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New study reveals that absence really does make the heart grow fonder

The ancient proverb which states that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ may ring truer than previous romantics have painfully expressed. In fact, it’s been proven that it isn’t only a feeling felt and described by lovesick drama queens, but one felt by every single one of us. Cold-hearted fuckboys included. There is typically no shortage of evidence in our individual lives that friends or lovers can feel a closer bond when they are apart, but what does science tell us about it?

Anthropologists have long observed that primates invest more effort into relationships that have been forced apart, or separated. For example, baboon mothers spend much more time feeding their newborns just after having them compared to socialising, grooming and whatnot, with other baboon adults. When the mother’s young ones are being weaned, they become less attached to their mother and vice versa, so the mother baboon can go back to doing a little more socialising. They actually intensely use their time to groom their friends when their offspring are playing in order to rekindle the relationships that may have weakened over the time spent apart, due to baby duty.

This same behaviour is seen in many other animals such as elephants and even hyenas, but also humans, which is somewhat unsurprising. Relationships do grow weaker over time; people tend to struggle to maintain putting in the effort needed for a relationship to remain as strong as it was in the first place. Thankfully, times have changed from long-distance letter-writing in order to keep in touch, although I do fall blindly head over heels for a letter. Regardless of that, we have options now—and mobile phones.

Before easy travel (2020 not included), emailing, texts and phone calls: relationships of all kinds were likely to buckle under the pressure of distance simply because we do tend to become less and less relevant to each other as time passes. Yes, of course, we may brood and mope around because we miss someone, but it does pass eventually. However, according to the studies conducted by Kunal Bhattacharya at Aalto University in Finland, absence today really does make the heart grow fonder, which can be seen as… hopeful? Or really, really bad news—I’ll leave you to choose.

Bhattacharya and colleagues analysed a large data set of call records and came up with their hypothesis that the strength of relationships is reflected in the number and duration of calls between individuals. The question they attempt to answer though is whether people invest more time into relationships when these relationships are at risk. In their study, they say that “Friendships require constant time investment for their maintenance, and failure to match quite specific investment schedules leads inexorably to a rapid reduction in relationship quality.”

The researchers first measured how often pairs of people who were geographically separated contacted each other and how the time between calls varied over time, then they proceeded to measure how the duration of those calls varied. The results found an increase in the duration of calls between people, when the time since the last call was greater than average, meaning that when a relationship of some kind has been separated for longer, they end up spending more time ‘catching up’. “These results suggest that when individuals fail to contact each other frequently enough they compensate by devoting more time to the next call.” Bhattacharya also states that “Our findings demonstrate a logarithmic increase in call duration with an increase in inter-call gap between a pair of individuals,” however, it isn’t that simple.

There is significant evidence that this happens when males call other males, or females call other females and also when younger people—particularly in their 30s—call each other. The effect is apparently also stronger for those who are separated by larger distances.

Of course, this may be down to the habitual response that we have between friendships or relationships in general, or the pressure of not wanting to give in to ‘growing apart’, but if that simply were the case, these people would undoubtedly run out of things to say on their ever-growing in length phone calls. That being said, does this distance then actually translate into an increase in fondness?

There have been other studies that show males effectively feel a heart growing fonder for longer than women when it comes to nurturing a relationship for fear of losing it. It has also been shown for the feeling to kick in further down the line, when the woman has already mourned some sort of loss and the man has reached the time where they feel an absence that the woman felt earlier. This may come down to motherhood, and the instinctive pattern of ‘letting go to let grow’ (whether for survival or as their offspring needs them less) that has evolutioned into a woman’s nature. Either way, in the animal kingdom or for human friendships and romantic relationships, we’ve all gotta move on from someone or something at some point.

Can you feng shui a relationship?

Feng shui is a pseudoscience that was developed in China around 6000 B.C. It is based on the belief that how we arrange our homes, directed by a few principles, allows us to utilise, observe and fuse energy (chi) of different kinds into our daily lives. Our ‘home’ refers to any space we inhabit, which includes ourselves. Could we use the same principles we apply to physical spaces in order to better our external relationships as well? Yes, I’m talking about your dating life as well as your friendships.

