This might come as a surprise to you, but the life of a marriage and family therapist just might not be as exciting some other professions. Sorry if I’m bursting any bubbles out there but rock stars, F1 drivers, hockey players, and Navy fighter pilots might have professions that are just a little bit more exciting than mine.
Being married to a licensed marriage and family therapist, which I am, certainly does have its benefits. The first thing that comes into mind is the empathy that I receive from my wife Yvonne. It’s a safe bet that Yvonne has at the very least a little more empathy for me than I would get from my spouse if I were married to an Army sniper or a drill sergeant. She is also pretty good at communicating, which comes in handy in our marriage. And with both of us being “therapy nerds” makes it a bit easier to decide on which movies we watch-especially if it has a great story about someone’s life and triumph over personal struggle. And she will watch In Treatment with me.
As a therapist who specializes in working with children, much of what Yvonne is learning is that often times when kids act out what they are really looking for is for their parents to attune with them. To connect. To connect with their present emotions, thoughts and feelings. Married couples look to their spouses for attunement as well.
Which makes “tuning in to our spouses” the third ingredient for a great marriage.
Couples that tune in to each other tend to have longer-lasting, happier marriages.
Instances when happy couples tune in to each other is not limited to when couple’s pay attention to each other during the big moments of life, or even the week. It happens during the mundane, brief exchanges that happen throughout the day, every day, when one spouse makes an “offer for connection”.
Dr. John Gottman calls this turning toward each other. He says that couples who engage in turning toward build trust each time they respond to their spouse’s offer for connection.
Fortunately, the work of tuning in to our spouses isn’t exactly rocket science. When a husband notes that the forecast is for rain and his wife responds “Good thing we didn’t wash the car” she has effectively tuned in to her husband’s offer for connection. Tuning in can be as simple as a glance or a smile.
In marriage, couples are constantly making offers for connection with their spouse’s seeking support, humor, and affection.
A six-year study of couples showed that happy couples tend to tune in to their spouse’s offers for connection 86 percent of the time. That same study showed that couples who eventually divorced tuned in to their spouse’s an average of only 33 percent of the time. These seemingly small attempts for connection add up, and when couples tune in to each other they increase trust and positive emotion toward one another. This can go a long way toward reconciling both everyday conflict and more significant marital troubles.
We can start the process of tuning in to our spouses by paying particular attention to two situations that often interfere with our attempts for connection.
- Missing offers for connection because it may be clouded by emotion. One example of this is when Sandy blurted out to her husband David “It would be nice if you helped me clean up after the kids once in a while”. David became defensive pointing out that he put the kids bikes in the garage last week. David would have done better to tune in to her request for help and responded with something like “You need help? OK, how can I help?” David would have changed the dance. They both went to bed angry. Odds are that the bedroom situation might have turned out a bit more positive if David had tuned in to his wife’s offer for connection.
- Our challenge with preoccupation from the Internet. Yes, the Internet is great. Without the Internet I would not have overpacked for our trip to Yosemite last week. But there are challenges that come along with living in a wired world. More and more couples are reporting that connection with countless numbers of “friends” is taking a toll on intimate connectedness with those closest to us.
Tuning in to our spouses offers for connection can go a long way toward building connection, growing trust, and reconciling disconnection during tough times.