Though frequently reduced to a cheap internet meme, the well-known aphorism ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder‘ finds its roots across many cultures and languages: The Chinese may refer to it as ‘人远心更近‘ (lit., ‘someone far, the heart is closer’) while a more academic interpretation in Japanese may go as ‘会わねば愛しさいや勝る’ (lit., not to meet makes love exceed by far). Even in Italian, this aphorism finds itself pithily placed as ‘La lontananza avvicina i cuori‘. But clip away some of the idealised overtones and it becomes apparent that this saying can be thought of as ‘longing for something or someone you do not yet possess’. The more we do not have it, the more we want it.
When we think greatly of someone, or if we find ourselves deeply longing for a response from this person, it is often because a great deal of our conscious and unconscious memories are tied up pleasurably with him or her. And since our brain naturally gravitates towards pleasure and away from pain, it only sees events and people in varying gradations of satisfaction. Naturally then, it follows that we want more of what’s thrilling and pleasurable. The more this person has the potential to positively influence our lives, the harder it is to imagine anything less. As expectations and standards rise, so too does anticipation.
We see in front of us a prize waiting to be claimed – a person who will be spiritually fulfilling and full of welcome delights. However, when thwarted by distance and time, this challenge reveals just how important (or not) such a relationship is. It’s easy when things are going well to promise everything that can or might be done, but far, far harder to sustain desire and commitment over long periods of time and distance. In such a situation, the brain automatically calculates the perceived rarity and significance of a person, tallies it with existing memories, and through various mental gymnastics, takes into account the cost of waiting and the struggles of intermittent periods of no communication, and finally computes a value.
The more highly valued each individual is to each other, the more likely they can tolerate long periods of absences and any necessary waiting, and the less likely they are to be distracted by someone or something else. However, prolonged absences cannot do without some degree of earnest communication. Long stretches of waiting with no compensatory attempts to reach out to each other will provide no sustenance to any relationship. Communication is vital, as it has always been for every social species in existence. Every speech, thought or gesture ferried across, and every message or letter bartered to the heart and mind, go a long way in building psychological value unique only to its participants.
If its participants are willing to persevere and set aside what little time they have to communicate across distances, can put up with difficult obstacles and unavoidable absences, such a relationship speaks volumes of how dramatically important each person is to the other. No ordinary person would put themselves through so much unless what’s at the end is uniquely justifiable. Amusingly, if science was to intervene, at least a few studies have shown that absence does lead to far more meaningful interactions than those who can see each other on a daily basis. The aphorism holds true, largely at least.
Additionally, absences and distances force communication to adapt to a more pressing need: these limitations demand a greater focus on topics that are closer to the heart and while limited in quantity, are often more relationally intense. But it doesn’t mean that everything will always work out. As it has always been, because relationships are a gradual unity of two different minds, there is always the risk of limited reciprocation or an inability to fully empathise with the nature of such an exchange. Also, because there’s a greater margin for error and a wider room for mistaken assumptions, without adequate reassurances and promises, even the most ironclad of hopes can flounder and drown.
Absence can bring us to the sober realisation of how much we are willing to put up with for someone significant, and while it can strengthen yearnings and desires to hear from each other, it’s still one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. It’s like two people trying to swim across from one continent to the other with nothing but the stubborn hope of seeking out an intoxicating new beginning. And there’s a reason we don’t hear many stories like that. Many don’t have the fortitude to go the distance. But surviving such a formidable challenge means there is likely nothing else ahead that can’t be surmounted.
So, have you thought about (HYTA) whether absence does make the heart grow fonder?