Honey, I'm home!


Existential knowledge is based

on an encounter in which

a new meaning is

created and recognized.

- Paul Tillich

or some reason I’ve never liked the aphorism “You can’t step in the same river twice.” It’s hard to explain why I don’t like it. Maybe it’s because it feels snarky to me – like a dismissal of naïve and earnest thinking. It seems to foreclose on sentimentality and traditions. But, it’s undoubtedly true.

When I go back to the original quote, however, my hostility goes away. It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who originally said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” Now we’re talking. I may resent the fact that the river cannot be trusted to remain stable, but I adore the fact that “he’s not the same man.” Sexism aside, that part of the quote thrills me because I believe that everyone should tuck a new version of themselves in bed every night.

If daily growth and change are good, what’s the problem?

There are two problems actually: when we don’t spot the small increments of improvement in our daily personal development we may fail to protect them; and, when our people are expecting the same old person to walk in the door, they may not react in a helpful way to our newer selves. If we glance again at the quote from philosopher Paul Tillich, we can start to see that precious existential knowledge about ourselves, our partners and our relationship requires a mindful encounter to allow us to recognize our tiny, tasty creations.

To keep things manageable, let’s look at this dilemma through the lens of one couple reuniting at the end of a work day – but remember this dicey interaction of meeting someone you know anew can happen to us multiple times a day.

Why it’s a problem

No matter the definition of work – professional, domestic, volunteer, recreational – people tend to be off during the day doing their thing (even if it’s just in the next room in a home office). When they return home at the end of that day, they reenter a relationship. This is all pretty no-duh. But reentry is actually a significant part of our day and it’s one that few of us think about designing. If we walked through the door with the obvious results of our day – a sack of gathered roots or a freshly welded widget – our significant other would be tipped off right away about what we’ve been up to. But, for the vast majority of us on the vast majority of our days, what we are bringing back to the nest at the end of every hard earned day is a slightly differently wired brain. Hard to spot. You can start to see how tricky this tiny but noteworthy aspect of being connected to someone can be.

Linda walks in the door carrying her gym bag and some groceries. Roger is on the couch folding laundry and watching the news. She looks at him and instantly makes a million assumptions, some of which are accurate and some aren’t. He does the same with her – if he actually even looks at her. Their communication at that point involves this projected sense of who the other is at that moment. But because we can’t ever help it, our default settings are egocentric, meaning that what we make of the world at any moment tends to be with respect to ourselves and our needs and our fears, etc. So, before anyone has said anything to anyone, assumption errors start to compound, and we are off to the races of miscommunication. He thinks he knows what she’s about at that moment, and she believes she’s got him pegged. Often this is no big deal. She drops her bag on the floor and rubs her aching back leading Roger to make more accurate assumptions about her present state. He may jump up at that point and take the groceries from her. No harm. No foul. But, even in benign situations like that, there is still loss. He may recognize that her dropping action was the result of her recent outing, not a holdover from an old argument. But he may not recognize her inner turmoil that she had pushed herself to new weights at the gym and is dismayed by her resulting injury. She may not realize that he’s been having a bit of an off day because he may not realize he’s been having a bit of an off day.

And, often, the reentry situations are anything but benign. She drops her bag on the floor and, before she can rub her back, he misinterprets her action as sarcastic, putting him on the defensive immediately. He sends her a testy look and they are out of the starting gate at a gallop.

So, at worst, a mishandled reentry leads to an unnecessary and painful fight. But there are other ways we lose out when we reconnect poorly at the end of the day.

Linda didn’t take any time inside the door to think about who she is now, who Roger might be, and what that makes them as a couple. Nor did Roger think through these issues when he saw her. Lost in the shuffle would be any new little seedling that might be trying to take root in both of them. Lost also is the novel aspect of the relationship that might be ready to flower like a night-blooming cereus as the two participants bring home their fresh selves, ready to cross pollinate.

So what if you lose the gains of the day? You can always regain them tomorrow. Well, first of all there is that pesky ever-changing-river metaphor that suggests that today is irreplaceable. But, more to the point, it’s not just a one-day loss. This failure to consolidate gains, not to mention the loss of tender new growth potential in the relationship, happens day after day, meaning that what we are talking about here is a loss of trajectory, of positive accumulation, of sustained growth.

What can be done

Dogs are actually very skilled at reentry. When you return to them they assume you’ve been somewhere interesting and done something cool. They let their noses explore each pant leg to try to figure out as much as they can about this new version of you. Owls, of course, are even better as they greet each other constantly with the question, “Who?”

We can learn from these earnest little critters and improve our ability to reconnect delicately with the people in our lives.

But, before anything else can happen, you need to align your attitudes around the value of working on this with your significant other(s). Not all people will be compelled by the idea that every minute of every day we are each defining our essence, and, therefore, we are each, at the end of the day, likely to have new data with respect to that most existential of projects. This alignment will require a conversation or two about how new behavior around reentry may be valuable to each individual as well as to the couple.

Once an agreement has been reached that this is a worthy endeavor, then you need to walk through the steps of a careful reconnection ritual together. It will be slow and awkward at first, but, with practice, you will get so that the process happens automatically.

