A note from blog editor, Daniel Dashnaw:
Tim is an expert on external stress in marriage, he comes by this expertise honestly.
Tim’s wife, Dr. Marianne Cloeren, is a physician who is busy working to protect health care workers from COVID-19.
Her expertise involves personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers on the front lines. She develops programs to track exposure so her hospital can identify and control the risk of coronavirus transmission.
Tim was thinking about how critical stress-reducing conversations were for him and Marianne right now.
I asked him to share this essential couples therapy intervention in detail with you.
Managing External Stress and Coronavirus
Neil Jacobson was a psychology professor at the University of Washington who was known for his research on domestic violence, marital therapy, and depression.
Analyzing his own work with highly distressed couples, Jacobson discovered that the majority of his couples relapsed, but some couples who practiced something he called a “stress-reducing conversation” actually improved in their couples therapy.
These couples were able to make their relationship a sanctuary in times of external stress… a place to be accepted no matter what. They were ready to fight their external stress… and not each other.
A Valuable Intervention for External Stress
As Dr. John Gottman tells the story, Neil Jacobson didn’t care about these findings at first, because he had not been looking for them.
However, Gottman was impressed by Jacobson’s findings. He asked his friend and colleague if he could use this tool in his own couples’ research and clinical work.
Stress-Reducing Conversation and COVID-19
COVID-19 is a source of growing anxiety. There are many issues that couples are managing; sharing a workspace at home, child care, worry about loved ones, and uncertainty about the future. Couples can use the stress-reducing conversation to build resilience and buffer their relationship from external stress.
This tool is a highly effective way to reconnect on a daily basis intentionally.
How Does the Stress-Reducing Conversation Work?
This is about listening, understanding, and showing empathy.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman describe this as similar to a “Vulcan mind-meld” as Dr. Spock performed on Star Trek.
Here are the instructions for having a stress-reducing conversation:
- Set aside at least 20-minutes daily to discuss some of the current stressors. Remember to throw in a few positives, too.
For example, some couples notice more quality time with children than previously possible. As your balance is shifting in these uncertain times, the stress-reducing conversation will help you use your relationship to stabilize all that is happening.
- Take turns being a speaker and a listener.
- When you are the speaker, share the details of your external stress, but don’t forget to share something positive. It’s your time to feel heard and understood. Express what you are thinking and feeling. Externalize what is on your mind and in your heart. It’s the sharing that dissipates your worry and concern. External stress is managed better when you can talk about it.
- When you are the listener, which often is the harder part, remember that the goal is to offer emotional support and connection…not to solve the problem.
External Stress is Soothed by Emotional Support and Connection
- So, what does support mean here? Avoid problem-solving or taking on the problem as if it is yours. This can sometimes be hard to do. But it’s the listener’s curiosity that helps the speaker feel heard. When you really understand your partner, and they understand you, your relationship is a sanctuary from life’s problems.
- It is not the absence of problems; it’s how you manage them. Your relationship can be the safety net.
- Remember, when you are the listener, there is no such thing as an “overreaction” by the speaker. Resist judging your partner’s emotions or experience. They have their own thoughts and feelings.
- Your acceptance and understanding help your partner’s emotions become more manageable.
Now for some of the nuts and bolts to the stress-reducing conversation…
- Give support by showing genuine interest. Look at your partner, and express empathy. Ask questions, and show that you want to understand by asking about their feelings. Make this us against the world conversation. Being affectionate and supportive. This provides solidarity in a time of need.
Shared Emotions and External Stress
- Share emotions by asking good questions, and deepen the conversation. These are profoundly uncertain times. Show your understanding. Imagine what your partner is feeling and respond with excitement, sadness, concern,…whatever they may be feeling.
- This is time to empathize with your partner’s external stress, and a time to emotionally connect. Most of all, “understanding must precede advice.” Give suggestions if asked for, and only then.
- Ask questions that deepen the conversation. Here are some questions that you may find helpful. Many Gottman therapists help couples reduce external stress with this intervention. Try these questions with your partner:
- What is most upsetting to you about this?
- Can you tell me what you don’t like about this situation?
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
- Can you tell me what this like for you?
- Is there anything I can do to support you in this?
- What do you need?
A Familiar Tool for the External Stress of COVID-19
The stress-reducing conversation is an essential tool for couples to reduce external stress.
This intervention has been carefully researched, and they help couples insulate their relationship from external stress and stay connected on a daily basis.
Neil Jacobson may have discovered the benefit of the stress-reducing conversation by accident.
But Dr. John Gottman took his friend and colleague’s discovery and refined them into the stress-reducing conversation to help couples buffer their relationship against external stressful times.
If ever there was an external stressor, COVID-19 is one!
So how do I really know it works? Personally, I use it with my wife to manage external stress all the time. In fact, I asked her to edit this piece, and she even said, “I notice you use this with me, and I appreciate it.” Nothing like getting something right with your spouse!
Try it, and don’t worry about getting it right. That is what connection is — it is the getting it wrong and coming back.