All day long, my wife and I exchange the sweetest text messages filled with emojis: hearts, the kissy face and the sweet new inclusive family one with two moms and two boys (we have twin sons). Sometimes we even go public with our moony proclamations on social media. We are so in love. Sigh.
And then we come home from work and see each other In Real Life (IRL). The romantic glow of our love lasts about 30 minutes before it fades. We argue. We fight. Over big stuff and ridiculous stuff. We don’t feel seen, heard or understood. We feel taken for granted. But mostly, we are dumbstruck and crushed that we could go from such a place of sweetness and light to one so dark.
We fall—and keep falling—for the trap that plagues almost every modern relationship and relationship-seeker: the false intimacy of online connection.
A quick primer on intimacy: It’s what happens when people share their true selves—strengths, faults, fears and hopes—with one another and then continue to choose each other (as romantic partners or friends). When two people feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with each other, trust is created—and no relationship will last long without trust. But being vulnerable is tough for everyone, and it can be terrifyingly so for some of us, depending on our childhood bonds with family, past hurts and our self-esteem.
That difficulty is why online connection is so seductive. You can select and curate what you share and then rake in affirmation (likes, retweets, whatever) with little risk. Those brief, in-the-moment online intimacies (“We both like Stranger Things!”) can help create community and are akin to the “weak-tie” relationships—the laugh you share with your barista in the morning—that contribute to happiness.
But “strong-tie” relationships count for more when it comes to happiness and life satisfaction. Your communication through email, text and social media must be paired with quality offline intimacy to be worthwhile. Here are a few ways to cultivate and strengthen your IRL intimacy:
1. Figure out your intimacy profiles.
“Have a conversation about what makes you and your partner feel close to each other,” says Lauren Drago, a psychotherapist in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Some people put a premium on intellectual conversation, while others feel more connected when they’re cuddling on the couch and making jokes.
Intimacy means a lot more than sex, but physical affection is of course a central component of romantic love. Beyond feeling good, skin-to-skin contact causes our bodies to release oxytocin, the “love hormone” that helps humans bond. Remember to hold hands with, cuddle and kiss your partner often—even if you’re not feeling particularly amorous. It’s hard to be mad at someone you’re physically connected to.
3. Take up pottery.
Or go to an improv class. Try new things together. A novel activity gets you out of relationship ruts and exposes different aspects of your personalities, says Jim Seibold, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Arlington, Texas. If you’re both new to something, you’re both vulnerable. You might make fools of yourselves, but that’s the point: to see each other in a new light and trust that your love will still be strong even if that light turns out to be unflattering.
As for my wife and I, we recently tried a Ninja Warrior class together. I dislocated my finger halfway through. But before that, we shared a massive case of the giggles when we both sunk into the foam pit and flailed around like capsized turtles. LOL.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.