Have you ever seen people so happy to have spring arrive?
It feels like a new world as we throw open the windows and begin to make our way out of a tough winter spent hibernating — literally. While this change of season typically inspires many of us to spring clean our homes, this year it may not just be our houses that need a little dusting off. Relationships that have existed in a time of duress over the last year are in need of a little TLC.
With couples spending more time under the same roof than most ever had before, pandemic life actually prompted some to seek out therapy for the first time, said Jonathan Shippey, a licensed marriage and family therapist and Master Certified Gottman Therapist. A lot of that was the result of so much togetherness, he said. Whereas before couples could live parallel lives and — thanks to distractions and being busy — avoid dealing with challenges, now there was no choice.
As we start to venture back out, “the knee jerk reaction may be, ‘Oh my God, get me out of this house and I'm going to the woods for 30 days,’” said Shippey, but that may be an over-correction.
This time of transition and renewal can be a good time to give our relationships a little extra attention and dust off the cobwebs. Shippey provided research-backed suggestions on how to do it:
“People think they need some grand gesture,” Shippey said, “‘now we can get away, let’s go!’” But a vacation splurge isn’t a solution if "you don't know how to talk to each other in the little moments,” he said. Gottman’s research shows that “if people could just make small changes in their moment-to-moment interactions with each other, they could really transform the trajectory of their love.” Don't undervalue the value of those smaller gestures, he said.
Think: before saying goodbye for the day, make it a point to learn one thing happening in your partner’s day. And when you come back together, spend at least six seconds on a hug and kiss. “The six-second kiss is worth coming home to,” according to the workbook from the Gottman Institute’s workshop, "The Art and Science of Love."
Find optimal togetherness: the ‘magic six hours’
The amount of time it takes to help a relationship thrive is not nearly as much as you might expect, said Shippey. You need about six hours a week to do the work needed on a relationship; that’s the “magic six hours,” according to Gottman’s research. “If you do the math on that, if you thought of your wakeful hours in a week as a dollar, you only need a nickel’s worth of that time to have effective relationships,” he said. That’s less than an hour a day, and it can happen in several-minute to an hour or two increments.
Think: Find some way every day to communicate genuine affection and appreciation toward your spouse. Genuinely say, “I love you." Five minutes of this a day totals more than half an hour a week.
Gottman’s research shows that “couples that have lasting, happy love have developed what we call a shared meaning system,” said Shippey. “They're weaving their lives together to create shared meaning and a kind of a sense of a common destiny. You have to create a relationship where you're pursuing each other's dreams and supporting each other's dreams.”
And you can’t do that if you don’t know what those dreams are. It may feel a bit awkward if you’re not used to this, but "embrace the hokiness," Shippey said, and ask each other real questions. A free app from Gottman provides conversation starters, or you can go with a few of Shippey’s favorites:
- What are your hopes and dreams for the next five years? Many of us may have had things change in the last year, whether that’s a career shift or stepping away from our fitness routine. If your partner has decided to go to graduate school or re-focus on health, “that's going to have an impact on our marriage and family so let's put that out there,” Shippey said.
- Are there any places you'd like to travel or are there any adventures you'd like to have? “This relates to creating shared meaning," Shippey said. “If you want to go to California, but I thought we were going to go to Vermont for vacation, that's probably a good thing for us to have a chat about so we can adjust and compromise.” And how you travel may look different now too; my husband and I are planning a trip to Europe this fall (if all works out!) where we’ll spend time together in a couple of countries, then split off to have our own independent adventures. It feels needed after all this time together to have our own individual experiences to share with one another; also, we do need space in the togetherness, Shippey said.
Have a weekly date
Here’s to the return of date night! Spend two hours each week doing something relaxing together. This is a good time to ask each other some of those open-ended questions. Get dressed up. Admire each other. Even if you’re not ready to return to restaurants or other public places, nicer weather is ideal for picnics.
Hold a state of the union
Once a week, spend an hour — and keep this time sacred — focusing on the relationship. Start by talking about what went right, and share five specific appreciations with each other. Then discuss any issues that have come up. Wrap up the hour by asking each other, “What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?"