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This Conversation Can Protect Your Relationship From Stress

Research reveals how to protect your relationship from stress and disconnection.

Graham Fletcher/CC by 2.0
Source: Graham Fletcher/CC by 2.0

How much time do you spend each week talking to your partner?

According to a UCLA study of dual-career couples with children, the answer might be less time than you think. Researchers observed families to study how they normally interacted, and discovered that over the course of a week couples talked to each other for about 35 minutes—and most of this time was spent discussing the daily logistics of family life. Perhaps more worryingly, these couples were only even in the same room during the hours after work ten percent of the time!

If we aren’t careful, our relationships and family life can start to feel like a never-ending list of chores to do, errands to run, and calendars to coordinate. We can become so effective at running the business of our day-to-day family life that we miss out on the deeper meaning and purpose of our relationships. When we’re at our best, our lives together with our partners are meant to make us feel more connected, less alone, and better able to manage stress—but many days, we experience just the opposite.

One of the great tragedies of this disconnect is that our relationships can be a powerful resource that helps us manage our stressful lives. Feeling heard and understood by the one we love through intentional, daily conversation makes us feel more secure in ourselves and confident in our ability to handle life’s challenges. Research has shown that couples who help each other de-stress through connecting conversation tend to stay together and feel more satisfied with their partners. A couple’s ability to give support to one another is critical in determining the success of their relationship! Making time for daily conversation is both an investment in the health of our relationships and ourselves.

In response to this overwhelming need for better interactions, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, cofounders of the Gottman Institute, developed a tool called the Stress-Reducing Conversation that helps couples manage their external stressors and feel more connected to each other. The Gottmans recommend that couples set aside about 20-30 minutes each day solely for sharing how their day went, focusing on any stressful experiences or challenges they encountered. The rule of thumb is that during this time each partner shares about outside sources of frustration or stressful experiences, not any conflict within the relationship.

Taking this time to de-stress and discuss together offers an important opportunity to provide emotional support and will deepen the trust and love in your relationship. Here are a few guidelines for making the most of your daily Stress-Reducing Conversation:

1) Take turns. As you practice this stress-reducing conversation, make sure you are taking turns sharing. Both partners need an opportunity to feel heard, seen, and understood. By taking turns talking and listening, you and your partner can both give and receive the attention you need to feel truly cared for and connected.

2) Don’t problem solve. Few things can derail emotional connection as quickly as unsolicited problem solving! Most of the time, what our partners need from us is our understanding, presence, and support, not our solutions. Jumping to solve your partner’s problem before they have asked can communicate a lack of interest or belief in your partner’s ability to manage their own life. The goal of a Stress-Reducing Conversation is to increase your sense of connection to each other, not solve all your daily concerns.

3) Show interest and communicate your understanding. It’s hard to feel heard if you are staring at your phone while your partner is talking to you! Give your partner your full attention during this conversation. This communicates that they are a priority to you and someone whose presence you treasure. Turn off the TV, put down your phone, make eye contact, and communicate that you get what they are saying by expressing empathy or asking follow-up questions.

4) Be on the same team. Adopt an us-against-the-world attitude during these conversations. Resist the urge to play devil’s advocate or try to get your partner to see a different perspective while they are sharing. For example, if your partner expresses resentment toward their boss for chewing them out after they were late for work, don’t align yourself with their boss by telling your partner they should have left five minutes earlier! Express solidarity and empathize with their emotions, even if you feel they are being a bit unreasonable. Remember, your goal is to feel connected and together!

5) Validate emotions. There are few things more healing than when someone you love gets where you are coming from. Let your partner know what they are feeling makes sense to you by expressing empathy and affection. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with their behaviors or opinions; it means that you are making an intentional effort to connect with their emotions. For example, even if you believe your partner was somewhat to blame for conflict at work, you can validate their feeling of sadness, disappointment, fear, or frustration at being yelled at by a coworker as a result.

By intentionally setting aside time each day to talk to your partner, you can help protect the love you share from external stressors and feel a deeper sense of connectedness and understanding. Take the time today to really connect with your partner by being there for them in the day-to-day challenges of life.