The COVID-19 crisis has shaken up all our lives, and is taking a toll on our relationships. There is so much tension and uncertainty in our world, and there are also new opportunities to be creative and evolve as a person and in your relationships. In this blog, I'll offer practical tips in three areas: becoming a great communicator, being a generous listener, and integrating gratitude into your relationship.
You can choose to survive this crisis with built-up anger in your relationship or with better communication and more kindness and giving to one another. You can see it as suffocating or as a time to practice a more loving way of relating.
Consider this dream: you and your partner experience the pandemic with your marriage intact and your family even closer and more connected than ever.
I. Become a Great Communicator
Communicating well in a relationship is a skill that can be practiced and mastered. Good communication will help you both feel comfortable to be honest and open with each other.
Here are a few of my recommendations for how to be a positive, effective communicator in ways that promote a close, loving connection:
- When sharing your personal setback or failure, be clear that you need your partner's full attention because this will be a vulnerable moment for you. Don't tell a story about a challenging situation or a low, insecure mood while your partner is distracted or you're both involved in other things. Ask for dedicated time and real listening. This is also true for sharing successes and achievements. If what you're sharing is important to you, you deserve your partner's full attention.
- When conveying negative or sensitive feedback to your partner, bring up one issue at a time and be specific. This will be so much easier for them to hear than a long list of past grievances or generalizations, like 'you always...'.
When you're expressing a perception or emotion to your partner about an issue in your relationship, try to communicate your observations without labeling or interpreting them. It's best to use 'I-messages', as in: 'I feel, I believe, what would help me, this isn't comfortable for me.' You deserve your own feelings and point of view. And your partner is less likely to be defensive if you don't open with an assumption or criticism.
If you've done something that hurt your partner, take full responsibility. 'I'm asking forgiveness for hurting you, I was not OK.' Even if you didn't mean it or were unaware that your actions had a hurtful impact, this is not the time to defend yourself or be passive ('oh, sorry if you felt bad').
In any conversation, always try to see another side of the issue. Be aware of your partner's sensitivities, perspectives, and past experience. It will go a long way if it's clear that you're open to more than just your point of view.
When you need your partner to do something differently or want them to support you in a particular way, express your need in the form of a specific request and not a demand. Be clear about what is bothering you and why you're making the request. Check in with your partner to see if the request is reasonable for them. Try this formula: 'I'm frustrated about...I really wish that... I request from you that...can you do that for me?'
Setting up clear expectations for how dialogue will happen in your relationship helps both partners feel less vulnerable and more secure, no matter what the nature of the topic.
II. Be a Generous Listener
True listening makes the person who is speaking feel seen, heard, and valued.
Listening is not passive, it's not 'doing nothing'.
Listening is an end in itself - taking in what the other person has to say.
Listening involves the eyes, ears, and heart.
Listening is not only for the purpose of making suggestions or finding solutions.
Listening is being responsive and being there when your partner needs you.
Listening is truly giving to your partner. Here are a few of my recommendations for how to give your full self to listening as an act of love.
- Get ready to listen with an open mind, and let go of what you may fear, hope, or expect your partner to share with you.
- Give your partner your full attention. Put away your phone, face your partner, make eye contact, and let go of all distractions.
- Tell your partner in words that you are here to listen and that this is your #1 priority right now.
- Be curious about what your partner is sharing and remain open in your heart to whatever it is they are conveying.
- Allow your partner to finish what they are saying, interrupting only to clarify so that you fully understand.
Listening may take practice and it's a good idea to try it for a few minutes each day, when listening is the main activity, the only thing you are doing.
When you have created a space dedicated to listening, when listening is a priority in your relationship, you will each know that you'll have a chance to be heard, that your turn will come.
III. Integrate Gratitude Into Your Relationship
One of the best ways to strengthen your connection is to consciously introduce more appreciation and gratitude in your relationship. You can initiate positive change by looking for opportunities to acknowledge, appreciate, and thank your partner in some of these ways.
- Make an effort to observe and remember actions that your partner does for you and others. You may even want to write them down.
- Notice your partner's frustrations in different areas. Find opportunities to say that you really get how challenging it is and how much you appreciate their effort to rise above the tough moments.
- Play around with different ways to show your appreciation a few times a day and as close to the event as possible. You can say thanks in a text message, email, post-it note, hug, or other creative ways.
- When you thank your partner in words, be specific. Say something about the character trait that their gesture reveals about them and how it makes you feel. For example: 'Thanks for making my coffee. It was so thoughtful of you and it made me feel taken care of.'
- Consider giving your partner extra time, maybe taking on one of their responsibilities. You could say, for example: 'I can see you've had a rough day. I'll put the kids to bed tonight - why don't you go and unwind.'
Appreciating your partner rather than focusing on disappointments and frustrations is something that does take practice if you're not used to being on the lookout for things to be grateful for. It's like toning a 'muscle' that's out of shape or has never been used. You can strengthen your relationship through daily practice. As you develop the habit of noticing and showing gratitude, your partner will feel more seen and valued and you'll both feel more connected.
I work with couples using Encounter Centered Couples Therapy. Partners practice deep listening by learning how to 'cross the bridge' and enter the world of the other with curiosity, warmth, empathy, and the desire to learn and see their partner with 'new eyes'. With the safety of a truly listening partner, each person can communicate more and more openly and a deep connection is made (or remade) as couples share and listen in new ways.