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Staying Connected with Each Other


  • When Russ walks in the door, Carol looks up from her newspaper and says, "How was your day?"
  • When Christine and Steven are walking down the grocery aisle he asks, "Aren't we almost out of milk?"
  • When Jay peers over Liz's shoulder to see what she's doing, she turns and gives him a quick kiss on the chin.

Each of these mini-scenarios represents a couple connecting in some small way. A wife acknowledges her husband's entrance instead of keeping her eyes glued to the newspaper. A husband engages with his wife as they grocery shop instead of thinking about the football game.

Even in brief exchanges like these, husband and wife are choosing to turn toward each other instead of away. Marriage researcher John Gottman coined the phrase "turn towards each other" to describe this kind of behavior between couples.

Why is turning toward each other so vital? Because it helps love grow and prevents discord from penetrating the relationship. Gottman has studied hundreds of couples, and he's found that loving, romantic relationships are not maintained through vacation getaways and lavish gifts. Instead, happy couples keep their love alive through small, everyday acts. They talk to each other, laugh together, and pay attention to what the other is doing and saying. In small ways they turn toward each other instead of ignoring or turning away.

In Gottman's experience, "couples who turn towards each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married." He says that "turning toward is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life."

Here are ideas to help you practice turning toward each other in your marriage:

  • Make an effort to do everyday activities together. For example, fold the laundry together, go to the grocery store, or share dinner.

    From the following list of items, choose three that you wish your spouse would do with you. If you like, include items that you already do together sometimes but that you want to do more frequently together.

    1. Reunite at the end of the day and talk about how it went.
    2. Make up a grocery list and go shopping.
    3. Cook dinner or bake.
    4. Clean house.
    5. Shop for gifts or clothes (for self, kids, or friends).
    6. Go out without the kids for brunch or dinner.
    7. Read the morning paper together.
    8. Help each other with self-improvement plans, such as a new class, weight loss, exercise, a new career.
    9. Plan and host a dinner party.
    10. Call and/or think about each other during the workday.
    11. Stay overnight at a romantic hideaway.
    12. Eat breakfast together during the work week.
    13. Go to a church, mosque, or synagogue together.
    14. Shovel the walk or do yard work, home repairs, or car maintenance.
    15. Volunteer in the community.
    16. Exercise together.
    17. Go on a picnic or drive.
    18. Spend everyday time with the kids - bedtime, baths, homework.
    19. Take the kids on outings (zoo, museum, dinner).
    20. Attend school functions such as teacher conferences.
    21. Spend time with kin parents, in-laws, siblings.
    22. Entertain out-of-town guests.
    23. Travel together.
    24. Watch TV or videos.
    25. Order take out.
    26. Double-date with friends.
    27. Attend sporting events.
    28. Go out and do a favorite activity, such as bowling, bicycling, hiking, jogging, horseback riding, camping, canoeing, sailing, water-skiing, swimming.
    29. Talk or read together by an open fire.
    30. Listen to music.
    31. Go dancing or attend a concert, nightclub, jazz club, or theater.
    32. Host your child's birthday party.
    33. Take your child to lessons.
    34. Attend your child's sporting events or performance.
    35. Pay bills.
    36. Write letters or cards.
    37. Take kids to the doctor, dentist, or emergency room.
    38. Go to a community event, such as a church auction.
    39. Go to a party.
    40. Drive to or from work together.
    41. Celebrate milestones in your children's lives such as confirmation, graduation.
    42. Celebrate other milestones in your lives such as a promotion, retirement.
    43. Play computer games, surf the Internet.
    44. Supervise your children's play dates.
    45. Plan vacations.
    46. Plan your future together. Dream.
    47. Walk the dog.
    48. Read aloud out together.
    49. Play a board game or a card game.
    50. Put on plays or skits together.
    51. Do errands together.
    52. Paint, sculpt, make music.
    53. Find time to talk without interruptions so you can truly listen to each other.
    54. Philosophize.
    55. Attend a funeral.
    56. Help out other people.
    57. Hunt for a new house or apartment.
    58. Test-drive new cars.
    59. Other ____________________.

