A Swedish proverb promises: “Shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” Experiences of sharing — anything from a troubling dream to an ice cream cone — can show “I Love You” across cultures, gender, age. A two-year old will reach out her hand to offer a turn at a toy to someone she trusts and wants to see smile; a romantic relationship takes a step forward when one person offers a sip from his or her drink to the other and it is accepted; a parent and child both win when they play tennis, walk the dog, or watch a television series together. Understanding the what, how and why of this language of loving helps us become fluent in its use.
What do we share?
- Moments. When we share a moment in time with someone else, being fully present in our experience, whatever it may be, we bear witness for one another. In doing so, we create a history of common meanings. The sun setting behind the Palisades across the Hudson evokes not just visual imagery of beauty and impermanence, but the wonder of watching colors kaleidoscopically change by the second, a magic moment in time. Sometimes those moments expand into life.
- Experiences and Discoveries. Life brings challenges, opportunities and insights. By encountering experiences or discoveries together with another person, we learn how they approach situations, reach to them, and are willing and able to collaborate.
- Thoughts and Opinions. An article in the newspaper or online, a post on Facebook, a reaction to a meeting or a movie bring opportunities to explore and appreciate similarities and differences. Respect for others’ viewpoints and judgments deepens. We become more able to love them for all that they are, not only for those ways in which they reflect us.
- Feelings, concerns, reactions. We react emotionally to a surprising and delightful encounter at the supermarket, to a report card received by a child or an evaluation from a supervisor, to an unexpected invitation to a celebration. The Swedish proverb captures the doubling of joy and halving of grief when they can be shared.
- Tasks. Calvin Trillin wrote, “Marriage is not merely sharing the fettucini, but sharing the burden of finding the fettucini restaurant in the first place.” To say nothing of getting homes and cars maintained, bank accounts balanced, ruffled feathers smoothed, and social commitments made. Many tasks require another person. How nice when he or she can be an intimate!
- Allocating priorities, commitments. When my husband and I became a couple, we realized that what I might prefer and what he would choose were often different, and that what was best for our couple might be a third option. In sharing our hopes, desires and perspectives, we became able to honor the relationship and make choices that nourish it without resenting not having taken other roads.
- Dreams and Vision. Conceiving of possibilities can be one of the most inspiring or scary activities one can engage in. In an intriguing line of research, Hazel Markus and her colleagues have demonstrated the power of imagination to guide motivation and choices. We shape our futures into the realities they become: 21 years ago, I told my husband that my dream was to be an author –not a scientists whose work appeared in refereed journals (although I did that for many years), but an author whose work reached a non-professional audience and inspired them. He helped me transform that dream into reality.
How do we share?
- By spending time together. Nothing replaces clocking minutes in one another’s presence. Research on the positive impact of family dinners on children’s development underscores the impact of facetime. Even though electronics offer distant contact alternatives, moments spent in each others’ presence open doors to touching and an exchange of energy that is not possible in two-dimensional space-time, no matter how simultaneous the Skyping.
- By coordinating and organizing. By working through the challenges of setting priorities and developing a plan that can implement them, people come to agreements. Being able to trust each other to not unilaterally change an agreement becomes a firm foundation for trust that each other will honor the relationship by behaving with integrity.
- Through allocating and doing the work, tasks. When two people can rely on each other to complete their share of agreed-to work, that which could deteriorate into nagging and feelings of betrayal or, worse, a passive-aggressive fight for control, can be avoided.
- By discussing and communicating. Sharing requires communication, especially when it is non-verbal. The joys of a snuggle, the surprise of a beautifully-presented dinner, even these treasured events cannot take place without communicating a desire and intention to both be in the same place at the same time.
- By providing a reality check, a second pair of ears. No two people perceive in exactly the same way. Sharing experiences allows one to expand perspective, to see a situation from a new angle, to retain bits of information otherwise ignored, to broaden the ways in which an issue or event or decision can be considered. Perception and memory can be validated or corrected.
- Through vision and visualization. By enlisting the powers of imagery, two people can co-create an idea of the present, a story about the past, a hope for the future. Long known as an effective aid in problem-solving, visual imagery can bring improvements in emotional regulation, social understanding, and impulse control. It can also amplify positive feelings, making them then more likely to recur.
- Through defining problems and finding and testing solutions. Whether the issue is how to understand and work with a child’s temperament, deciding upon a destination for a vacation, or choosing a town or city to live in, sharing – with discussion and communication, hearing data from both sets of ears, using vision and visualization – strengthens the end results. Indeed, not sharing can easily leave a person feeling discarded or invisible.
- Through unconscious mirroring (emotional validation – but also contagion). When people are in the presence of others, they energetically absorb each other’s emotions. Depending upon individual differences, characteristics of the situation, and dynamics in the relationship, this unconscious process can lead to validation, with one person mirroring the reactions of the other, or to emotional contagion, in which one person empathically absorbs the emotion of the other. Sending and receiving unconscious messages of positive feelings – and negative ones – profoundly affects the quality of the relationship, whether two people live in an energy field of chronically positive, negative, or shifting emotions. Being able to enjoy the validation when it is positive and detach from it when it is negative are keys to managing effects of closeness and distance.
Why do we share?
- We are hard-wired to seek social contact. As I have described elsewhere, our need to be connected to others is universal. Without it, we fail to form bonds that can sustain us as we grow and our expectations of new relationships are dismal.
- Sharing combats loneliness. Recent articles on the hazards of loneliness only amplify earlier findings that document loneliness’s negative impact on health, contribution to depression, and capacity to shorten life.The concrete help and support that comes with sharing has benefits documented decades ago (and supported since) in the Alameda County Study, documenting the role of social relationships in longevity. The entire field of psychosocial epidemiology attests to their benefits.
- Sharing amplifies intimacy. My own work has shown that being able to rely on a partner for the closeness that comes through sharing is associated with longer life, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher evaluation of one’s own health.
- Sharing facilitates course correction. To the extent that we are born into this lifetime with an internal map of gifts meant to flower as we grow and contribute to the world, relationships can help us permit that unfolding. When one direction becomes blocked through infertility, a work choice becomes unrewarding, disabilities or environmental limitations restrict, or one’s position on a personal timeline brings frustration, a person may need a nudge or even extra support to shift course. How many have helped a student to thrive?
- Sharing helps one understand and appreciate differences. Any two people are both similar to one another and different. Through the sharing in their relationship, they can come to recognize and respect those differences, a gift that can extend well beyond the two people.
- Sharing fosters creative problem-solving. Skills developed through the “how” above can become skills available for countless other relationships and situations. Carol Ryff has documented that a sense of mastery is a core component of well-being.
- Sharing brings positive experiences. John Gottman and his colleagues have creatively demonstrated the enormous importance of sharing positive emotions within a relationship. Feelings of joy, pleasure. Surprise, interest or of being rewarded, comforted, loved, delighted, make sharing the key to reinforcing the sources of good feelings that originally drew two people to one another.
- Sharing can expand a sense of spirituality, being part of something beyond the self. Self-respect, connection to others, a feeling of purpose, and being part of a larger plan or world are also part of Carol Ryff’s conceptualization of well-being. Living in a universe that is bigger and more mysterious than one’s own isolated corner, living within a spiritual framework can be its own reward.
Please share with me your own experiences of showing love through sharing. When do you feel most loved? When do you feel most loving? How has sharing contributed to those experiences?