What’s Your Secret Handshake? Staying Connected After We Have Kids

In her great book about marriage and relationship research, For Better, Tara Parker-Pope describes something called interactional synchrony.

What the heck is that, you might ask?

Interactional synchrony happens when 2 or more people hang out together. Without being aware of it, we often start to coordinate our physical movements into a kind of gestural dance. Seriously!

This sort of thing’s been recorded among children-at-play, in doctor-patient interactions, with moms and toddlers, and, get this, in flirting cues among adults.

It’s as if the more connected we feel to someone else—whether our connection is playful, supportive or romantic—the more our bodies coordinate our movements. We literally start to match each other’s physical rhythms.

Love it. I love that, on some unconscious level, feeling connected to someone else inspires us to move in sync with that person.

I love this idea so much that I wonder if, maybe, the reverse might be also be true; could this be a way for us to reconnect with our spouses when the stresses of co-parenting, of work, of daily life wrench us apart?

Can we jump-start feeling connected to each other by syncing how we move?

It might be a stretch, but here’s where I’m going with this:

When couples haven’t been sexual in a while a common piece of advice from both therapists and laypeople (so to speak) is: just do it. A lot of times, going through the motions gets us hot and bothered. In other words, moving our bodies together can also move us internally, meaning, emotionally and physiologically.

While lots of couples face challenges around intimacy, new parents are especially vulnerable. In a 2003 Babycenter.com survey, 54% of new parents said that post-baby sex is either a battlefield or secondary to sleep, while another 20% reported it’s the Holy Grail: they want it but can’t seem to get it.

Plus, new parents often face more conflict in our relationships, have to adjust to less alone-time and couple-time, and sometimes find ourselves sharing our homes not only with a new baby, but with extended family, like visiting in-laws.

Bottom line: Connecting at all, never mind sexually, is a challenge!

So what’s a couple to do if there isn’t enough time, energy or privacy, or if there’s too much conflict and emotional distance, for sex, heavy petting or, well, any petting?

Taking a cue from interactional synchrony, how can we move physically to move ourselves emotionally so we (re)connect with each other?

I suppose we could choreograph a dance that’s unique to us as a couple. But as a rabid fan of So You Think You Can Dance, I’m worried that might be asking too much of us, especially those among us who know we can’t dance.

Plus, if we had the time, energy and coordination to choreograph a whole dance…we might as well get naked and improvise our moves in bed.

So here’s what I’m thinking: We create our own secret handshake. Say, three or four moves—a thumb tap here, a palm slap there—that couples design together.

We could assign meanings to each finger-wiggle—maybe use our core values—so that we, and we alone, would know what we’re saying to each other, what each touch communicates to our beloved.

We could give our handshake a name, something emblematic of what’s special about our relationship, what makes our connection, well, ours and ours alone.

What I’m saying is that if there’s a way to tap into the power of interactional synchrony, to take a cue from just do it as a motto for sex, then, silly as it sounds, our secret handshake could be a quick and easy intimacy tool.

Heck, what’s to stop us from creating family handshakes, too?

Could be a fun way to reconnect with our children when we’re pulled in different directions; when we’re rushing off to work or other obligations, yet want to remind our kids, and ourselves, that we’re always connected.

So, how about it? Just do it. Let’s wiggle our fingers, and tap palms, with our beloveds and, when they’re old enough, with our kids.

Let’s reconnect with each other by synchronizing our physical movements to the rhythm of our hearts.

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2 responses to “What’s Your Secret Handshake? Staying Connected After We Have Kids

  1. Love this! I never thought about Interactional Synchrony overtly, but intuitively, I think I always knew it’s how we’re wired.

    I remember how much I loved watching my daughter and her preschool mates play side by side at two years old, a prelude to the synchrony you’ve described.

    Now at ten I just watched her team play basketball this afternoon against another school. The more in synch they were, the better they did. We parents could feel the connection and intimacy they felt as happy and eager teammates.

    I love your idea of a secret handshake or something else equally playful. For me, intimacy comes from the confidence of playfulness… knowing when to take a shot and when to pass the ball. I trust my spouse to do the same. And when no one is looking, I think a secret dance sounds just about perfect.

    Thanks for you wonderful thoughts!

  2. you give me something to think about here! I’m imagining my husband and I being able to communicate volumes through a simple mutual touch of the hand. Why not? especially in light of kids being in earshot or being in a room of people. Something about what you prescribe is animal/instinctual…love it too!!

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