I can recall various childhood memories durably with a vivid sense of time and place. One reminiscent collage is that of my “first love.” On my first day of Kindergarten, I set eyes on a strawberry-blonde 5-year-old boy with exceptional hygiene and the impeccable haircut of a tiny executive.
His name had appealing resonance, and while I will assign an alias to protect his privacy, let’s just say it sounded a lot like “Jeffrey Scott Jones.”
ALWAYS…and “Jeff,” “Jeffie,” “JJ,” or “J-man,” were certainly out of the question.
I was smitten.
He ran with the male wolf pack that tangled with my newly acquired girl gang. We had a seemingly primal pattern of annoying the boys to get chased on the playground. I pretended to run away while secretly luring Jeffrey Scott to “catch me,” and take me to the “catching tunnel,” where I had to hang out for the arbitrary time-period before being again released into the Kindergarten wild. It was that simple. We were too young to imagine intimate physical connection—we were just a group of kids running around.
The details are fuzzy, but I can picture his face, and I remember that I wanted to be near him. I confidently displayed my sentiment by kissing him on the cheek which he promptly rubbed off, but in no way deterred my zeal. I liked the boy and I needed him to know it. In this day and age, I would probably have been suspended for sexual harassment. (if you are unfamiliar with the 2013 case of a 6 year-old boy suspended for kissing a girl on the hand, you can click here.)
On the way home from school, I noticed we shared the crosswalk and he lived just a few blocks away. Within a week, I convinced my mother to arrange a play date. When she agreed that Jeffrey Scott could walk home with me in 2 days’ time, I was ecstatic. I energetically planned several shared activities. My neighborhood had a predominance of boys my age, so most of my pre-teen childhood was spent joining the boys’ pick-up games. I felt certain that I could hold my own.
Finally, as the day arrived, I was practically skipping around him in circles as we walked to my house. After my mom gave us a snack, I led him down to our dank storage basement which I adopted as my own personal clubhouse, with child-sized furniture and playtime miscellany.
“OK,” I explained as I jumped up onto the shelves my father had assembled for storage, “We have to climb all the way around without touching the hot lava” (represented by the scraps of worn carpet my parents had thrown down). I demonstrated by deftly dodging assorted beams and oddly-shaped camping detritus, inching awkwardly toward the corner of the room, where I jumped onto an old dresser and tight-roped my way to safety across an obstacle course I had created from the household graveyard.
Just as I was nearing the end, I was still confused about why he was just standing there watching, when he protested, “I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing that.” “What? I do this all the time—now come on, jump up right there or there,” I encouraged (thinking he might engage with more options). “No—I’m telling your mom on you.” He had a way of drawling my mother’s first name, “Virginia,” with a nasally whine, tacking on a few extra syllables, so it sounded particularly irksome. After his blaring disapproval, I wanted to scratch my eardrum with a ballpoint pen.
I puzzled, “What do you think she’s going to do about it?” As my mother’s sixth child, any risk-related maternal anxiety had been spent on my older siblings. My mother never discouraged my acrobatics on the many occasions I had scaled outdoor brick chimneys, fences, trees, scaffolds, or any other objects on which I could practice my balance and leaping skills several feet off the ground. “Oh, be careful, dear, you shouldn’t be up there—you’ll get hurt,” was background noise from various non-parentals in my perpetual tomboy escapades. I heard the warnings and brazenly ignored them because, of course, they had no idea who they were dealing with. I was fall-proof.
“OK,” I thought, “Jeffrey Scott doesn’t like to climb–We’ll do something different.” Here’s where the details really dim. I invited several more activities, all of which contained risk and imagination. With each suggestion, his tattling to “VURR-GIN-EE-AA,” intensified while my attraction to him fizzled. Jeffrey Scott and I were the NOT chemical romance.
It only took an hour alone with him to realize that his personality was as stiff as his neatly-gelled hair. Time to move on.
