When you enter a dark room, flip the switch and the lamp doesn’t come on, What’s your first thought? If you’re like most of us, your automatic thought is, “it’s time to change the light bulb”. The next step is to trudge down the basement steps hoping you can locate a replacement bulb of an acceptable wattage, thereby avoiding an unplanned trip to the hardware store.
This is of course, at times the right solution. But it’s not automatically correct. I might even suggest that, as logical as it sounds, it’s not even the initial course of action to consider.
No … step one is to check the connection. See if the cord is properly plugged into the wall outlet. Until you do this simple step and focus on the connection that allows the electrical current to flow into and illuminate the bulb … changing that bulb, or even more reactively getting a new lamp is premature.
So let’s apply the lesson of the lamp to your relationship.
Think of a situation where you walk into a room and the light doesn’t go on in your relationship. What about when you walk in the door after work, find your partner, say “Hi honey, I’m home. What’s up?” and the light doesn’t go on? No response … not even eye contact. Or maybe you get a snippy, perhaps even contemptuous, “Can’t you see I’m busy?” reaction.
What’s your first thought here?
This is an important moment! What happens next can not only shape the evening but also be part of a developing relationship dynamic that can become a pattern that ultimately brings us together or drives us apart.
So back to the question, “What’s your first thought?” Most of us quickly, without conscious thought go to some version of the lightbulb reaction. We think, “what’s wrong with him?” or “Wow, she’s really crabby again!”. We feel put off, put out, maybe unfairly treated. It’s hard to not go there when we reached out to our partner, only to be rebuffed.
When our relationship is somewhat strained it’s not unusual to even add some salt to the wound. We might quickly go to, “The hell with it, why do I even try?” or “I deserve better than this”, perhaps even more dangerously, “There’s got to be someone out there who would appreciate me for who I am and all I do”.
Suddenly, this small, everyday moment becomes a turning point in the relationship. This is where the lightbulb story offers illumination. In these interactive moments, large and small, it’s important that we notice and attend to the state of our connection before considering other options.
So what shape might this take in real life? Stop, slow down … slow yourself down. Turn to your partner, take a seat, make eye contact and begin with a more personal version of the, “Hi honey, I’m home … “ opening line. Perhaps something as simple as a sincere “How did the world treat you today baby?” would do the trick.
In this example, you can safely assume from your partners response to your initial greeting that something is off, something is wrong. Rather than complicating the situation by responding in kind, simply slow down and recognize there’s something worth exploring here. Consider it an opportunity, not a task. Ask, inquire, be curious … don’t be so quick to judge. Learn to be present rather than defensive.
One powerful fact that has emerged in the scientific study of relationships is that when couples avoid addressing emotions, especially negative emotions, the bond weakens. A steady diet of avoidance destroys connection. The more we ignore our partner, the more we drift. The more we avoid talking about our feelings and emotional needs, the less connected we become. Remember, most relationships decline due to drift, rather than drama. Pay attention to small moments, it will yield huge results. Develop the habit of being emotionally present, tuned in and connected.
So when the light doesn’t go on, first check the connection. Remember, it’s the bond, not the bulb.
Dr. William Bumberry, Psychologist