Couples: How to Reconnect in the Evenings with a Stress-Reducing Conversation
We all want to feel connected and supported by our partner. Afterall, it’s one of the reasons we chose to spend our lives together! But in the busyness of daily life, it can be hard to maintain that feeling of connection. At the end of a day apart, minds are still spinning with unfinished to-do lists, hearts are still simmering over frustrations and stress. Each person feels the other one just doesn’t get it.
One couple I saw recently described their evenings this way.
Linda: I’m just so exhausted. I feel guilty about leaving projects unfinished at work because I need to get home to the kids. And I feel guilty about coming home even a minute late. The evenings are so full of swim lessons, homework, and soccer for the kids. It’s hard to find time to eat a decent meal let alone have a decent conversation. By the time the kids are in bed, I just want to pass out. I don’t even think about reconnecting with Rob, and I know that’s not good.
Rob: I look forward to coming home after work, but it usually feels like I”m walking into this wall of noise rather than the relief I’d imagined. I try to jump in and help with the kids’ homework, but I never seem to do it right. When I have to deal with a call from work in the evenings, I feel like such a jerk. I usually just unwind by myself in front of the tv or a video game, and Linda is asleep by the time I go to bed.
Both Linda and Rob feel disconnected and lonely in the evenings. While they talk to each other a lot during these evening hours, it’s mainly about juggling schedules and bedtime routines for the kids. They share little about themselves or their worlds. They don’t lean on each other to manage stress together, as a team.
Over time, this has led to a great distance between them. They stop even trying to connect. This emotional distance leads to more arguing, criticism, and can even open the door to affairs. But there is a remedy!
Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest that couples who build Rituals of Connection by doing SMALL THINGS OFTEN experience greater satisfaction and passion in their relationship, allowing them to weather external stresses more successfully. Their research has shown that successful couples build in rituals to connect before partings & reunions, express admiration & appreciation, show affection, maintain date nights, and recover from fights respectfully.
The main strategy to reconnect during reunions is to have a Stress-Reducing Conversation. Here are the steps the Gottmans recommend:
Step 1: Create a quiet, distraction-free space to sit down together and take turns sharing about the stressors of your day.
Step 2: Take turns as Speaker and Listener.
Speaker: Talk about your stress in detail for 10 minutes. Choose topics about situations outside the relationship so you can be on the same team rather than debating. This is NOT the time to discuss your worries about your fizzling sex life or criticisms about your partner’s habits.
Listener: Provide support to your partner with a goal of fully understanding the issues and feelings he/she is experiencing. This is NOT the time to problem solve.
Giving support means:
- Show genuine interest by maintaining eye contact and asking questions
- Be an ally for your partner, showing empathy
- Communicate understanding with statements like, “Wow! That seems like a tough day.”
- Show solidarity by expressing the sentiment “We can face this problem together.”
- Don’t side with the “enemy” even if you agree with them. Focus on your partner’s feelings rather than whether your partner is “correct” about the situation.
- Provide affection and comfort in whatever way your partner likes to receive it
Show you empathize and care:
- “Tell me more about that.”
- “Wow! That’s incredible.”
- “That would have me worried to.”
- “I can get why you’d be so annoyed.”
- “That’s really tough.”
Don’t ignore your partner, fail to respond, get defensive or criticize.
Step 3: Ask Questions
The Listener should ask the Speaker if he/she feels heard and understood. If the Speaker says yes, you can ask if he/she wants help problem solving. If the Speaker does not feel understood, then ask more questions.
- What’s most upsetting to you about this?
- What the worst thing that could happen?
- Is there anything I can do to support you in this?
- What do you need right now?
- What don’t you like about this?
- Step 4: Switch roles as the Speaker and Listener. Repeats steps 2 & 3. Make a commitment to having a Stress-Reducing Conversation at least 5 days a week for 20 minutes each day.
- Linda and Rob made a commitment to have a Stress-Reducing Conversation each evening.
- They said it took some effort to get started, changing up their usual routines to reconnect after the kids were all in bed rather than going off in their separate directions.
- At first, Rob said it felt awkward as he resisted the urge to help Linda by problem-solving. And Linda struggled to resist the urge to complain about Rob or the household. But with some practice, they found the exercise got easier and they looked forward to connecting each evening. Rob began to better understand Linda’s world and the guilt she often feels as a working mom. Linda appreciated Rob’s efforts to juggle his stressful job and still be a wonderful father. They noticed they argued less and had more energy for intimacy again.
- The Stress-Reducing Conversation is just one strategy to help couples feel more connected and communicate more effectively. To learn more about how to apply these sorts of strategies to your relationship, consider seeking couple’s therapy with a therapist who utilizes Gottman Methods. This is one service available at Linden BP if you would like to arrange a consultation, 440-250-9880.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D., clinical health psychologist providing compassionate care to adults and couples at Linden BP. The strategies described above taken from The Gottman Institutes Small Things Often guide.