Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
Two swans chose to make our part of the world their home a few months ago. Christian and I spent many afternoons visiting them. Their graceful heads would bob up and down in anticipation of our arrival. They delicately ate the food offerings out of our hands. They were always together, always watching out for each other.
We have just returned from a long time of travel and were keen to visit the love partners again on our afternoon walk. As we neared the lake yesterday, only one lone swan stretched its elegant neck above the glassy lake. Perhaps I imagined it, but its eyes seemed to hold a sadness, emptiness and deep loneliness.
Grief arises as a result of loss. It teaches us about who and what we love.
Today we returned again to the lake but found no swan. On our way home we always pass a tree filled with a colony of Ibises. Ibises are messy, crazy, chatterboxes. They are always engaged in some sort of industry: yelling at each other, building nests, flying from tree to tree.
There, gliding tranquilly on the small pond in front of the Ibises, was our swan.
As obvious as it sounds, the best way to overcome loneliness is to be with people and share smiles, hugs and laughs. This is not always easy to do; people can be lonely even amidst a crowd. Being around people raises oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to bring about good feelings.
Our swan had certainly found a way to raise her oxytocin levels by being around the noisiest birds in the parkland. Although she looked quite out of place, she seemed to be more content and did not even acknowledge our presence. She had, perhaps, found a new sense of belonging, even if it was with a motley crew of dishevelled, raucous ibises.
This Christmas, I know that some reading may have lost someone dear, or may have not yet found a special love partner. It may be hard to draw close to people, for whatever reason. The warm fuzzies have gone out of your life and have been replaced by cold pricklies. Loneliness can do that. If, for whatever reason you feel you have no more to give, that the sadness is too overwhelming, that the pain is too much, Christian and I would like to share a story with you this Christmas. It is a simple story. But one that we hope will encourage you to reach out to others, let people in, even if they seem so very different than yourself. Even if it’s a struggle, even if it initially hurts, remember that warm fuzzies never run out. The more you give, the more they multiply.
“Great view from up here.”
“Looks like more rain.”
“Crazy weather huh?”
We had climbed a small mountain and a young man started up a conversation with us. He was alone and, we sensed, was hungry for a talk, some human connection, anything to assuage the aching loneliness in his eyes. The small talk was like cotton candy, nothing lasting. When he left us he still seemed sad.
We stayed up for another half hour, soaking in the fresh air and glorious views. Two sea eagles swooped and circled around each other. A couple took selfies. Two joggers past us on their way down. Everyone seemed to have someone to share the experience with. Except the young man.
Except thousands of people worldwide at Christmas.
Mother Theresa said that poverty was not the biggest problem in the world … it was loneliness. And the late Robin Williams said that loneliness was not being alone, it was being surrounded by a group of people who make you feel like you are alone.
You can be lonely in a crowd.
Lonely when you stop work (a great day-time companion).
Lonely when your kids leave home.
Lonely in a relationship.
Lonely in a meaningless job.
Lonely when you move house.
And then there are the big ones: lonely because you have been abandoned, family members have died, you are divorced or separated and haven’t found anyone.
We all experience loneliness to some degree.
I know this is heavy to contemplate at the season of hope and joy. But please keep reading, there is hope.
As we descended the mountain I felt heavy. My heart despaired for all those that would be alone again this Christmas. I had to get myself together, we had an event to prepare for.
Wherever we live, we hold Christmas Carols for people. We have just moved and we didn’t know any of our new neighbours, but left invites in mailboxes anyway. We spent all afternoon preparing the house, baking gingerbread, decorating the tree, but we were tinged with sadness. The empty heart-shaped gingerbread reminded me that our boys were far away. They’ve left us. It hurts.
Christian sees the devastating effects of loneliness too often.
Loneliness is a bitter experience. Intense, prolonged loneliness is a risk factor for suicide. We go to extensive efforts to avoid it. Our brain drives us to find a bad relationship in the absence of a good one, or to feel good through alcohol, drugs or other addictions. Loneliness, depression and addiction are closely connected.
The time came for people to arrive. The music was on, the candles were lit. We waited. No one came. We felt worse.
Just as I went to blow out the candles we heard a knock at the door. Ten people, young and old, spilled over the threshold, laughing and chatting. My heart soared. We shared drinks, talked, laughed, ate and sang carols. Unbelievable. Strangers. We found out we were all displaced people, from all over the world. We all were hungry for companionship, togetherness and community.
