Today, many of us are constantly connected in some way through technology in the form of cell phones, computers and social media. We are increasingly interacting through “tech talking” and interface has replaced face-to-face. Some may even be having virtual conversations, or putting out mass updates to avoid communicating one on one due to time constraints. Don’t get me wrong. Connectivity is great and has benefits. However, I often get the sense that many people, including my clients, are living with a sense of disconnect from others, and are feeling invalidated and even lonely within their intimate partner relationships. Let’s face it, our busy lives take us away from real-time, in-person and more authentic ways of relating to one another. To compensate and in an effort to stay connected, we may send out quick group messages, soundbite text or emoji messages, but there still remains a void and need for a deeper kind of connection. How do we maintain and build deeper level connections with our intimate partners?
Slow Things down, Carve Out Together-Time and Turn Off the Cell PhoneCouples often come to counselling because they are feeling emotionally distant and disconnected from each other. Often, both partners are trying hard to find some kind of work-life balance and this can mean that their relationship takes second place to the demands and pressures of the workforce ,and the everyday challenges of domestic life – childcare, school and homework, extracurriculars, birthday parties, household chores, finances, and extended family demands. Where is the space for couple time? For many couples, finding the time to connect in ways that they used to in the early, romantic stage of their relationship almost seems impossible. I often hear couples say, “there is no time” or “that’s a luxury we don’t have.” I get it. Time is limited. Finances are stretched. Exhaustion kicks in and we neglect the relationships that mean the most to us. Trusted babysitters are hard to come by or afford. It’s a most understandable challenge. But, what’s the alternative? More of the same only compounds the emotional distance and disconnection. Sooner or later, it’s like living with a roommate. Couples are hungry for deeper ways of connecting. It’s time to reclaim your relationship! Attending counselling together can often be a catalyst to change. In fact, couples who do manage to set up regular appointments realize that they can, and must find the time to carve out space for each other in their busy lives. Some couples have even said that they made their couple counselling into a type of date night by going out for dinner afterwards. I love it when couples find their own creative solutions.
Attunement & Love MappingOften reconnecting is about slowing things down, and learning or re-learning to tune into each other. Within couple sessions, each partner is invited to take a pause, step off the busy metaphorical treadmill of life and give space to each other. They are encouraged to listen to each other in a different way, put defensiveness aside, seek to understand each other and reach for empathy instead of jumping to conclusions, filling in the blanks and dismissing the other. In many ways, couple counselling is a type of journey that involves finding or reclaiming the friendship that exists within their relationship and to engage in some heartfelt conversations that are outside of the mundane topics that tend to dominate everyday discussions (think work, kids, finances). What’s interesting is that couples often share that they used to do this when they first started dating and would stay up late talking about their hopes, dreams, values, fears, goals and so forth. Such conversations are essential for couple health and need to continue throughout the duration of the relationship. These conversations build what John Gottman refers to as `love maps’:A love map is a road map one creates of one’s partner’s inner psychological world. It is the most basic level of friendship. It’s about feeling known in the relationship. It’s about feeling like your partner is interested in continuing to know you – and your partner feeling that you are interested in knowing her or him.(Gottman & Gottman 147)
The Emotional Bank Account: Emotional Deposits Strengthen ConnectionThe Emotional Bank Account metaphor is a helpful tool for reducing emotional distance between couples. We all know what a deposit or withdrawal means in financial terms. Within intimate partner relationships, John Gottman speaks of a 5:1 ratio of deposits versus withdrawals. The idea is that when the relationship is low in deposits but high in withdrawals then contempt manifests perpetuating a deeper divide; an emotional rift. One of the ways that couples can take stock of their relationship is by examining the ratio between deposits and withdrawals. Becoming more consciously aware of what Gottman refers to as the Four Horses of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling), which are significant emotional withdrawals, can help couples step out of habitual, unhealthy relational patterns. Couples can learn to replace these with their opposite. Emotional deposits can take many forms such as:
- recognizing each other’s positive qualities and contributions to the relationship
- expressing gratitude
- really considering the other person’s feelings, thoughts, wants and needs
- using “I” statements instead of “You” statements which can blame and shame
- respecting each other’s differences
- taking responsibility for wrongdoing, making heartfelt apologies and making amends
- random acts of kindness
- noticing little things
- honouring commitments
- clarifying expectations
- spending quality time together (turning off the cell phone)