An 8-part blog series, helping parent couples reconnect.
A note on the Reconnecting Parent Couples Series: These eight posts present perspectives and advice from respected colleagues and experts from across the world. I’ll also weave in my personal and professional discoveries and introduce you to aspects of my evolving theory: Connectfulness.
You and your partner get caught in a cycle of connection and disconnection. You know this cycle of “Withdrawal and Repair” all too well. (Though you may not call it that yet. Stay with me.)
It’s been three and half weeks since you had sex. Or three months. Or maybe you don't even remember the last time. How did that happen?
You’re barely talking to your partner over dinner because you disagreed about...oh gosh, what was that fight about? Nevermind, the point is that you didn’t feel heard and understood. You didn't feel like you mattered.
You clashed over your parenting styles and now you are wondering how you could have ever thought raising a family together was a good idea in the first place.
We all like to think that we can avoid the mess of disconnection in relationships. But we can’t. The simple truth is that relationships are messy and disconnects happen.
You know this about relationships - after all, you watched your own parents (or caregivers) go through all of their own ups and downs. They did their best, but perhaps they fell short on modeling healthy fights and disconnects for you. But if they couldn’t show you how to do the partnership dance in a healthy way, who was going to teach you this stuff?
Now that you’re a parent, you are more keenly aware of your struggle to ride these ups and downs, and you want to handle it all in a more graceful way. You know those little humans you are raising together are watching you and taking note...
All relationships go through cycles of connection and disconnection
Relationships don’t stagnate (that would be another kind of awful, but not the one we are talking about today). Relationships have an ebb and flow, moving through periods of connection and disconnection. In order to stay connected, you have to embrace these cycles.
As you and your partner seek a deeper, more sustainable connection, you must also allow often necessary and powerful times of disconnect - even when that’s horribly uncomfortable to do.
And you need to hold space for the discomfort in a mindful way. Otherwise, it will take hold of you and, with it, your relationship.
It can be painful to sustain the energy it takes to stay attuned and connected to your best friend and lover - particularly when your own tank is on empty.
Keep in mind, pain is information. When it hurts to stay attuned to your partner’s needs, it’s likely a sign that it’s ok to let go - at least for a little while.
You need to disconnect sometimes — make room for this healthy habit
Your need to connect co-exists with your need for separateness. These needs are inextricably linked.
To stay healthy, you need space to disconnect from all the distractions - even the people you love. You need this time to tune into you.
In the previous installment of this series, Intimacy begins with you, we talked about how sharing mutual growth offers tremendous opportunities for healing. We also explored how the greatest lessons are often concealed in a relationship’s pressure points.
(If you haven’t already read part 3, go do that now and then come back here, because it’s going to be nearly impossible to start to learn how to make these repairs and reconnect if you haven’t started with yourself.)
The not-so-secret secret about fighting with your sweetie
First, you have to be open to creating and holding space for that disconnects that inevitably going to happen. Then, you start to tune into when and how to initiate a reconnect. Relationship therapists call these reconnects “repairs.”
You and your loved one will start to see that there’s no conflict in noticing when either of you need space.
There's conflict when you don't notice.
Crazy thought, right?
Sometimes we need to fight.
Yes. Really. Sometimes conflict is exactly what you and your beloved need to refocus your attention on one another’s needs.
Say it out loud. Sometimes I'll say, "Howdy Stranger," when I realize my partner and I have been disconnected. This is a playful way of letting him know that I realize it and want it to be different.
I also let couples' know that fighting can be a really juicy way of reconnecting.
With disconnection we can get lost in the vacuum of our own thoughts and create resentments about our partners. Often, “turning toward” happens when that resentment has reached a limit and someone initiates a fight. If you see this as a positive development you can take it from there and start again from a place of more connection. Dr. Jessica Michaelson
If there is one thing you take away from reading this today, let this be it: happy couples fight. They just do a better job of it than unhappy couples. And a big part of that “better” lies in their repair skills.