As obvious as it sounds, the best way to overcome loneliness is to be with people and share smiles, hugs and laughs. Being around people raises oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to bring about good feelings.
But what if you are alone … really alone on Christmas? We know that “all is not calm, all is not bright” for many, many people. Those that cry themselves to sleep. (And who am I to talk about real loneliness?)
The next day we received a phone call from a neighbour who lives alone. She arrived late at the carols and knocked and knocked. She could hear the laughter and merriment, the singing, but we didn’t hear her. She returned home. I was upset for her.
Perhaps if she had knocked a little harder … or just pushed the door open. She would have been welcomed with open arms.
Everyone stayed very late that night. Strangers being together, sharing joy. We all parted with a hug. Strangers no more.
Maybe there is hope at Christmas.
What brought us together? Music, some drinks, being displaced and all searching for community; companionship.
Christmas does hold a spirit of joy and peace that transcends small talk. It is in music of carols, in a child’s smile, in good will in giving gifts, lights in shop windows, the smell of live Christmas trees, and the anticipation of peace descending on Christmas Eve.
Stop, listen for it. Let it wash over you.
If you have friends and family, you are fortunate. If you are alone, or missing someone, try knocking a little harder at a closed door. Christian and I, and many others, will be thinking of you. Even strangers hug and share merriment. Consider yourselves hugged.
We were building up speed down the runway. I reached out to take Christian’s hand as I always do when we take off on a plane. But he wasn’t there.
Cold feeling in my heart. Emptiness. Angry at myself for going on this research trip without him. Angry at myself for feeling this way. Angry at him for not coming with me. Confusion because all the literature says this jet-setting lifestyle is “living the dream.”
After 28 hours of travel, missing baggage, negotiating a new language and a taxi scam I arrive at the hotel. Exhausted. Not only from lack of sleep, but from having to fight. Fight the cold, fight for my baggage, fight for a taxi, fight against the enquiring looks of single men. On my own. And this is meant to be the glam life?
I was only away for 3 weeks this time but it reminded me of the time early in our relationship when we spent months and months and months apart. Christian and I know well about long-distance relationships.
It was hard enough being apart, but the first few days back together could sometimes be hell.
There’s so much pressure.
Oh we pretended that it was lovely. We pretended to “pick up where we left off.” We pretended that because we had missed each other so much, we were closer. But we weren’t. We were faking it.
Yes, distance makes the heart grow fonder…but often only while you are away. When you return there is so much ground to make up, there can be so many pieces to put back together. There’s an underlying anger of “where were you when I needed you?” on both sides.
Distance makes the heart confused.
And then there’s the hurt. But we can’t talk about this. Hurting because of distance is a taboo.
Do distance relationships work?
In our global, crazy but wonderful society, this is a question that gets asked a lot.
Instead of giving the answer everyone wants to hear,
I’m going to approach the question from a different perspective: why are you making the decision to spend so much time apart?
Half-way through my trip I was walking aimlessly around a city, aching to share my experiences with my love-partner. Lonely. Sad. I was thinking a lot about all the couples worldwide who spend months, years away from each other.
These are some of the “distance” dilemma’s Christian hears in his office:
I have this great job offer in New York. I have to make the move, the money’s great and will make up for the distance.
I hate it when he travels on business. I get lonely.
He just doesn’t understand that I have been waiting my whole life for this opportunity.
Well, she wouldn’t give up her career for me, so why should I for her?
Our world values careers and consumerism. We work, earn money, then spend it, save it, invest it, all to fulfil the consumerist dream. Money can be measured easily, the success of a career can be measured easily, but the success of a long-term relationship can’t. This can lead people to prioritize the money and the career rather than their relationship.
There is no substitute in the world for a meaningful, love-based relationship. A committed, satisfying long term relationship is highly desired. It is precious; it is your greatest asset. Your treasure is not a career, or money or an experience, it is the person right in front of you.
But they need to be right in front of you. Not thousands of miles away.
Yes, video chatting daily helps. Yes, distance date nights help. Yes, watching a Netflix series together helps. But…
Touch is touch.
Intimacy is intimacy.
Experiences are made to be shared in the moment.
