Life transitions are like tides that can overwhelm even the strongest of marriages. The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, a change in a job or financial situation, a move, an injury or illness — these are all external forces that test a relationship.
We’ve had to navigate our own sea of change in the past six months. Constantino went from working at a large company to working from home for a small non-profit, while David left a career in fiction writing to work a more traditional 9-to-5 job at a small tech company.
This sudden shift has left our relationship feeling unmoored, and it has taken work and intentionality to stay afloat.
David’s new tech job has an intense training program that leaves him drained at the end of the day. When he gets home from work, he doesn’t want to talk or connect. He just wants time to unplug.
Constantino’s non-profit job has a lot of operational challenges, so at the end of the day, he wants to share his problems with David and talk them through.
You can see where this is going.
How do we stay connected when our minds are preoccupied by our own stresses?
We’ve had to be intentional about meeting each other’s needs and creating space for affection and intimacy. These have been some of our best practices.
Schedule couple time
When transitions disrupt our schedules and routines, the first thing to go is usually couple time, which may seem more expendable than work or errands or household chores.
To counteract this, we intentionally schedule a date night every Monday in which we leave the house. This may sound like a no-brainer, but for many couples — including us — it’s easier said than done. We’ve had to literally force ourselves out of our apartment by lending our living room to friends from church who needed a meeting space for a weekly prayer group.
Scheduling couple time outside of your normal routine is an opportunity to connect with each other. If you’re not used to scheduling time together, consider trying it at least during the season of your transition.
Use that time for whatever makes the best connection between you two: dinner out, sex, another activity you both enjoy, or something that helps both of your relax. Even mundane activities done together, such as errands or the gym, can be opportunities to connect when time is tight.
Take turns giving and receiving love
It was difficult to remain present for the other person because we both went through stressful career changes at the same time.
Constantino became so wrapped up with his own challenges at work that he neglected to provide the encouragement and support that David needed when he started his new position.
A couple weeks in, Constantino realized this and made an effort to be more present when David wanted to share about the emotional difficulty of returning to a full-time office job. Constantino even began writing David little notes of encouragement and sticking them in David’s work bag.
Partners react to the stress of transition in different ways. For us, it has been important to take turns tending to each other’s needs. For example, Constantino will make dinner when David gets home from work while David unwinds with a book and a glass of wine.
David then makes time after dinner to ask about Constantino’s day and engage while Constantino talks about the challenges he has been facing at work. Consider taking turns tending to each other and receiving love so that you both can fill your Emotional Bank Account.
We’ve made a habit of kissing each other goodbye in the morning and greeting each other with a kiss when we see each other after the work day. It’s a simple habit, but it also serves as a quick dose of intimacy when we don’t have time for much else.
We also have some silly rituals. David, who rides a bike to work, rings his bell when he gets home every day. Constantino looks out the window and waves when he hears the bell. Another ritual we have is to write messages to each other on the bathroom mirror with a dry-erase marker. They’re not always love notes — some days we just play Hangman with each other.
These are rituals that help to keep us connected, especially during times when we are consumed by outside stresses. Small efforts can yield significant rewards.
We’ve both been more irritable during this season of transition. We snap at each other more often than usual, or say things we wish we hadn’t. It’s important to acknowledge that a season of stress can put us on edge and make us act out of anger, frustration, or fatigue.
By naming this season for what it is, it’s easier to forgive your spouse when they say something hurtful or act out of character. We’ve had to employ an unspoken “rewind rule,” allowing us to apologize and take back something that has spilled out of our mouths against our better judgment.
And when it does happen, choosing to offer grace is a way to de-escalate conflict before it begins. A willingness to forgive quickly is a repair attempt that helps to avoid the petty conflicts that might further distance us from each other during stressful times.
Both of our jobs are starting to settle down, and we’re looking forward to getting back into the normal rhythm of life. Because we’ve been intentional about caring for each other during this period of stress, we both feel buoyed by each other’s love despite the tides of transition.
The Marriage Minute is a new email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up below.