This year has been universally challenging. We’ve been in survival mode, adapting to a multitude of threats to our safety, security, and relationships. Perhaps during the pandemic you’ve been working from home with your partner (for what feels like an eternity), or one or both of you have continued to go to the office (cautiously, fearful that you’ll expose your family to a life-threatening virus). These challenges may have increased your sense of closeness, but if they haven’t–if you’re feeling more disconnected than ever– you’re not alone.
Surviving a viral pandemic of this magnitude is probably not something you’ve tackled as a couple previous to 2020. Our skill sets for maintaining relationships outside of these intense conditions require sharpening to keep up under current circumstances. So do our skills for almost everything else, though: parenting, orienting to new technology and executing our jobs in new ways, caring for and, unfortunately, mourning sick loved ones. The way we are living right now is INTENSE. There’s barely enough time to rest, let alone to grieve the losses felt on a personal and global scale. When we do have time to rest, many of us turn to soothing activities that allow us to disconnect: watching TV, scrolling through social media, mind-altering substances, etc. The unfortunate byproduct of this “disconnecting” is that we risk disconnecting from our partner. Turning first to our favorite coping mechanisms during times of crisis makes sense, because sitting with the discomfort of this moment allows painful feelings to come to our conscious awareness. The grief we haven’t processed from our lives changing dramatically will be waiting for us when it feels safe enough to see it.
“Turning Towards” our partner to give and seek comfort can prepare us to manage this grief as a couple. Even simple acknowledgment of what we’ve been avoiding, or giving words to the emotional experience from which we want to disconnect, is an opportunity to connect to your partner emotionally. Recognizing that there is pain we want to “numb out” can lead to empathy, validation, and fruitful discussion of ways partners can soothe one another’s pain. To borrow the language of the Gottman Institute, “Turning Towards” refers to acknowledging and responding to one another’s “bids” for connection. “Bids” can be overt, such as your partner asking for a hug, or for you to put your phone away at dinner. They can also be more subtle, a meaningful sigh while watching a disturbing news report, or a comment about the weather. Some “bids” are so subtle that they are easily missed, especially with our heads buried in our phones. The first step in “Turning Towards” may involve mindful observation of your partner. Much of our communication is nonverbal, residing in our body posture and facial expressions. Inquiring about or reflecting what you observe is an opportunity to “Turn Towards” your partner, demonstrating that you’re attending to their emotional wellbeing and your connection as a couple. If you’ve noticed your partner is employing their chosen coping mechanisms at a higher rate, you may feel uncomfortable making a bid for connection, but find that it results in drawing you closer. Asking to share in their preferred hobby (or offering to share yours) may not result in you opening a shared Etsy business for your collaborations, but “Turning Towards” one another by even making the ask can go a long way toward enhancing your emotional connection. Equally important is accepting a “no,” demonstrating your respect for your partner’s boundaries while also communicating interest in their experience. If this resonates for you, and you feel your relationship could use some support, I am available and accepting new couple clients.
Beth Ashton, LCSW-C