Ellen: Honey, I’ve been feeling some distance between us lately and I’d like to talk with you about some of my concerns. I think that both of us have gotten caught up in our jobs lately and I’ve been missing you.
Joe: (defensively) Well, I’m right here. If you want to talk, just let me know.
Ellen: It just seems like the content of our conversations focuses on the business of running the household and we don’t have time to connect the way that we used to. I miss those times.
Joe: Well that’s what happens when you get married and have a family, isn’t it? You know, the honeymoon ends and you get on with the work of taking care of business.
Ellen: Just because that happens to a lot of other people doesn’t mean that it has to happen with us. I know that it’s not inevitable that we have to lose the juice that we used to have between us. There’s nothing that’s more important to me than the quality of our connection and I’m not willing to watch things go downhill without doing something about it.
Joe: What do you mean, “go downhill”? Are things that bad between us?
Ellen: They’re not “bad”, they’re just not what I want them to be, what I know they could be. You’re right. Our work and other concerns have pushed everything else, including our relationship into the background and I’ve been noticing that lately I’ve been starting to feel frustrated and disappointed in our lack of contact. I’m not blaming you. I’m as caught up in juggling my life as you are yours. I just want to nip this in the bud so that six months or two years down the road we don’t find ourselves in a train wreck.
Joe: Well you picked a hell of a time to drop this on me. You know that Sunday morning is the only time that I can really relax. I was just getting ready to watch the football game.
Ellen: That’s OK Joe. We don’t have to talk this very minute. I feel better just having spoken to you about how I feel and I’m glad that you also want to make things between us even better than they already are.
Joe: I do.
Ellen: How about if we pick a time in which we can be together without any distractions from the kids or work or the phone or anything else.
Joe: (sarcastically) Sure, when, next year?
Ellen: (returning his sarcasm) I think we might be able to find some time before then.
Joe: Like when?
Ellen: How about Saturday morning. You don’t work on that day and I can skip my aerobics class at the club. That will give us all morning.
Joe: To do what?
Ellen: Whatever we want! That’s the idea, Joe. One of the reasons that it seems that our lives are all work and no fun is because every minute of every day is scheduled for something. The only way that we’re going to be able to bring more quality time into it is to schedule it.
Joe: (Sarcastically) how romantic. Breakfast at 8, lovemaking at 9, shopping at 10.
Ellen: Come on Joe. If the only way that we can be sure of having open time in which nothing else is going to infringe on us is by scheduling it, I’m willing to do it. Otherwise our other responsibilities will just continue to eat up all of our time and energy. Besides we’re not scheduling anything in particular for that time, we’re giving ourselves three or four hours in which we can do whatever we feel like.
Joe: Sounds good. I’m in.
This scenario may have a familiar ring to it, although for many of us, things can easily start to go off track early on in the conversation… like within the first 30 seconds. This conversation was actually about setting up another conversation and creating agreement that both partners were committed to doing that. If it seemed that this interaction went unrealistically smooth, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why it might not have deteriorated into a shouting match.
It should be noted that one of the reasons that things went the way they did was that Ellen consistently spoke in terms of her own experience, and never implicitly or explicitly blamed Joe for her feelings. She took responsibility for coming up with a strategy to interrupt the pattern in which she and Joe were becoming stuck instead of blaming it all on him. At no time did she react to him with anger or hostility. If she had any judgments, she kept them to herself. She was honest and sensitive to Joe, while not walking on eggshells, and she stayed focused on her concerns without pressuring him to accommodate her expectations.
Had Ellen gotten critical or reactive at any point, it’s likely that there would have been a flare-up that could have resulted in an entirely different outcome. The less frustrated and disappointed we feel, the less likely it is that our attempts to create shared emotional closeness will be experienced as criticism by our partner, and consequently, the less likely it will be that they will respond defensively to us. Anything that we can do to promote the feeling of emotional safety will enhance the chances of creating a meaningful connection.
What was at least as important as Ellen’s words was the tone of voice that she used in conveying her concerns. She was serious but not heavy-handed; clear, but not grim; committed but not controlling. Sometimes a couple waits too long to address unfinished business and when one of them expresses their concerns, it comes out sounding angry or blaming because they have been sitting on their feelings for too long. The sooner we address these issues, the less likely it is that our communication will be contaminated by buried resentment that can make a positive outcome of such an encounter unlikely.