We know that what’s going on inside affects our reaction to our environment—in feng shui, the house is viewed as a whole being in which one part is intricately connected to the other. The same theory can be expanded to other aspects of our lives. In The Field, author Lynne Mctaggart reveals that the human mind and body are not separate from their environment, which implies that all matter in the universe is connected on the subatomic level through a constant dance of quantum energy exchange. To put it simply, what you are, even your thoughts, are quite literally what the world around you is too. Beautiful, right?

Respect seems to be at the core of any successful relationship; we should strive to allow another person to be and do as they like as a separate being. But for there to be good energy—good vibes, if you will—there has to be balance on the scale of mutual give and take. Humans are separate beings, like objects in a sense, with their own doors, hideaways, dust and purpose. Like feng shui, we use things like light and darkness, joy or sadness, on a daily basis to navigate the atmospheres we choose to surround ourselves in.

There are five elements that feng shui divides the world into: wood, which symbolises growth and creativity; earth is for stability and balance; metal relates to logic and intelligence; water is linked to wisdom and serenity, and fire to passion and energy.

So how does feng shui relate to romantic love in particular? I was having a conversation with a friend about how we use parts of people to fulfil a whole ideal. Have you ever used a dating app? Been there, done that. You find someone that’s downright perfect, on paper. You wear your good lingerie, or no lingerie—you bring your fire, because you’ve been date shopping for a while and why not, you’re excited. They’re excited too (one would hope). But then, your fingers reach for that app again, and whoops, you’re still shopping. Your perfect date is probably still out shopping as well. Why is that? And, more importantly, what in the world are you two looking for, exactly?

This is when the other four elements come into play. First impressions do fizzle out; fire needs earth to keep it alight. I’m thinking if it’s not a ‘hell yeah’ now, it’s probably a ‘no, thanks’ down the line, but should that be the case? Is the increase in ‘choice’ pushing us towards polyamory? Is it us simply fulfilling a whole ideal, built by parts?

What we tend to look for mostly—maybe I’m just speaking for myself here—is someone to, first of all, allow you to be you, allow you to change who that ‘you’ is, and then love you anyway without too many questions. Nobody wants to be bored, either, but an excess of passion and noise becomes chaos.

Unfortunately in love, we can’t just build a relationship into being. We can’t nudge a chair here, knock a wall down there or push a lamp into a darker corner to create a feeling. A room is much more forgiving than another person when it comes to manipulation. The curated projection of what is right in a physical space is customised only to your preference, it comes from one side only. The furniture doesn’t talk back. But to feng shui with a lover is to, theoretically, dance without bumping into another’s customised preferences.

If we could build a person perfectly suited to us, then we would have done that already, although probably the wrong way. Only you are perfectly suited for you, but we can do our best to bring out the positive energy (chi) from the world around us. That’s the whole point of feng shui—decluttering instead of emotionally consuming and accumulating beyond our needs.

Have a good old feel for what doesn’t feel right, and let go of it. Subatomic energy exchange, remember? It won’t get lost, it’ll just find somewhere else to settle. You could walk through a house blindfolded to see what needs moving, but we have to rely on our intuition. ‘Feng’ means wind, ‘shui’ means water. These two elements flow around the world. In a way, it’s comforting to think that nothing stays still, not even ‘nothing’ stays still—even in the vacuum that’s outside of our world.

There is something called Zero-point-energy, which is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system might have. The zero point of a vacuum is not zero due to fluctuations in electromagnetic waves, which means energy is still being passed from one thing to another—an atom will never bump into the same one again. If the universe can let go, I’m sure we can too.

Open your doors and windows, let all the waves run through you. Make sure the light gets in. Then, address the elements. What and who allows you to grow, to trust, who makes you want to rip your clothes off, who listens to your silence and your noise? We can apply this to one relationship, or multiple. I may be ripping this apart a little bit, so take from it what you will, and I will too.