 3 or 4 people spend the evening looking at 3 or 4 different screens.  There are reasons why that happens that seem like good reasons in the moment, but any possiblility of connection or companionship gets lost.

So, let me offer come suggestions for how to get some of that connection and companionship back.

For you to spend time together, someone has to suggest it.  Get in the habit of making suggestions, inviting your loved one to do things.  Even if your loved on tends to run the social calendar, and you think you could get away with passively going along for the ride, invite your loved one to do things, even if it is only to walk the dog.  Your invitation will make them feel wanted, and that is an important element of the whole thing.  Even if the thing you suggest never happens, your invitation will make your loved one feel wanted.

 I am well aware that kids and jobs and the chaos of life can easily get in the way of companionship.  In particular, kids can get in the way of doing things as a couple.  Family time is good, but it doesn't have quite the same intimacy as couple time.  You can't have the same conversations while wrangling kids.  And even if it is fun and feels connected as a family, it doesn't necessarily feel like it adds to the romance, to the sense of being connected as a couple. 

So, you want to plan time for just the two of you.  That means dates, and dates mean child care.  Here is my recommendation:  Find a good baby sitter.  Book her for a standing date night every week or two, for the next 20 years. Forbid her from ever getting a boyfriend, getting a real job, or going off to college. Typically couples find that if they plan date nights as one-off events, they have a date every two or three months.  So, book your babysitter on the repeating plan, and then you will actually have regular dates. 

Then, go find some excitement.  There was a great study done a few years back and written up in the New York Times by Tara Parker-Pope.  They found that long-standing relationships can get a huge boost if the couple goes out and does exciting things together.  The logic of it works like this:  You have been with your spouse or partner for some years.  They are familiar, hopefully in a good way.  But humans crave novelty.  My spouse is a person who has become familiar, a person who no longer registers as new and unexpected.  Now if I take that person and go do new and unexpected things, all of a sudden my brain associates this person with novelty and excitement, just like in the old days.  In the study, they instructed one group to go out on dates and do "pleasant" things, typically things that they already enjoy.  They instructed the other group to go out and do "exciting" things that both partners wanted to do.  The couples who did new and exciting things for their dates had their marital satisfaction go up considerably. So, go find some novelty and excitement.

Go carts.  Escape rooms.  Improv shows.  Snow shoeing.  Farm to table dinners.  Lazer tag.  Tandem para-gliding.  Spelunking.  Rafting.  Electric bikes.  Scuba.  Whale watching.  Karaoke.  There actually are adventures waiting to be had in this lifetime.  Or, look for anything about which you could say, "well, I haven't ever done that before." 

And In Conclusion

It is not rare for a relationship to feel less close after some years have gone by, and especially if kids and stress and life have been tangling up your time and attention.  The good news is that it is also possible to rebuild closeness.  Yes, closeness is something that has a momentum to it, and it takes some effort to rebuild that momentum.  You want to recreate that positive feedback loop, in which your warmth was sparking the other person's warmth which sparked more of yours which sparked more of theirs.  Talk to your loved one and make in an explicit project to rebuild that warmth between you.  Your relationship is the cumulative result of what each one of you puts into it every day.  So, make it your project to put more good stuff into it. 

Acknowledgments

Of all the various ideas that I talk about in this article, I can't tell you where most of them come from.  Most aren't original, but I've been reading and talking and thinking about these things for more than 30 years now, and it is often hard to remember where I first encountered this idea or that one.  Here are some authors that I know have influenced some of what I have had to say here:

David Wallin, author of Attachment in Psychotherapy.  This is an excellent book but written for therapists rather than for the general public. 

Stephen Johnson, author of Character Styles, who has a lot to say about how our defenses affect our relationships.  He also writes primarily for therapists.

John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  That book is written for the general public, and it is a good book.  It is about various aspects of marriage, not primarily about closeness.

 

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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