Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com!
Q: My wife and I have been married for three years, and we’re both very career-oriented. She’s in medicine and I’m in finance, and we’re both passionate about what we do. We’ve always worked on different schedules (I usually stay at work until late, and she typically works overnight shifts and sometimes weekends) –– but recently, it’s started to take a toll on our relationship. We’re almost never home at the same time anymore, and the time apart has become stressful for both of us. How do we make time for one another when our schedules literally don’t allow for it?
A: Your career-oriented approach to life is likely reaping handsome rewards in your financial bank accounts, while simultaneously causing you to experience deficits in your relationship’s emotional bank account. This is a joint account into which you must both contribute — by being dependably present and attentive to each other — and there are ways to do that even when you can’t be in the same place at the same time.
The Gottman Institute, through its extensive 45+ years of observational research with over 3000 couples, has identified that a key component of lasting love involves maximizing the power of small moments together. These small regularly-recurring moments, when you know you can count on being together, are called rituals of connection. You don’t need many of them to build a happy life together, but if you experience too few of them, you will start to feel stress and pain in your relationship.
Much like a bank account in the world of finance, in which you need savings to deal with inevitable and yet unexpected emergencies and unforeseen expenses, relationships require regular deposits, too. Partners need steady experiences of turning toward each other in order to build up a sense of well-being together that results in a positive perspective about your relationship — and that fosters security that each of you is loving and trustworthy.
Because you two have such different schedules, you lack opportunities to spontaneously catch each other during the day. Instead, you will need to be intentional about creating these moments. I suggest that you start reconnecting by “overcommunicating” with each other via text, email, and phone calls. Staying in touch in the smallest of ways (a quick text or an “I love you” that is met with a loving response) takes almost no time, and can pay huge dividends.
One ritual I recommend you begin immediately is to schedule a daily check-in with each other, during which you share one stressor or worry that is affecting you each individually (this would not be a time to process relationship stress between the two of you). You can practice supportive listening by taking turns as speaker and listener. When it is your turn to listen, try asking questions like these to explore your partner’s feelings more fully: “What is most upsetting to you about this?” “What is your worst-case scenario about what could happen here?” “What is this like for you? Can you share an image or a story that describes what you are going through?” Offering supportive questions like these actually feels supportive to your partner, as opposed to trying to solve your partner’s problem or offering unsolicited advice. You don’t have to have this conversation in person; FaceTime or a phone call will do, but this is one 15-minute ritual you could create easily to experience a sense of “us vs. the problems” instead of feeling alone in whatever you are each dealing with.
Remember the adage “small things often” — little moments of togetherness are so much more valuable than “big things occasionally.”
Read more “Asking for a Friend” columns here.