I’m a big fan of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. You may remember a past blog post where I shared some of Siegel’s advice about what to do when you “flip your lid.”
Today, I want to talk about another strategy from Siegel. You may have heard of his Connect and Redirect method in the context of parenting. But the ideas behind it can strengthen your marriage (or any other relationship, for that matter).
The key thing to remember about Connect and Redirect is that any interaction will be more fruitful and satisfying if you take a moment to establish emotional connection before launching into what you need.
In our marriages, though, we often forget this step. Because we’re all so busy, it seems easier just to “cut to the chase.” We also tend to take those we’re closest to for granted and be much more abrupt and less tactful with them than we are with other people.
But taking that extra moment to build connection pays off. It helps your spouse get into the mental space where he can truly hear what you’re saying and engage with you.
Make Connection a Habit
Establishing connection doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated. Loving touch and positive eye contact go a long way. So does acknowledging what’s going on with your husband before you bring up the topic you want to discuss. You don’t have to reserve this communication technique for big, important discussions. It’s just as handy when you’re dealing with the routine concerns of family life.
Compare these two interactions:
- Your husband arrives home clearly still stressed from work or his commute. You shout from the kitchen, “The cable’s out again – what are we going to do about this?”
- Your husband arrives home looking stressed. You greet him with a quick hug and kiss and ask what’s up. He says traffic was much heavier than usual during his drive home. “Ugh! Frustrating!” you commiserate. “When you’ve had a chance to unwind a little, I want to talk to you about maybe changing cable providers.”
In the second interaction, you’re letting your husband know that he’s cared for and that he doesn’t have to put his defenses up. You’re making it easier for the two of you to work together for a solution to the cable issue.
As I said earlier, sometimes we have to be deliberate in giving our spouses the same consideration we automatically show our friends. If you know this area is a trouble spot for you, you may want to remind yourself to frame things with your husband the same way you would if you were talking with a friend. If, for example, you needed to reschedule your weekend trip with a friend, you’d probably take a minute to check in on her life and see if it’s a good time to talk before you told her about the change in plans. But you might be tempted to skip those “niceties” with your husband.
Remember, though, that we all need reminders that the people we care about care about us in return. When we get them, we show up more fully and give more generously. The time you invest in nurturing that feeling of connection is well worth it.
How do you and your spouse reconnect at the end of the day? Are you eager to see each other, or are you tense and afraid, not sure what kind of reception you’ll get?
Some people steel themselves for a daily litany of complaints from their spouse. Maybe they’re the target themselves, or they just have to listen to a lot of vitriol about their spouse’s job. Others might dread discovering the latest thing their spouse has messed up: He probably won’t bring in the trash can from outside. And, I bet he forgot to pay that bill I reminded him about AGAIN this morning!
Those first few minutes when you see each other again at the end of the workday set the tone for your whole evening. If you’re feeling trepidation, instead of anticipation, it’s worthwhile to put some energy into making this time of day more positive.
What Goes Wrong after Work
The circumstances of our busy lives set us up to be snippy and even confrontational as we end our workday and start our evening at home. As I write in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, it’s not your imagination: Our lives really are getting more stressful and demanding.
And we have less of a buffer between our family life and our life outside the home. Commuting has never been fun, but at least it used to serve as kind of a decompression zone between home and work, where we were free of the demands of both. Today, if you use mass transit or carpool, you’re probably trying to squeeze in a few work tasks during your commute. If you drive yourself, chances are you’re answering calls from the office or checking emails and texts at traffic lights.
That all sets you up to still be caught up in the day’s dramas and demands when you get home each night. And it makes harder to really “see” your spouse and show up for each other.
Set the Tone for the Evening
Here’s some advice for getting the evening off to a good start. Concentrate on making the first moment that you see your husband after work a really positive one. Just for that moment, put aside any resentment and stress that are lingering from the day and focus on initiating a connection with him. This can make a real difference in how the two of you interact the rest of the evening. It might feel like extra effort at first, but it will quickly become a habit.
Making this shift is a lot easier if you practice some self-care before you get home. Stress makes us defensive and zaps our communication skills, so think about how you can use your own commute to calm and replenish yourself after your day. You could practice breathing exercises or swap out talk radio for music that makes you happy. You may be able to set your phone so that it automatically disables calling or texting while you’re driving.
Coming home and reconnecting with your husband can be something to look forward to instead of dreading. How can you be more intentional about your post-work time this week?
Money problems are a common source of stress for American families. Consider just a few statistics:
Unfortunately, couples with ongoing financial difficulties tend to take their anxiety out on each other. As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, research shows that couples under high stress for extended periods magnify the negatives in their relationship and have trouble remembering the positives. They get defensive and anger more quickly at each other’s faults. No matter how well they usually communicate with each other, they have trouble drawing on those relationship skills because they’re overwhelmed.
Whether you’re dealing with credit card debt, lost income after a layoff, a large emergency expense or ongoing difficulties making ends meet, it’s important to protect your relationship from the stress caused by financial problems. Here are a few steps you can start implementing right now.
- Realize it’s normal to feel fearful during a money crisis, and be aware that fear changes how you think and behave. For example, if you fear what might happen if your husband doesn’t find another job soon, you might start micromanaging his job search, even if that’s not how you usually act in your relationship.
