At the end of every initial couples therapy session I ask the couple to tell me what they hope to achieve by coming to counseling. The number one response is to improve communication. They have become ships passing in the night, no longer talking to one another.

Prior to leaving my office we must coordinate a time for the three of us to meet again.  The simple act of scheduling an appointment becomes telling of the pecking order in their relationship. The order is typically 1) work schedules, 2) children’s activities, 3) activities with friend’s or extended family members, 4) personal obligations like salon appointments or cross-fit, and finally 5) their relationship.

What does putting your relationship last on the list communicate to your partner?

When couples tell me they have a problem communicating, I am quite sure they are referring to conversation.  But the definition of communication according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone else”.

It is true that happy couples talk more, but they also communicate caring, interest, respect and appreciation in myriad other ways throughout the week. How do they do it?

Drs. John and Julie Gottman followed up with couples who attended their Art & Science of Love Weekend Workshop. They found that successful couples reported devoting, on average, five hours per week to one another. Skills learned in the workshop taught them that little things can make a big difference. 1013774_10151678208280865_196800198_n

We all have competing obligations, but devoting five out of 168 hours is manageable for all couples once they make the health of their relationship a priority.

Here’s what happy couples do in those five hours:

1. Have a daily goodbye/parting ritual. Spend a few minutes talking about what each of you has going on that day. Being curious about what your partner has planned expresses interest in them.

2. Have a daily coming home/reunion ritual. Spend 10 minutes each communicating high and low points of the day.  Be supportive of the stressors your partner experienced and communicate warmth and understanding.

3.  Express fondness and admiration. Call, text, leave notes, or say it face-to-face, but find a few minutes each day to express what you like about your partner or what they are doing right.

4.  Be physically affectionate. Hold hands, snuggle on the couch or give a back rub. Be sure to kiss hello, goodbye, good night and good morning.  Physical affection conveys tenderness and caring.

5.  Have a weekly date.  Find time each week to devote a few hours to each other. Ask open ended questions and explore your partner’s thoughts and feelings on everything from where they want to go on vacation to what their biggest fears are.  Even if you can’t afford a sitter or expensive restaurant, sit out on the patio after the kids are in bed and devote time to one another. Dates are meant to be fun and relaxing and a way to re-connect.

6.  Process a fight or regrettable incident.  Even if it has been a rough week, don’t store up your anger and resentments by shutting down and turning away from your partner.  Process the deeper meaning of conflicts and you will be surprised by how much you learn about your partner and how you can feel more connected in the process.

The bottom line is, if you feel like you and your partner are not communicating well, expand your definition of communication and find five hours in your weekly schedule to devote to one another.

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist