Giving Notice: The Gift Economy of Happy Couples

"And so this muscle must be flexed and cultivated [by happy couples], this “getting”  muscle--getting the other person." - Elizabeth Sullivan

Giving Notice: The Gift Economy of Happy Couples
by Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT Intern

What really happens in a marriage, in the private, daily life of a happy couple? There are years together, days, hours, minutes, and milestones, stories, symbols. I think one reason I love counseling couples so much has to do with my own profound curiosity about how others live. I like hearing the stories, the jokes, the nicknames and shorthand words that stand for some meaning unknown to everyone else.

A healthy couple creates safety for the kind of vulnerability that makes connection: confiding, remembering, revealing, knowing. And how wonderful this makes partnerships: true havens. This superpower is also what the philosopher Alain de Botton defines as empathy or “the capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.”

Once some friends of ours told my partner and I that they called getting pregnant “going to Ireland” after a trip we were planning to start trying to have a baby. Only we never went to Ireland, we went to Mexico--but still, their joke was set--it would be called that between them. Then it turned into a joke about having sex, “want to go to Ireland?”. Then we took the joke back and began to use it too. Silly people, we all are. But some of the pleasure in the joke is the way we were noticed and appreciated by our friends--our intentionality charmed them a bit. And their noticing pleased us too, and we were charmed by their joke. It’s like this in couples too.

I was at a seminar on Motherhood and the Global Economy with Arlie Hochschild recently, and something she said almost offhand has been haunting me a bit. She talked about the “gift economy of marriage”. I think she meant by that the way (when they are good), our partnerships provide us with this deep kind of being noticed and appreciated. Dr. Hochschild gave an example of her nightly calls to an elderly Aunt a long distance away. The Aunt was touchy and didn’t want any help, and the calls were hard. So when her husband noticed and praised her for this nurturing work, saying, “It’s kind of you to call her and watch out for her--I know she isn’t making it easy,” it was a very real and needed gift. The calls were kind, and it was hard, and there was no worldly reason she had to do it, other than trying to nurture someone else.

In our society this caring for other people, thinking about them, doing things for them, is devalued partly because it is not paid (or maybe it is not paid because it is both devalued and sentimentalized?) and partly because it has traditionally been done by women. It is also a skill that is taught or shown to some and not others--so some of us have to practice.

So nurturing ideally happens in the couple. And though therapists provide nurturing, and doctors and friends--the majority of the way we’re going to get cared for in our lives, if we are in a couple, is by the other person. And so this muscle must be flexed and cultivated, this “getting”  muscle--getting the other person. Which happens through observation and through asking questions, “Why do you call your aunt every night these days? Are you worried about her?” or even, “What do I do that makes you feel taken care of and loved? What should I do more of?”

Some other things from this noticing realm that I’ve heard couples say lately:

“You always get me a coffee too when you come back from running--it makes me feel like you were thinking of me.”

“You are so patient with our son when he is whining like that--and it makes me so nuts. I would like to be as calm as you; I can see it helps him.”

“My husband takes the girls with him all day Saturday and I get time to myself. It’s the best part of my week. He says I am so happy to see them when they return.”

“He is so cheerful! Even when I am an anxious wreck, he just keeps saying, ‘we’ll figure it out.’ I don’t know what I’d do if he weren’t so calm.”

“He is the one at his work everyone talks to; he makes everyone feel safe. So he always knows what’s really going on.”

“She has a way of getting down on the floor to listen to our son, right at eye level, and letting him talk without interrupting him. You can tell he feels so good just to talk to her. And me too.”

This blog post wants to encourage us all to practice our nurturing and our “taking notice” of the ones we love. Easy homework for couples: observe your partner until you notice something you appreciate about them, then tell them. Or ask, “What do I do for you that makes you feel ‘gotten’? What can I do more of?”

The gift of noticing what is small, private, and often overlooked in someone is a gift we all want from our partners--to feel that someone knows us intimately, and loves what they notice.

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center and the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center at Stanford University. She practices in San Francisco. 

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