My mother had little patience for tattle-tales. By the 4th or 5th time he called my mom’s name, she sweetly suggested, with impressive emotional regulation, “I think it might be time for Jeffrey Scott to go home now. Maybe he can come back another time.” I had acquired the social skills to mask my true thoughts to preserve his feelings. However, the minute we dropped him off, I turned to my mom and said, “That boy is a cry-baby tattle-tale. I don’t want him to come over again.” My mom sighed and mumbled, “Yeah, I can see why.”
Jeffrey Scott Jones, bless his tightly wound nerves and cautious little heart, taught me an important lesson about relationships. When we risk offering a part of ourselves to someone, and it is rejected, trust and attraction are compromised.
This is intuitive and the type of assertion that invites “hard science” quantitative researchers to roll their eyes and wonder why social scientists always feel the need to point out the obvious. In part, the reason why is that partner responsiveness is a skill that can be learned and increased with intention. However, people who feel stuck in negative patterns in their marriages and thus powerless to change anything forget the basics and experience doubt that they can actually actively provide the type of trust and safety to improve connection.
John Gottman explains that trust is built over time in small moments. If you want to hear him explain this in his words, click here.
An accumulation of emotional responsiveness to a romantic partner over time secures relationships. If someone expresses positive emotion toward a partner and is rejected, trust diminishes. As trust diminishes, partner contact feels more risky and dangerous. High partner responsivenesss offers predictability and inspires attachment longevity.
In other words, if I believe I matter enough to my partner to get a response predictably, I will experience the attachment safety necessary for risk-taking, playfulness, and exploration, thus perpetuating partner connection.
Gottman calls these opportunities for connection “sliding door moments,” which can eventually lead to dissolution and disconnection if not acknowledged. The good news is that Gottman is referring to observational behaviors; the bad news is that most people fail to respond to partners’ bids because of mindlessness—not intentional rebuffs. However, a failed bid is a failed bid, intentional or not.
That means we really need to up our relationship games.
My observation is that couples who have been married long-term are often monitoring their partners for warmth and acceptance cues before risking engagement. For example, if my husband walks in the door and announces an energetic, “Hi Beautiful,” I experience a very different feeling toward him than if he walks in, says nothing, and answers in monosyllables.
In close relationships, we are so attuned to our partners that we believe we can always read them accurately. However, I have noticed that negative emotion that may be caused by something else, like stress at work, which is not directed toward a spouse, is often experienced as if it is directed at them. It’s like a game of chicken where couples are watching each other to see who will make the first move and match their emotion.
I have written blog posts before about knowing my father would be walking in moments after I heard the garage door. I was very happy when I heard that garage door because I knew my father would walk in and shout energetically, “Is everybody happy?” He was warm and affectionate and safe. I’ve noticed when I walk in the door and take the time to greet my husband with warmth, he is happier and more responsive, probably because I feel more trustworthy to him in those moments. He gets the message that he matters to me.
Warmth is easy to apply if you really want to connect. I actually do believe there is so much power in warmth and acceptance that I would be out of a job if people used it more intentionally.
Warmth is experienced as a felt sense, but in general we code warmth by expressions of positive affect. When I ask people how they know their partners are upset, they almost never refer to verbal content. Instead, they routinely mention things like “tone of voice,” or “facial expressions.” That’s how we lose connection without even realizing it.
Simple ways to practice warmth in interpersonal connections are:
- Signal warmth in your tone of voice
- Use more positive physical touch
- Compliment your spouse
I understand that these are very basic, but I have been practicing couples therapy on and off since 1989, and I am still shocked by how many couples will live in a constant state of withdrawal, waiting for the other to come close and signal warmth and responsiveness. It’s like two people in a foxhole and one will come out and walk to the middle only if there is certainty that the other is not armed. The result is that they both come out armed, and react similarly to the metaphorical armament with shields of distrust, maintaining distance.
Bringing warmth into a cold relationship is a big risk. When a spouse decides to be warm, it can potentially be rejected. I have never met someone who hasn’t experienced rejection. We know how to do rejection, even if it is unpleasant. I remind people of this often.
If you risk warmth, you are not going to be worse off, but you can potential shift the trajectory of a relationship.