I was an adult when I met my wife, but she turned my world upside down—I dropped about a decade from my psyche and started acting like a kid again. Around the clock, she was perched on the edge of every thought. It didn’t matter if we were in the same room or not, she was always with me.
I started writing a bunch of cheesy poetry.
Maybe all true love begins like cheesy poetry.
But it can’t last that way, can it? No relationship can sustain the passion and intensity of its earliest days—no jobs would get done, no kids would get raised, nobody would sleep. The world would grind to a halt if young love was in charge.
Yet, something essential is happening in the early days of our love, something we should not relinquish as the years pile up. We must extract it, preserve it, and live it with each new dawn.
Psychologists call it object permanence.
To Be or Not to Be (Thought of)
Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.
Newborn babies lack object permanence. If a big red rattle makes them coo and giggle, when the rattle is suddenly hidden out of sight, they don’t go looking for it. In their new minds, the rattle ceases to exist. But sometime in the second year of life, infants develop object permanence. When the delightful rattle is hidden, they go searching for it.
We begin our relationships this way, with the object of our love fixed permanently in our minds. When they’re away from us, we’ll go searching for them. I met my wife in the age before Facebook and text messages. But throughout the day, I would send her emails. The truth is, I was just being witty and hoping to impress her so she’d stick around. But it turns out I was also accidentally sending one of the most loving messages of all:
even when you’re not here, you’re with me,
I’m thinking about you,
you never leave me,
when we’re apart, I’ll come searching for you.
I think all of us want to be like a red baby rattle, hidden within the folds of life, with the person we love coming searching for us. Delighting in us when they find us again.
We live in a lonely world, and I think we get married because young love assuages away our loneliness for awhile. When we discover we are present in the mind of our lover, even when we’re apart, it’s like a balm for our loneliness—a clear message declaring, “You’re not alone anymore because I take you with me when I go.”
When I work with adolescents in my therapy practice, they’re constantly getting text messages. And they love it—to be reminded over and over again they are a permanent fixture in the minds of others is to repeatedly have their loneliness eased. And when I work with couples, one of the most common things I hear is, “I’d just love to get a text message in the middle of the day. Nothing complicated. Just a message, saying, ‘I’m thinking of you.’”
Most of us would trade a bunch of extravagant togetherness for one text message when we’re apart, one message saying, “You never leave my heart, and I’m coming searching for you.”
It’s why missing trashcans matter so much to me.
…and Missing Trashcans
For years, when I got home at the end of a long workweek, I wanted nothing more than to walk directly in the house, kick off my shoes, and get into my pajamas, but it was my job to bring in the empty trashcans from the curb.
The walk to the road to retrieve the empty containers always seemed like the longest walk of my week.
But some nights, as I turned down our street and scanned the horizon for the toppled cans, they were nowhere to be seen. My wife had already taken them into the garage. The empty curb was a clear message to me: “I was thinking of you. You were with me, even while you were gone.”
As the Valentine holiday approaches, we think about big-fancy dinners, expensive jewelry, and massive bouquets. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, ultimately, our souls aren’t thirsty for a love that purchases for us—our souls are thirsty for a love that searches for us.
That thirst gets quenched for a while in the early days of young love. Yet it’s a thirst that never goes away for good, and we can continue to quench it.
One trashcan at a time.
One text at a time.
One message, in any form of word or action, that declares, “You’re on my mind and in my heart. Even when we’re apart. And I’ll always come searching for you.”
This Valentine’s Day, it’s the one message all of us are needing to hear.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.