As the director of an international firm, Sandy, a mom of two, travels several times a year. Her husband Chris runs an investment company.
Cynthia and her partner Jane build their careers each day, then Jane pursues an MBA at night.
Alice is a stay-at-home mom with two children and the founder of a pediatric charity. Her husband, Ted, is a real estate developer and member of their co-op board.
What do these three couples have in common with each other — and with many of us?
They each lead very busy lives. Their situations may be different, but the effect is the same. With lots of responsibilities and little time for each other, they’re in danger of letting their connection slip away. (Sound familiar?)
So, how can you maintain a strong connection with your spouse, or partner, when your circumstances and commitments are pulling you in different directions? Here are five steps to help you stay connected, no matter how busy your lives may get.
Plan for and Prioritize Time Together
A 2012 study by the University of Virginia found that “couple time” (time spent alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity) has a decisive impact on the success of relationships. Married couples who scheduled time together at least once per week were three times as likely to report being happy in their marriages than those who did not. And researchers calculated that those who reported rarely having “couple time” had almost double the predicted probability of divorce over the next five years compared to those that who carved out alone time together every day.
I was sharing this concept with a client, a successful attorney, and she confessed that while she and her husband plan Thursday night as their date night, she doesn’t always prioritize it. “A project comes up or a client needs me, and I cancel our date. I did it twice this month and my husband is getting frustrated.”
I suggested she add their date night to her calendar and keep it as seriously as she would an important business appointment. While their date might need to be rescheduled on occasion, consistency and a commitment to their time together is the connector that will keep them going.
Love and connection is a choice. Start with that intention and then make a plan that keeps your intimacy alive.
Do Away With Distractions
Nearly six in 10 Americans with smartphones can’t go an hour without checking their phones, according to a ”Mobile Mindset” survey conducted by Harris Interactive.
If you are having a conversation with your spouse or partner and he picks up his phone, that’s obviously disruptive. But even a visible cell-phone can take you out of the present moment.
Two experiments conducted by the University of Essex tested if the presence of a cell phone versus a notebook on the table during a conversation would impact the connection of the two people talking. Significantly lower feelings of closeness, trust, empathy and relationship quality were reported when the cell phone was on the table instead of the notebook. Their results concluded “that the presence of a mobile phone can interfere with human relationships, an effect that is most clear when individuals are discussing personally meaningful topics.”
If you or your partner is hooked on technology and it’s affecting your connection and intimacy, try this:
- Have a (non-blaming) conversation and explain the effect that it’s having on your relationship. Often both people know it, but the person who is more tech-addicted may have trouble hearing it. That’s why a neutral non-blaming conversation is important.
- Create “Tech-Free Zones” during your couple time so that you can focus on each other without distractions, and agree on some “rules of disengagement.”
- Stick to the rules! Discipline and consistency are key, as it’s easy to slip back and let technology eat up your quality time together.
- Notice if you’re more present, able to unwind and enjoying your partner more.
Create Quick Connects
You may be an entrepreneur, a wife, a mom or all three. Pulled in multiple directions, it’s easy to forget that you’re part of a couple, too.
A quick connect can be a love note that you place next to your spouse’s morning coffee cup or a surprise, “I miss you” text. Does your partner need a neck massage to ease tension or a hug to show that you care? To create a quick connect, put your attention on your partner and your relationship, and ask, “What would he like to receive and what can I give?”
Quick connects take only minutes, yet the feelings that they create are long lasting. Three minutes of total attention is worth more than three hours of distracted togetherness.
Stop Listening to Fix
Tom and Ria have a nightly ritual which they look forward to, as it keeps them feeling connected. They each take a turn and share about their day. The share can be from five to 20 minutes.
For example, when Ria shares, Tom’s sole role is to be a “dedicated listener,” meaning he takes in what she says and is fully present for her. He might ask a few questions for clarification, but not so he can give advice.
This practice can be challenging at first, as many people I’ve encountered in my practice “listen to fix.” They may tune out as they are thinking of solutions. If this starts happening, then take a breath, clear your mind and come back to listening.
When both of you feel truly heard, your connection becomes more intimate. You each become the ally that the other needs.
Give Gratitude and Appreciation
Expressing appreciation creates positive feelings, connection and promotes commitment in relationships, but often we keep those thoughts to ourselves.
A study by Dr. Amie M. Gordon in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology followed 50 couples for nine months. She found that when study participants felt appreciated by their partners on any given day, they responded by becoming more appreciative of their partner in return, as well as more responsive to their partner’s needs and more committed to the relationship. Couples in which both partners conveyed appreciation and gratitude to each other reciprocally were less likely to break up over time.
Here’s an example of an appreciation practice that takes only a few minutes:
- Set aside five minutes a few times a week. At the desired time, decide which partner will go first.
- Look into your partner’s eyes and talk about what you appreciate about him (or her) or feel grateful for (e.g. “I love when you …,” “I appreciate that you... “) Your partner continues looking into your eyes and receives the appreciation, smiles and then says, “Thank You.”
- Then it’s time to switch roles.
For some people, this practice can be easy. For others, it can be challenging initially.
I taught this method to a couple recently who had been married for over 40 years. The wife was able to easily express appreciation while looking into her husband’s eyes. Her husband, however, seemed uncomfortable as he listened and looked away often. As I guided him to stay present, the husband eventually relaxed, smiled and seemed genuinely pleased.
Cheryl Lazarus, CRC, is a Certified Relationship Coach and the Founder of ZengaLove.