- When you’re stressed about money, it’s more important than ever to maintain habits that help you stay calm. This supports your own health and wellbeing, and it helps you stay connected with your partner when the going gets tough. A couple of things that help many people get to a calmer place when they’re stressed are deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to stay in the moment instead of spiraling into worries about the future.
- Remind yourself that this is a temporary situation. When you’re very stressed about money, you might feel overwhelmed and hopeless and have trouble seeing possibilities for change.
- Collaborate with your partner to find solutions. Work as a team to plot how you’ll get a new job, start tackling your debt or pay off that surprise bill. You’ll maintain, and maybe even deepen, the sense of trust and respect in your relationship.
If you aren’t going through money troubles right now, talk with each other about how you can prepare for a rainy day. What would you do if one of you lost your job? Can you change your saving or spending habits now so that you’ll be in better shape if a crisis does hit? These conversations might not be the most fun way to spend your time, but they’ll protect your financial health and the health of your marriage in the long run.
You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”
But that not may be the case.
First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.
It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.
So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?
First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:
They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.
Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:
- Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
- Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
- Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
- Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.
Are you up for an eye-opening project?
Here’s what I want you to do: Think about what’s really important to you in life, and then make a list of those priorities.
Next, take a few days to track how you actually spend your time. It’s important to get some real data here, not just your estimates on where you think your time goes. Try to be as accurate as you can. (If you like tech tools, try a time-tracking app.) Make sure that you’re noting how much time you spend on your key relationships: your husband, your family, your friends.
The third step is to compare your priorities list with the information from your time-tracking. Are they in alignment? What’s taking up more of your time than you expected? And what’s getting less attention?
Your results might surprise you — you spend that many hours on Facebook? — and inspire you to rethink how you use your time.
As you do, pay special attention to your relationships. Marriage, family and friends likely ranked high on your priorities list, but you might have discovered that you’re shortchanging them.
Giving more time to your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your life. That’s not just self-help happy talk! The impact of our relationships is shown by science.
Take a few minutes to watch this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, the latest leader of a 75-year study on what makes for a good life. Waldinger says in his talk:
What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Based on that study’s findings, when you devote time to strengthening your relationships, you can expect the payoff to be greater physical and mental health. The researchers in Waldinger’s study even successfully predicted how long subjects would live based on the quality of their relationships at age 50!
Your marriage is especially important:
It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.
Think about how you can best use the time available to you to nurture your relationships, especially your marriage. You may even want to continue tracking your time and noting how a greater focus on relationships affects your happiness. Even if you add just a few minutes of quality time with your husband each day, it can make a big difference.
We all fall prey to it sometimes: The feeling that we should do more, be more, have more. We all face pressure to be ‘living large.’
Maybe you succumb to it when your sister asks what you’re doing to help your teen get into a high-ranked college. Or when your friend shares pictures on Facebook of the dream vacation your family can’t quite afford. Maybe photos of beautiful decors on Pinterest have you looking at your own house with critical eyes, or an upcoming class reunion makes you wish you had more career successes to brag about.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those pursuits, of course. The problem comes when we start chasing such goals without even asking ourselves whether we truly want them and how much they will truly cost us.
How might the stress of trying to “go big” in every area of your life affect you? Could the high expectations that go with pursing all these goals possibly take a toll on your marriage?
‘I Am Not Enough. There Is Never Enough.’
What turns our expectations for ourselves from a source of motivation to a source of stress? Well, some common beliefs in the United States have something to do with that tendency.
In her book, The Trance of Scarcity: Stop Holding Your Breath and Start Living Your Life, coach and speaker Victoria Castle writes that most of us living in American culture have internalized the story: I am not enough. There is never enough.
If that story is something you feel at your core, nothing will be enough to fill that sense of lack. You’ll be constantly heaping new expectations on yourself.
Then there’s our culture’s belief that you can do anything you set your mind to. The simple truth we often ignore, though, is that everyone has physical, emotional and financial limits. Your energies and resources are not infinite.
Now throw in the push to compare ourselves with others thanks to the never-ending barrage of images on social media. “Why does it look so easy for everyone else?” we wonder. And then we push ourselves even harder.
Feelings of scarcity, a belief that we should be limitless, and constant comparisons with others are a perfect recipe for ongoing stress.
And as you already know, being stressed only makes a marriage harder. When both of you constantly feel pressured to keep up with outside standards, it really makes it harder to keep the focus where it needs to be — on each other.
Is It OK to ‘Live Small?’
You may think that the happiest marriages are between people who have somehow figured out how to do it all and have it all. Not true.
Instead, the most satisfied couples get clear on what’s important to them. They step away from external pressures that don’t fit the life they want to create. And they make their marriage a priority, even when taking time for their relationship means they have to let go of some of the things they’re supposed to do or have (but that ultimately aren’t as important to them).
These couples haven’t escaped from pressure and expectations. But they can better weather them because their relationship gives them a strong center. And they don’t necessarily have tiny, circumscribed lives. The difference is they respect their limits and get added support when they need it.
Think about the expectations you put on yourself and where they come from. Do they stem from your own desires, or do they feel more like what you have to do to be “good enough”? Do they leave you energized and fulfilled, or stressed and emptied? And how do they affect your marriage? Whether you live smaller or larger, make sure your life truly reflects your most important priorities, and remember these wise words:
“If you don’t make time to work on creating the life you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a LOT of time dealing with a life you don’t want.” -Kevin Ngo