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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • February 2018
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The secret to maintaining your relationship in 20 minutes a day

Neil Jacobson’s study of couples, two years after the end of couple’s therapy, differentiated between “maintainers” of change and “relapsers.” He found that couples who were able to decrease the stress they experienced from sources outside the relationship, were more successful in maintaining the gains they had made during couple’s therapy. This was the only criteria that made a statistically, significant difference in couples being able to retain the gains, and new skills, that they learned as the result of going to couple’s therapy. That is how important stress-guarding your relationship from outside pressures really is. Think about that for a moment.

You can have a wonderful partnership, great conflict resolution skills, possess the ability to repair your relationship once it goes off track and be deeply in love; however, that is not enough to keep your relationship sound and in good working order. “Me and you against the world, Baby” — that is what every couple needs, to stay strong and healthy, in the long run. We all need to be heard, validated and to receive empathy from our partners on a daily basis. Everyone needs to know that when they arrive home, there is safety and unconditional love. But how do we know that we are safe and have that love?

Gottman therapists teach couples to have “Stress-Reducing Conversations” for 20 minutes, every single day. Each partner gets to both speak and listen. Each partner gets a minimum of 10 minutes to be in the role of speaker (or until they feel understood, validated and have received empathy from their partner). It isn’t complicated but it does require a certain skill set, and practice, to perfect.

Here are the rules:

  1. Each speaker gets 10 minutes to talk about anything they want, or need, to talk about; however, it cannot be about the relationship, and preferably, not about the children. The topic can be about anything else. There is nothing too big, or too small, to be a topic of discussion.
  2. The listener needs to give undivided attention, and the communication of understanding is crucial. The speaker should be able to tell by observation, and hearing the listener’s responses, that they have been heard and understood. Showing genuine interest; making eye contact and really getting those “back channels” going (nodding, smiling, turning toward the speaker and looking interested) all help the speaker know that they have been heard and understood.
  3. When the speaker has gotten the first thought or two out, it’s the listener’s turn to practice active listening. The listener will say something like, “OK, let me make sure that I am hearing you correctly. You said, “….” did I get that right? Is there anything else that you want me to know or anything that I missed?” If the listener has missed anything or misheard, the speaker will give the correction; then, the listener will “play the corrected content back” for the speaker.
  4. The listener’s job is to find out more information about the situation by asking open-ended questions; questions that cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” Questions that start with “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” are good questions to ask. “Why” questions should be avoided because they tend to convey a felt sense of criticism. The following questions are good ones to use to help the speaker open up:
    • What is most upsetting for you about this?
    • What is it that you don’t like about this situation?
    • What is the worst thing that could happen in this situation?
    • What is this like for you?
    • Is there anything I can do to support you in this?
    • What do you need?
  5. The listener should give voice to their emotions as the speaker shares their thoughts:
  • Interest: “Tell me more about that.”
  • Excitement: “Wow! This is really hot stuff! Let’s do it!”
  • Sadness: “That is so sad. That must have really hurt.”
  • Fear: “That is something that I would be worried about, too.”
  • Irritation and anger: “I can see why you’re annoyed here.”

Other helpful hints for you and your partner: Don’t side with the enemy! If your partner says, “I was 10 minutes late to work today and my boss wrote me up!” You may be thinking, “Well you are usually late everywhere you go.” This is not the time to say that. “That is terrible, how upsetting!” is a much better response. Do not be critical of your partner, how they feel or what they are thinking. There is no such thing as “overreacting,” being “too sensitive” or being “irrational.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, do not give advice. You may believe that you are being helpful; that is usually not the case. You partner will either become frustrated, insulted or simply start to “yes, but...” you {“Yes, I thought of that (tried that), but it won’t work (didn’t work, has never worked)}. At that point, you will become angry and your stress-reducing conversation will go up in flames.

So, make it a point to start having a stress-reducing conversation with your partner tonight. Isn’t your partnership worth 20 minutes a day?

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