Reconnection rituals

What follows is a sample protocol and some suggestions for an intentional reconnection ritual.

N.B. This protocol may appear excruciatingly detailed but I have my reasons for writing it out this way. Just like with a tennis serve, each little piece of the whole etiquette combines into a fluid movement that will feel effortless but will be aces. Until and unless we deconstruct a behavior into its components, we are likely to miss one or two of the necessary little pieces. Unlike a tennis serve, however, this protocol will only take you a couple of tries to master, so please grit your teeth and give it a try.

1. Stop, drop and capture. The first step happens pre-entry. Before you rejoin your partner, you will need to lock in your awareness of your personal gains to protect them from getting swamped by the slight chaos of a reunion. Small epiphanies, spurts of increased maturity, clearer resolve and so on are all very ephemeral. Like with remembering dreams, we need to use gauzy nets to gather them. So we learn to take a deep breath, look over our day, notice emotional flags, watch for good patterns that have been extended or sloppy patterns that have been truncated. After a few runs through, you will be able to pause at the threshold, remind yourself that you want to capture the best possible data from your day in order to both lock it in for your own benefit and also to have it firmly in mind to share with another.

2. Gaze and hold. As you enter the room, take the time to look carefully at the other person and imagine that they may be a new version of themselves.

3. Speak your new truth. Any ritualized phrase can follow, but basically what needs to happen next is for each of you to check in with a request for whatever time and attention you need to “announce” your new self.

a. If there is plenty of time, you can plunk down right then and share. If not, try to respect these data enough to schedule a time in the near future to discuss or jot down your insights to bring up when you church the relationship later in the week.

b. Make sure to leave the space for a slow reveal. Trying to rush to do something new can cramp your style.

c. Remind each other that sharing epiphanies is challenging because what you’re trying to describe is subtle, loosely held in your mind, vulnerable to judgy reactions, in need of stipulation and all that.

4. Hear. This step may require a reading of the article on how to listen. Truly hearing someone – especially when the material is a little vague and new – requires a complex skill set. When well done, however, the listening has provided someone special to us with empathy for their difficulties, celebrations for their victories, stipulation for their efforts and a sounding board for future work. What fabulous gifts to give to someone who matters to us.

5. It is very possible to sabotage a partner’s growth with weak or hostile feedback. A tiny spirit of earnest personal growth can be very easily crushed. Things to avoid would be:

a. Cliché responses

b. Dismissive responses that suggest the listener already knew all that

c. Grilling responses that can make the speaker feel like a bug pinned to a poster board

d. Offering suggestions for further work on your partner’s issue

e. Hopping right off the topic onto your own issues.

6. There will be days when you are too tired, hungry, lonely, angry, or numb to put in the work of bringing your insight to the surface to share with your partner. There will be days when you don’t have the time to stop and participate in the reentry ritual. These days are only problematic when they start to add up. Please remember, there is a lovely intimacy to be had when we are transparent with our vulnerabilities. It can be quite disarming to re-enter your relationship sometimes with: "Honey, I'm home and I'm spent."

7. There will be weeks when your new self is just an incremental improvement over your old self. These weeks are only problematic when you and/or your partner underappreciate the magnificence of an upward trajectory – even one with a very modest angle. Weeks of improvement rewire your brain in ways that substantially upgrade your neurological potency. In other words, when you can report 27 days in a row of no road rage behavior, your brain is teaching itself to be a calm driver.

Let’s revisit our couple after they have been rehearsing reentry rituals for a few months:

Linda, pausing outside the door recognizes that she is feeling very fragile because she had been eager to bring home her weight-lifting victory. She knows Roger would have been a keen cheerleader for her step up in the weights she was lifting. She takes a moment to think about whether she is feeling defensive about the injury and is pleased to discover she isn’t. She knows Roger will understand what it’s like to push your training and have the training push back. That insight leads her to understand that she has, right now, a deeper trust in the safety of her relationship than ever before.

Roger, hearing her close the garage door, takes a minute to review his day. It has been pretty damn dull, and he is starting to fret that he will seem dull to Linda. He looks at the pile of neatly folded laundry and decides that sometimes dull can be sweetly reliable.

Linda stops just inside the door, looks carefully at Roger who is looking carefully at her, and drops her gym bag on the floor. Roger, noting that this is an unusual behavior for her, mutes the TV and waits.

Linda: Hi. I’m afraid the new me today is a bit wounded.

Roger (hopping up to take the grocery bag from her): Well, the new me may feel dull, but he’s ready to listen.

Linda: I want to tell you about my gym mishap, but want to shower first. Can you heat up the leftover quiche while I shower?

Roger: Sure. Let’s eat in the kitchen and, after you tell me about your injured new self, I’ll tell you about my proud new dullness.

Linda (heading to the master bedroom): Well, THAT sounds intriguing.

What a lovely way to end a day – with a soupçon of bilateral epiphanic sharing. Each member of the couple has deepened their understanding of themselves and the other. Each member of the couple can recline a little more comfortably into the safety of the relationship. I would say that these enviable states are certainly worth the effort to design and effectively practice a new and less unconscious way to reenter your relationships.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.