Many couples fall out of sync. Without warning, life events disrupt the rhythm that helped them stay in harmony. Pride, strong emotions, marital and work-related stress, and different communication styles often make it difficult to reconnect.
Meet Ryan and Alyssa, a married couple struggling with connection.
Ryan’s success in his job was such an event. He zeroed in on the opportunity to achieve a shared dream, but as he did so, he and Alyssa drifted apart. Ryan dreaded going home after 11 years of marriage. He and his wife, Alyssa, struggled with how to connect with each other without igniting a conflict. Alyssa felt dissatisfied. Ryan didn’t understand why. They described their dilemma to their marriage counselor.
The Communication Breakdown
Ryan explained that he works long hours—until eight most evenings, and two or three weekends a month. He’s ambitious, driven, and skilled in his work, which has paid off financially. He and Alyssa were able to move their family from an apartment to a new home only five years after they married. They’re putting money away to invest in a vacation condo in Hawaii.
“Alyssa supported me in the beginning. We both dreamed of being where we are now,” Ryan said. “We’ve been working on the next dream. But, now she’s not happy. I don’t get it.”
Alyssa described what it’s like when Ryan arrives home each evening. “Hi, honey,” he says. “Hi,” she replies, and their conversation doesn’t go much further than that. She complained to their counselor, “He doesn’t connect with me or the kids in a meaningful way.”
Alyssa used to ask Ryan how his day went. Not anymore. He just says, “Fine.” If she asks for more detail, he gets angry and says things like, “Why do you ask? You don’t really care.” Then they argue. Ryan admits he used to say more, but from his perspective, Alyssa doesn’t appreciate his hard work. When he brought home the top sales consultant bonus for the second year in a row, Alyssa cried.
Alyssa said what Ryan knew; her tears were tears of frustration, not joy. “You really need to cut back and spend more time with your family,” she’d said. “You work too much. You don’t spend enough time with our boys. I can’t be both their mother and father.” Alyssa felt overwhelmed handling it on her own, especially because their boys were having difficulty in school. Ryan has been colder to her since then. She misses the closeness and fun she used to have with him.
Caught in a Whirlwind
Ryan seemed clueless because he wasn’t paying attention to his wife’s bids for connection. Alyssa tried to tell Ryan what she needed, but she often delivered her appeals to Ryan to change his behavior with criticism. Ryan defended himself, and he didn’t listen to the request for connection that lay beneath Alyssa’s criticism. He didn’t see that she wanted to express her needs and wanted him to understand.
Alyssa and Ryan stepped into a trap of criticism and defensiveness, which derailed their attempts to connect. Criticism and defensiveness are two of what Dr. John Gottman calls The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. When a couple fails to break free of this trap, it may not be long before the other two horsemen—contempt and stonewalling—enter the fight and put their relationship down for the count.
Highlighting past behaviors only invites more criticism and defensiveness, so their counselor encouraged Ryan and Alyssa to clean the slate and start over. He coached them to take turns expressing their needs and responding to each other. He guided them through the following steps. At the same time, he urged them to keep their focus on the present and to avoid bringing up the past. Most couples can follow these same steps to begin to restore a broken connection.
1. Tell each other what you want rather than what you don’t want
When spouses can clearly state what they need from their partner without blame or criticism, and especially by using “I” statements, they help their partner see where they can focus their efforts to reconnect successfully.
Alyssa began stating her needs to Ryan. “I need you to be home at least two nights a week to connect more with me and the kids. I feel overwhelmed with the problems our boys are having at school. It would ease my stress if you and I could talk about their problems,” she said. “I need to talk to them together about situations that are coming up. And I want us to do more fun things, too, as a couple and as a family.”
2. Respond to each other’s statements of need with open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are curiosity’s most powerful tool. These questions typically begin with words like “what,” “why,” or “how,” and are framed to avoid a “yes” or “no” answer. They provide stories for answers, which helps couples to understand each other’s needs more deeply.
To Alyssa’s needs, Ryan responded with an open-ended question. “If I cut my hours and we can’t make that vacation condo happen, how are you going to feel?”
Alyssa said, “I need you more than I need a vacation condo. I want me and the kids to be connected with you more than I want your paycheck or anything we can buy with that.”
Ryan gained a deeper understanding of what Alyssa needs to be happy. Some of her dreams and needs seem to have changed, but he didn’t know that until they had this conversation. He agreed to arrange his hours at work so he can spend more time with Alyssa and the boys. He also agreed to partner with her on helping with the boys’ school problems. And, he promised to plan some dates for just the two of them.
3. Express appreciation and gratitude to the spouse who’s listening
Words of appreciation and gratitude say, “You matter to me, and I value you.” They express commitment to the relationship, and they cultivate trust that helps bond people together.
Once Ryan responded to Alyssa’s needs and compromised so that they can reconnect and support each other, Alyssa expressed appreciation and gratitude. “You don’t know how happy that makes me hear that,” Alyssa said. “Thank you for listening and understanding.”
A Two-Way Street
For couples to connect, communication needs to flow in both directions. Ryan took his turn expressing his needs in a different way. “I need to hear you say you’re grateful for what I do for our family. You and I both came from families that always struggled to make ends meet. I want you and the kids to have everything you need and more.”
By listening, Alyssa understood that part of what drives Ryan to work so hard is that he wants to provide for his family. “What if I told you I’m grateful every day for what you do? What if I said that at least a few times a week? And what if I said you’ve more than met our material needs? How might that change things for you?”
“That would mean a lot to hear it from you more often,” Ryan said. “You want more of my time. I get that now. That’s what’s been making you unhappy. I thought it was something else, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I understand now. It’s been good for us to listen to each other like this. Thank you. I don’t remember the last time we talked like this.”
When disconnected couples repair their connection, they can enjoy being with each other. Ryan no longer dreads going home. He and Alyssa are learning to communicate better. They now know the secret to getting back into sync; to tell each other what they want instead of what they don’t want, to ask open-ended questions, to form a compromise, and to thank each other for listening.
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