A “loss of connection” and “problems communicating” are common complaints I hear from couples who are looking for help with their relationship. And when conflict and disconnectedness are at its highest is when most couples reach out for help from a therapist.
I thought it’d be helpful if I put together a couple of lists to help couples who find themselves in this common situation. One is a list of ideas on how to encourage connection, and the second, a list of what I call “blocks to connection” – the things we do that discourage the connection we want.
Learn & leverage your spouse’s ‘love language’ – Do you prefer words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, physical touch or receiving gifts? What does your spouse respond to best? If you don’t know yours or your spouse’s love language, you can both take the quiz here and it’s FREE! The temptation is the tendency to express our love in our own language – the way we like to be shown love. But imagine if your spouse spoke Japanese and yet you insisted on speaking only English to him/her, because that is your preferred language? Your expressions of love might fall on deaf ears or the feelings behind the words might get lost. When we are able to show our spouse they are loved in their own language, it breeds intimacy and connection.
Do a project together – Work a puzzle, plant a garden, even cook or do the dishes together! Yes, chores count as projects! This doesn’t have to be a planned event. In fact, sometimes the less structure, the better. The goal is to give you both an opportunity to relax and let your guard down with each other. Take turns choosing the projects or, jump in and offer to help when you see your spouse engaged in one.
Join your spouse in his/her world – Not a fan of (fill in the blank) but your spouse enjoys them? Say yes the next time they ask you. Or even better, offer up the idea! Take in a movie, concert, or sporting event that you may not care a whit about, but you know your spouse would love. Joining your spouse in an activity that isn’t necessarily your thing, is a great way to build connectivity and show your spouse you care about them. By the way, this advice is not exclusive to your spouse either. It also applies to your kids as well. Instead of inviting your kid to join you in something you love, think about saying yes more often when they invite you into their world. Watch that animated movie on family movie night, shoot hoops in the driveway or play Barbies. Or, just listen intently when they want to tell you about whatever it is that has them excited. Your kids will be thrilled.
Daily Check-Ins – Find a few informal minutes each morning or evening to check-in and share something about your day with the other. The less rules the better – no expectations or judgements about what or how much the other chooses to share. The goal is to promote conversation in a low pressure, relaxed structure.
Increase your playfulness – When a couple gets disconnected, the light-heartedness, the silliness, the inside jokes, and the playfulness get replaced with seriousness and intensity you can cut with a knife. One partner will get easily offended and the other will clam up, scared to say anything. Relax! Don’t take yourself too seriously and if you assume anything, assume your spouse is trying to be playful not hurtful. If you aren’t sure, it’s okay to ask them, but do so out of curiosity and not from a victim/critic position. Get your flirt on!
Date Boxes – I find couples that have been disconnected for an extended period of time, have trouble planning a date. Even the thought creates anxiety and the date gets stuck in the planning stages. A little structure can help to get things started again and increase the playfulness too. There are several reasonable subscription services out there for couples to create comfortable together time at home or out on the town. If you need a jump start, pick a service and budget to your liking and commit to a date a month for the next three months. Click here for one to get an idea.
Blocks to Connecting
Screens, screens, & more screens – Smartphones, tablets, computers, Netflix, gaming consoles, television, you name it. This is a struggle for many of us. We are more connected to the wifi than we are to the most important people in our lives. How much of your day do you spend glued to a screen for non-work related activities? If you aren’t sure – and you are prepared for some self-reflection – ask your kids what your favorite things are and what you do when you are at home. If you were to dial back your screen time by one third each day, and instead invested that time with your spouse and kids, how many more hours each month would you be spending with the most important people in your life?
Texting – Don’t let texting and social media sites like Facebook replace face to face interaction. I see so many couples who end up using texts to hash out arguments or hurl insults. Using text as a weapon is the perfect recipe for relationship disaster. Besides the pettiness of it, it is guaranteed to increase your chances for misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and long-standing resentment. Want to move texting from a “block to connecting” to a “tool”? Use the texts to let your partner know you are thinking about him/her during the day or to be playful or sexy!
Focusing more on the negative – When you are frustrated with your relationship, there can be what Dr. John Gottman refers to it as “Negative Sentiment Override”. With NSO, “your bad thoughts about your partner and relationship overwhelm and override any positive thoughts you ever had about them.” It causes you to rewrite history and forget the pleasant memories. ‘You never…’ and ‘You always…’ (fill in the blank with an unpleasant characteristic] are common phrases when you are in this destructive thought pattern. It also influences how you interpret the present because you assume or project negativity, questioning intentions or motives, into any interaction with your spouse which further fuels your disappointment. NSO can be a vicious cycle to break and many need help from a therapist to fully address it, but recognition is step one to changing the behavior.
Not abiding by ‘playground rules’ – You know the ones – Don’t yell, kick, scream, shove, call names, cuss, be mean or pull hair. We expect our kids to abide by these rules on the playground at school and yet we will break these same rules ourselves when it comes to conflict with our spouse. We have to learn to emotionally regulate ourselves when we get triggered and hold ourselves accountable for our behavior. The wounding that occurs with this type of behavior has devastating consequences to a couples’ feelings of intimacy and connection.
Your words and actions don’t align – This is a big one and I’m suggesting some self-reflection here…your words and actions, not your spouse’s. He/she can do their own self-reflecting. When your words and actions don’t match, it’s as if you are beckoning them closer with one hand while simultaneously pushing them away with the other. Your spouse has to reconcile what to believe, creating doubt and compromising trust. Trust breeds intimacy and connection.
Ask for help from a professional
Even the best lists don’t replace the value a trained professional can bring to the table. If you and your spouse need help rekindling the connection, please consider giving us a call. You don’t have to be in a crisis to see a counselor and in fact, you will very likely avoid the crisis by learning some things now about yourself in couples counseling. Our counselors and coaches are trained to help couples like you prioritize their relationship and rebuild the connection that originally brought you together. Contact us here.