One thing that I often hear from couples is that they don’t have regular conversations about what is going on with them and that they can’t seem to be able to find a good time to bring up difficult topics. As time passes, two consequences emerge. First, they find that their partner knows less and less about their daily life- their actions, challenges, triumphs, thoughts, and feelings- and this leads them to feel disconnected. Secondly, the urgency and number of those unaddressed topics gradually increases, causing anxiety, resentment, and poorly timed, tense conversations.
No one ever entered into a relationship wanting to feel disconnected, unknown, and left all alone to deal with difficult emotions and situations. Couples don’t get this way on purpose. In fact, some manage to avoid getting this way in the first place. I have noticed that many couples who report a high level of satisfaction and connection by chance or by uncommon wisdom found a method that fosters those feelings: they meet on a regular basis to talk.
Maybe they lounge in bed on Sunday mornings and talk about their week. Maybe they walk the dog after dinner every night and discuss their day. Maybe they commute home together every evening and download about their day. Maybe they always have dinner on Friday night just the two of them at their favorite restaurant. This practice of reconnection can take many forms, but whatever the form it takes, there are always some commonalities: it’s something they do at least once a week, they make it happen without fail (barring emergency situations), no one else is invited, and no electronic devices are involved.
When working with couples, one of my goals is to have them practice behaviors that will maintain the gains they make in therapy. When I have a couple who doesn’t have some form of connection time built into their week, I ask them to pick a time in the week when they can meet to talk. They can choose a simple activity to do during that time, such as walking, eating, or drinking coffee, but I encourage them to choose an activity that isn’t too absorbing so that it keeps them from feeling comfortable in letting the conversation wander to whatever topics that it needs to. Also, they want to be feel able to give each other their full attention.
Often times when I make this suggestion, I can see that the partners recognize the importance of this regular habit. And they have some concerns.
Concern #1: “We don’t have the time.” Sometimes situations arise that are a crisis nature that keep partners from being able to connect because dealing with the crisis demands all their time. This is valid. And for most people, crises pass. If this isn’t a crisis time, look at your schedule and ask yourself, “What in my schedule do I value less than my relationship?” Then you know what to move. If this is a crisis time, make a promise to each other to make time to talk once the crisis is over.
Concern #2: “We don’t know what to say.” I suggest an easy and pleasant way to start the conversation: each of you takes a turn at telling the other one something that you appreciate about them this week. After that, I suggest getting to any “business” items- bringing up topics that require joint decisions or input. Bring up requests for changes in behavior. Discuss ways that you may want to be supported in the following week. Talk about highs and lows of the past week. Finally, you can talk about whatever topics that are important to you, even if they aren’t “pressing” (the news, sports, family gossip, etc.).
Concern #3: “It feels fake to have to plan a conversation.” When you were dating your partner, did communicating about how to coordinate your schedules so you could maintain your connection (i.e go on a date) feel “fake”? I doubt it. Usually, one of the key signs that someone is “into” you when you are dating is that they do this very thing. What makes this any less so when you are living together?
Concern #4: “We don’t have to do it when things are good between us, do we?” Sometimes couples are willing to create this practice when they are feeling anxious about the relationship. And then when their distress begins to subside, they begin to let go of meeting. This is one that you need to think about as a couple. The idea of scheduling regular time together is to maintain that feeling of connection while having the opportunity to discuss topics that need to be addressed before they become too difficult or urgent to deal with them gracefully. Think of these regular meetings like an early warning system that allows you to take care of problems when they’re still bite sized. There’s nothing “wrong” with letting your meetings go, but it might be more practical in the long run to maintain them.