Flow and Your Marriage


I never saw it this way before. Maybe you didn’t either.
Have you heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the state he calls flow? It’s a wonderful state, reached by artists as they create, rock climbers as they climb, writers as they write, mothers as they play with their babies, even by wallpaperers as they transform a room.
Jeremy Dean gave a great summary of flow (in under 300 words) in PsyBlog recently. As he describes how we feel when we’re in flow, I thought, “That’s exactly how I felt as we were falling in love.”
Jeremy writes:

“When you’re in a flow state:

  • an hour can pass in the blink of an eye,
  • you feel what you are doing is important,
  • you’re not self-conscious,
  • action and awareness merges,
  • you feel in full control,
  • and the experience is intrinsically rewarding.”

If that fifth one, “in full control” doesn’t sound quite right, it refers to your ability to choose your next step, not your ability to dictate the outcome of it. And the rest? Don’t they sound like the hours you two spent together once you got past the awkward “getting to know you” phase?
Weren’t they wonderful? You probably did not even need words to feel totally in tune with your new person.
If the feeling of falling in love is a series of flow states, is it possible that the difference between couples who long to return to the falling-in-love stage and the ones who still feel “in love” with each other twenty years later has to do with finding other ways to join each other in flow?
The four ingredients for creating flow have been well researched. Flow happens when you are internally motivated (expecting no reward beyond the fun of the task), stretching almost to the limits of your skills (but not so far that you get anxious), with short-term goals (like getting from one rock to the next or returning each ball as it comes your way) and immediate feedback on your progress toward them (like solid contact on the next rock or a slip of the foot).
How do they apply in a marriage or lifelong relationship?
Think of your sex life. Sex between life partners usually meets the flow criterion of being done for its own sake. And short-term goals? Arousal and orgasm definitely count. But the other two may make the difference between sex in flow and ordinary sex. Are you providing your partner with immediate feedback? And do you keep stretching your skills almost to the limit, or are you phoning it in?
When you cook together, do you choose tasks that will stretch each of you almost to your limits? Do you each have clear, short-term goals? Are you doing it (at least some of the time) for its own reward rather than out of obligation to feed your family?
When you get out for some exercise on your bikes, skates, or windsurfers, is one of you pulling the other past their current ability into the anxiety zone? That’s going to kill flow. Do you have goals you can meet every few minutes or every hour, like getting up this hill or tacking at the best moment to keep up your speed? Can you tell from moment to moment how close you are to achieving these goals, or do you need to choose ones easier to evaluate?
Do you have flow-inducing hobbies you can do side-by-side, like writing while your partner paints or drawing while your partner fishes? Could you seek out new ones, like learning to dance together or starting a garden?
When your spouse is in flow, totally involved in some activity and unaware of time flying by, do you interrupt or do you start something within eye-catching distance that will take you to the same delicious place? When you are in flow, just catching a glimpse of your loved one’s face, also in flow, can be heart-melting.
And since you are reading this and obviously have an interest in becoming better at relationship skills, have you tried finding flow when you use them? Could you find yourself totally absorbed in trying to guide a conversation away from a battle no one wins and into a Third Alternative? Could you be so present in your coming-home encounters that you get five minutes of flow from them?
So, am I onto something? Is there a connection between feeling “in love” and being in flow? I would love to hear what you think.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • I was a student of Mihalys’ in 1966, taking an Intro to Sociology at Lake Forest College. Years after that Mike discovered this state of flow thing. I understand it and agree. I want to apply it to love, and the fact that 2,500 women have written to me from my Profiles on several “foreign” personals websites. Between what I wrote in my Profile, and my photos, hundreds of women say they are immediately in love and cannot live without me. I was just about to check if the literature on “Flow” includes the above-mentioned “state of love.” This is why I landed here. Sincerely, Robert Wander. Tampa Bay, Florida.

  • I am tickled pink that you landed here, Robert, and very glad to know someone else thinks this makes sense. If you find anything more on the subject, I hope you will share it. With Barbara Frederickson’s publication of Love 2.0, I think we will see more about love coming from the positive psychologists in the near future.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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