Long ago, my man and I agreed to do what’s called “Living Apart Together,” or LAT. Even if we ever marry, I intend to keep my pad in Manhattan and spend a couple nights there alone every week.
During this global tragedy, however, we are, by necessity, now living together full time. It has its challenges, but I am confident that we — and many other lovers — will survive, even thrive in this crazy time.
Why? Because I’ve spent more than 40 years studying the evolution of human marriage, adultery and divorce, as well as romantic love around the world today and the brain circuitry of this universal passion. In fact, romantic love and feelings of deep attachment run along powerful pathways in the brain. Love is primordial, adaptable and eternal.
Nevertheless, this dreadful virus has pushed all of us to assess our needs, make difficult decisions and build stronger partnerships and family bonds. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn more about your partner and kin — and grow together.
That said, we are a nomadic species — built to leave home regularly for quests of all kinds. So being cooped up 24/7 during this pandemic requires creativity. Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of this difficult situation.
Dwell on the positive
Psychologists have offered a host of tips for how to maintain a healthy and happy long-term partnership. Among them: Don’t show contempt. Don’t threaten divorce. Listen actively. Compromise.
But there is one piece of solid advice that comes directly from my work with the neuroscientist Lucy Brown and other members of our brain-scanning team. Among those adults we scanned who were in long term happy partnerships (in America and China), we found activity in three brain regions: a brain region associated with empathy; another linked with controlling your own stress and emotions; and a third coupled with the ability to overlook what you don’t like about your partner and focus on what you do — what’s known as “positive illusions.”
I do this daily. OK, so sometimes he isn’t listening to a word I’m saying. But I know that women tend to be better at doing several things at once — probably an inheritance from raising helpless infants throughout our prehistoric past — whereas men tend to do one thing at a time. So rather than assuming he is ignoring me, I chalk this up to his remarkable ability to focus, a trait that probably helped him build his brilliant career.
In short: I dwell on the positive. It works.
Create your safe space
I’ve also carved out a “safe space” in his apartment — a room where I can’t be interrupted. If my partner needs me, he knocks on my door and asks if I’m available. Data show that people around the world have an innate need for autonomy, at least in the parts of their lives that they regard as valuable; creating a safe space can help people to feel in control, so they feel happy instead of helpless — or sometimes even hostile. If you have children in the home, let them select their own safe space as well.
Create a schedule
My man and I make a daily schedule, too. People differ in what scientists call “intolerance of uncertainty.” Some express extreme anxiety in ambiguous situations. That’s not me. But I do like plans, because they help me organize my time.
So over morning coffee, we make a program for the day. Typically, we decide to remain at our desks for a specific period and eat lunch separately — generally leftovers. In this time of crisis, establishing specific work hours can calm the mind, as well as establish when we’ll play and meet for dinner. We plan all this every day.
We make sure to “dress” for dinner too — no pajamas or old sweats. In fact, he recently had a birthday, so I brought in a host of goodies and asked him to get dressed up. He emerged from the bedroom in his tuxedo. It made my month.
Make time for play
Play triggers the brain’s dopamine system to give you energy, focus, motivation and optimism. So we often assemble on the living room couch in midafternoon to play some bridge together, online.
We also play self-revealing games. I particularly like a game I invented a couple weeks ago, “Remember When.” I begin the game with a remembrance of an endearing time together. Yesterday, I started with: “Remember our first date — when you knocked on my door and immediately apologized for being on time?”
Nostalgia is good for you — if you do it correctly. Instead of pining for “the good ol’ days,” savor them.
Another game we play is: “My Favorite Moment.” Some evenings, we write one another an email, telling of our favorite moment of the day. It doesn’t need to be momentous. Two days ago, mine was when he winked at me in the supermarket. It’s valuable to let your partner know what’s meaningful to you. This way they know how to please.
We’ve begun to tell one another a story at cocktail hour too. Telling stories was standard entertainment during our long prehistory — and in our home, it’s standing the test of time.
Touch, if you’re both healthy
Regularly we also curl up and listen to a book. Touch (including kissing) is important: it drives up the oxytocin system in the brain and generates feelings of calm and attachment. Of course, if one of you is sick, this isn’t possible.
Plan your next vacation
One of my favorite current pastimes with my man is planning our next vacation. Hopefully, we’ll go to Scandinavia next summer. So we sit together at his computer and look at maps, museums, nature walks and historic sites. I think it’s important to imagine your life after this plague has passed — and live it now. Research shows that anticipating your next vacation makes you happy.
Make it a family affair
If you have children in the home, include them in your daily morning powwow as you review the family’s schedule. Invite them to join your exercise routine, or the evening’s “story telling” hour. Give them free time to do just as they please, something children enjoyed throughout our past. And how about some new challenges — like making lunch. It might not be four-star chow, but they will learn and you might laugh. And laughter is the elixir of survival — it evolved to get us through hard times.
Keep love alive with novelty
Then there are all the obvious things a couple can do to keep love alive. Put on dance music and waltz or swing — even if you can’t dance. Cook dinner together — and follow a new recipe. Take virtual tours through the world’s great museums, cities or nature preserves. Go over old photographs together. Or just plan your next party. You might try an evening of Halloween, too — dress up in any outlandish costume you can create. But do something new. Novelty also stimulates dopamine activity in the brain to give you energy and optimism.
So be creative. And when you emerge from this challenging time, you might be surprised at how much you’ve grown together — rather than apart.
Helen E. Fisher is a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. She has written six books, including “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray.”