Creating Magic in Your Relationship, Part 3: The Magic of Surprise
We began considering how to create more magic in intimate relationships by looking at the rhythm that’s created in relationships when two partners are managing their feelings together. Next, we talked about what happens when that rhythm gets disrupted and how to repair these unavoidable disruptions. Today, I invite you to think about with me how surprise can pave a path toward greater intimacy with your partner. What do I mean when I say “surprise,” though? Before we go there, we need to talk about what every relationship needs—romance.
According to the late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell, romance has many close cousins: desire, novelty, excitement, arousal, mystery, spontaneity, adventure, passion, danger, risk, and the unknown. It’s no surprise that when we think about romance, we may think about being swept away to an exotic location to enjoy new surroundings, delicious foods, and that common feature of hotel romance packages, the complimentary in-room bottle of champagne, no doubt intended to stoke our sexual passions. Relationships often start with dates because the romance we experience is thrilling and desirable.
For a relationship to last after its launch, though, partners need to cultivate a different kind of love—attachment. Mitchell explains that attachment love, the close emotional bond between two partners, needs stability, safety, predictability, commitment, control, continuity, certainty, and the conviction that the future is somewhat knowable. As different as romance and attachment are, it’s easy to see how they can often be in tension with one another.
However, just as a relationship cannot survive on romance alone, neither can it flourish with attachment love alone. Sans romance, the relationship will grow cold, distant, predictable, and eventually fall into destructive, rigid patterns that, if not interrupted, sound the death knell of intimacy. Many couples are feel safely attached to each other but struggle with nurturing romance; careers, parenting, mortgage payments, getting dinner on the table, and picking up little Johnny from soccer practice (#worldcup) often makes it hard to find time alone, much less create some romantic heat. To create romance in the day-to-day, then, try thinking smaller. Try thinking “surprise.”
The surprise—that unexpected novelty (no matter how small) that momentarily takes a couple out of the predictability of attachment—is what creates romance. Unfortunately, most people tend of think of romance in terms of elaborate gestures: flowers, an unexpected night out, a surprise gift. So many people try to get that “spark” back in their relationship via the romance package on the Queen Mary, for instance. These gestures are, of course, romantic. When partners limit romance to such relational moves, though, they miss the momentary opportunities to playfully improvise in their interactions with one another in ways that surprise each other. Surprise is a positive violation of each partner’s expectations of what happens in the relationship, and thereby creates new ways for partners to connect with one another. That is, what becomes possible in the moment a playful joke, a spontaneous massage, shared laughter, or an unexpected compliment?
One final thought. Surprise is deeply personal and requires partners to be keenly in tune to the rhythm of their relationship. For example, if I were to attempt to surprise my wife with humor by making a Mediterranean dinner that prominently featured olives (which she thoroughly abhors), my efforts would not have the desired effect. Surprise, done right, communicates that you know your partner intimately and are interested in a deeper connection.