    Next, share your top three choices with your spouse so you each know how best to turn toward each other.

    CAUTION: This exercise has potential to trigger conflict about who does what and who should be doing more. To prevent this, remember to focus on what you can do now in your marriage and not on what has or has not happened in the past. Couples who keep the focus on now are communicating, "I love you so much I want more of you," and not, "I'm upset with you because of your foul-ups and I don't want to be around you."

  • Have a daily chat. At the end of each day, talk about how the day went. Gottman calls this a "stress-reducing conversation." Learning to have this conversation is crucial to healthy marriages because it helps couples manage stresses that come from outside. Researchers say couples who learn to manage outside stresses keep their marriages strong. Those who don't often let outside stresses spill over into their marriage and damage their relationship.

    For your daily chats, pick a time when you're both free from distractions. Spend at least twenty minutes talking. Don't talk about conflicts or disagreements. Keep this time for talking about things outside your marriage. While you're talking together, keep in mind eight guidelines for this conversation:

    1. Take turns. Give one another the chance to talk for ten or fifteen minutes uninterrupted, even if it's all complaints (but not complaints about each other).
    2. Don't give unsolicited advice. Don't play mechanic and try to fix the problem. Simply listen to understand.
    3. Show genuine interest. While your spouse talks, stay focused on him or her. You can let him or her know you're truly present by nodding, smiling, grimacing, asking for details, etc.
    4. Communicate your understanding. Let your partner know you understand. Show empathy with expressions such as, "Wow, it sounds like that was really painful."
    5. Take your spouse's side. Be supportive, even if his or her perspective seems unreasonable.
    6. Express a "we're-a-team" attitude. Let your spouse know that you're in all situations and dilemmas together. He or she is not alone. Express solidarity.
    7. Express affection. Hold, touch, and embrace your mate. Tell him or her "I love you" often.
    8. Validate emotions. Respond to your partner in ways that confirm his or her feelings are important to you. For example, "I can see why you're so upset." "That would have annoyed me too." "No wonder you're sad."
  • Start a daily tradition. Agree on a time every day when you and your spouse can enjoy doing something together. Try to make it a daily tradition. You could even do this together with your daily chat (see above).

    For example, some couples like to talk in the morning before the kids get up or after dinner. You might want to read letters, read the newspaper, or watch the news together. If you enjoy exercising you could go on a daily walk together. Even a short daily tradition will quickly become a special time you look forward to spending with your spouse.

  • Emotional bank accounting. Gottman believes that couples who turn toward each other are putting money in their emotional bank accounts. That is, they are building up emotional goodwill - "savings" that will cushion their relationship should it fall on hard times.

    To keep track of your emotional bank account, get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write "deposits" on one side and "withdrawals" on the other side.

    Each time you do something kind or helpful - turn toward your spouse - write it down on the "deposits" side and give yourself a point. Enter things like, "Helped J clean the kitchen" or "Visited M during lunch break."

    Each time you do something negative, write it down on the withdrawal side and subtract a point. Be honest about this. Withdrawals might include: "Forgot to call before coming home late" or "Left dishes in the sink."

    Don't be too hard on yourself when you forget to turn toward your spouse. Recognizing your withdrawals is an important step toward improving your marriage.

    Also, don't turn this exercise into a competition by measuring who has more deposits and who has more withdrawals. The point of this exercise is to help you see the positive things you're already doing and realize further positive steps you could take to strengthen your marriage.

  • Learn to recognize when your spouse turns toward you. In one research study where couples were observed in their homes, happily married couples noticed almost all the positive things their partners did for them. On the other hand, unhappy couples underestimated each other's good intentions more than 50% of the time.

    To teach yourself to notice your spouse's positive efforts, try being the accountant for his or her emotional bank account. But only record deposits. That is, only record the times your spouse turned towards you. Leave off the negatives and focus on the positives.

Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


References

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.