The two of us moved in together a few weeks ago. With a moving truck, towering boxes of books, and every edible thing she could remove from her previous household, we merged lives. Whose tea strainer should we keep, whose collapsible metal steamer, whose box of African rooibos?
When she found a dead silverfish hanging by a spider web on the bedroom wall, she shouted, “Jesus, what the hell is that, a trilobite?”
The process of moving in together is a telling moment for a relationship. Will such an endeavor last or not? A 2014 Atlantic article followed scientists who tracked couples, some of whom stayed together over time and some who didn’t. The article says that one of the main indicators of success or failure is how partners reacted to ‘bids’ from each other. A bid is where one says, oh, look at the sunset, or, I read something interesting today. Does the other person engage or not? The article reads, “Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had ‘turn-toward bids’ 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had ‘turn-toward bids’ 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.”
By oil lamp and some electric light at night, we sorted our belongings and talked, little bids dropped like breadcrumbs. Whiskey was sipped, and sometimes we didn’t speak for hours, busy in our tasks between laptops and putting up bean cans.
It was when I left for a few nights that it happened, when my girlfriend almost ate dog food.
She is orders of magnitude more tidy than I, and I’d been living in this house for almost three years. Though I tried to keep my midden-like tendencies at bay and not have the house look like a cave in which lives either a meth addict or an angry raccoon, the place did have a slightly random appearance. She pointed out in the pantry where seven cans of sardines were stocked next to five cans of refried beans, two unopened jelly jars, a spray bottle of Windex, vinegar, and several cans of soup.
Another indicator of success is not obsessing on the other’s shortcomings or undesirable quirks. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and author of “Anatomy of Love,” looked at regions of the brain triggered in those happily together. She saw that the parts of the brain that are active when thinking of a partner have to do with empathy, controlling your own stress, and a region that she says controls “positive illusions.” Based on this, Fisher says the key to a good, long relationship from the brain’s point of view is: “Control your own emotions, have empathy for the other person, and overlook what you don’t like and focus on what you do.”
Overlooking my untidiness and imprecision is what I was hoping for. Here was one of our tests. The soup was the issue. When I got home from the trip, she dragged me into the pantry to show me what had happened, a mixup with the cans. She was alternately laughing and almost crying, making a bid the likes of which could make or break a relationship.
“Look at this! Look at this!” she exclaimed, holding up a can of pet food perfectly disguised as delicious human food. Someone had been here with a pet and left a can on my shelf, which I organized by putting it with other similar-looking cans.
“Nowhere on this label does it use the word dog!” she practically shouted.
It actually did say dog, but in fine print at the bottom of the label.
She was not angry. She was amused, horrified, and thrilled at the thought of what she’d almost done. She had checked the pantry for some dinner, looked through whatever I had, and her eye landed on a savory label for turkey and duck stew with sweet potatoes and cranberries. How could you go wrong?
She told me every vivid detail, the hunger in her belly, walking out of the pantry with the can, checking the ingredients out of habit, followed by the sudden halt to her kitchen-bound momentum. She described the yelp that escaped her mouth.
“It had been so quiet in there, it was the only sound, the first sound that I’d made,” she said.
Your inner body checks to see if it’s in love or if scales tip toward flight. According to the studies mentioned in the Atlantic, the internal ranking and scaling system does not shut off over time. When someone’s telling a story, pointing at a bird, mentioning the moonrise, does the partner take note? We are always falling in love. Bid after bid, we probe our partners, the invisible, ant-like antennae of the heart testing the air. The questioning is hardly conscious. Is he/she listening? Does he/she care?
In the pantry, I listened, sometimes covering my face with one hand as I sputtered laughter because she is a sassy poet, a pleasure to hear when she’s on a tear. The pantry was her stage, dog food her story, and shelves of now neatly organized cans, bins, and spices her props. Her bid was asking, are you with me? Are these parts of life shared?
I believe the answer is yes. I understood. If she hadn’t been the one, I would have walked out to watch the sunset with a steaming bowl in my hand as I spooned dog food into my grateful, oblivious mouth.