And some talks take timelessness to unfold.
There are many reasons why couples have to be separated for periods in their lives and some cannot be helped. But many can…
As the plane began to descend on my arrival home, the billowing clouds were preparing me for a tough landing. I caught myself preparing for yet another fractured drive-home conversation with Christian. But not this time. Our times of getting back together are getting more and more gentle but our times apart are getting more and more difficult. We miss each other, tremendously. Do distance relationships work? Yes, they can. But they are tough. The less time away and the less distance the better.
“He must have landed by now.”
“His phone’s dead so he can’t let us know.”
We were at the international airport, in traditional Australian costume:
Hats with corks hanging off them
Australian flags in our hair
Weet-bix as a food offering
Waiting for our son to arrive home after 2 years in London.
He hates any fuss.
We have a tradition of fun-filled welcomes, as you will see.
We finally caught sight of him and burst into loud song:
“Give me a home among the gumtrees…a sheep or two and a kangaroo”
He took one look at us and cheekily walked in the opposite direction. We followed him keeping up the singing for three rounds. He finally succumbed to a warm hug from his brother.
I hate airports. Let me clarify: Arrivals are fun, I hate departures.
Early in our relationship, I said goodbye too many times…and it hurt. Out of my stubbornness and pride I often chose to leave rather than stay. Society kept telling me that independence was better than dependence. That I needed to meet lots of guys before settling for one. That toughing it out bred resilience and success.
The only thing that toughing it out bred for me was loneliness.
Stuck in the city that never sleeps for seven long years, I felt the aching depths of loneliness: crying myself to sleep, walking down the busiest streets in the world feeling utterly alone, catching the elevator up and down just to talk to someone. That was a time of despair.
Christian encounters loneliness in his office far too often:
Twenty-two year old Jasmine was sobbing. Do you think I sleep with so many guys because I like sex? No. I put up with their paws and smells to try to get rid of my loneliness. That’s what all of my girlfriends do.
Thirty-three year old Brendan was being treated for depression. I get so lonely. I look at dating sites and they make me feel even lonelier. After a date, a girl finds some excuse not to see me again. Am I that ugly? These experiences leave him more lonely and depressed. (Heim, 2017)
This is scary.
Commitment to a long-term relationship prevents loneliness.
A long-term relationship gives us belonging, love, security, protection, a shoulder to cry on, someone to share joy with, to share sadness with, to share love, sex, hopes, dreams and past hurts. It gives us someone to grow old with. It protects us from naval-gazing, drifting, getting lost, and, above all, it protects us from loneliness.
The brain hates loneliness.
Many fears and vices – alcohol excess, drug use, gambling, risky sex – are borne of loneliness. And people in a long term relationship fare much better battling depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, anorexia, or schizophrenia. Much better. In many cases, it makes the difference between life and death. (Heim, 2017)
The warm feelings that you feel getting off a plane into the arms of your loved ones is the flip-side of loneliness.
The time between being with your parents to finding your partner and starting your own family is getting longer and longer. It can mean independence, experience, adventure, but no-one talks about the cost: loneliness underneath it all.
Jasmine sleeps with lots of guys to alleviate loneliness. Brendan looks to dating sites to overcome depression. Sure, a long term relationship has to be with the right person, but it took a certain incident at an airport to make me realize that he was right in front of me.
I was arriving home after another long trip in NYC, toughing it out and being independent. As I went through the doors in the arrivals lounge I searched everywhere for Christian but couldn’t find him. My heart fell to the ground; the aching returned. Then a strange thing happened. I saw a person dressed in a gorilla suit holding a sign:
“Wanted: Beautiful Redhead.
Aim: Long-term relationship.”
Surprised? Yes. Feeling exposed? Yes. But I had the warmest hug I have ever had. Although Christian often drives me crazy and our values frequently clash, I have come to love the gorilla in him. That warm, furry embrace has kept me secure, fulfilled and at home in the midst of many stormy times.
Wishing you all many happy arrivals.
For a video of "the arrival" see our Instagram: relationship_asset
Welcome to our blog. Each blog contains an insight into your relationship and how to mend or grow it drawn from Christian's 18 years of clinical experience working in psychiatry. They are told as stories. The central ideas are in bold. All the pictures are originals. We post once a month. Looking forward to travelling with you in this amazing journey called life.