You may need to fight, but only because you need the repairs that follow
When you both acknowledge and take responsibility for the disconnect you can also make a mindful effort to repair it.
You need to use your “relationship repair skills” when you’re not being mindful of taking your space for yourself. Or life gets in the way. Or the kids get sick. Or when one of you takes needed space and the other feels abandoned and resentful.
And, it’s in this repair process that we grow.
Repairs are messy and hard, but in the grand scheme of the relationship they teach us more about how we handle conflict and how we connect with each other - and they're necessary for moving forward! Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, Parent Coach
It’s in these moments when we reach out - beyond our autopilot reactions and responses - that real, relational healing happens.
It’s in the moments that come after the ick and the pain. And after the pause and regrouping.
This is the gold.
And even when you come to embrace disconnects as necessary and hone your repair skills, there will be moments when disconnects just don’t feel good. This is your humanness is shining through - and that’s going to happen, and that’s going to be ok.
So, what does repair look like?
Repair looks like taking responsibility - even if just for a small nugget of something that triggered your partner. In this repair conversation, you share what you need and feel.
If you can be honest and gentle in your communication with your partner, it can help get to the heart of the message that you want to communicate: you really miss your sweetie and you want to connect again.
Being gentle is key, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a hurtful or nasty exchange. If talking about it causes you to be flooded with emotions, consider writing it down and share it with them. It also may be helpful to see a couples therapist.Dr. Lily Zehner MFT-C
A repair conversation isn’t about pointing your finger and telling your partner what you need them to do differently. It’s about taking personal responsibility for creating a safer relationship by keeping the focus on what you have influence over: you. And you also take responsibility for soothing yourself.
Self soothing is essential. It can also be simple. Consider taking a moment to pause. A deep inhale and cleansing exhale. Repeat if necessary. The benefits are profound.Dr. Lily Zehner MFT-C
When you shift your focus away from feeling disconnected and instead look at how you can reconnect and repair, it makes you feel safer - even in moments of disconnect. It makes being together, even in conflict, more tolerable.
Feeling safe with your partner gives you the freedom to say "I'm sorry, I messed up"' with the confidence that they will accept you and your apology. Dr. Agnes Wainman, Registered Psychologist
And while apologizing is a key repair tool, it’s not the only one. The ability to step into your vulnerability is essential too.
From a place of vulnerability, for example, you’re able to share the awareness that the relationship is bigger than one particular conflict.
One of the most powerful moments in a relationship is when you can stop mid-argument, take a deep breath, (possibly eyes filled with tears) and just say 'What are we doing? We're on the same team. I love you. This hurts, this sucks and I don't want either of us to feel like this. Can we try this again?' Because it takes more love for your relationship (and less love for your ego) to do this. And that facilitates repairs tremendously. Robyn D'Angelo, LMFT, The Happy Couple Expert
The good news! Sixty-Nine Percent (69%) of the time, all our your relationship conflicts are going to be perpetually unresolvable.
They say that 78% of all statistics are made up on the spot, but this one is real - it comes out of decades of research by The Gottman Institute.
Seriously, when almost ¾ of all your your conflicts are unresolvable you need to shift the focus.
When you focus on disconnects, you live in a world of complaints, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Gottman’s research shows us that, over time, those habits kill relationships.
In order to really trust the stability of your relationship, you will need to be able to tolerate at least occasional disconnects from one another. It's in these disconnects that you’ll often find an opportunity to listen to yourself --tune in to your needs and feelings, soothe yourself-- and then come back together.
Relationship magic - and lasting repairs - happen when you embrace vulnerability
Relationships require constant work. Mindfulness. Attunement. The hardest part about living in relationship is managing the fear that comes with being intimately vulnerable with another human.
Managing to stay in this space - in spite of the anxieties you and your partner both bring to your relationship - ultimately leads to compassionate love.
When we hide our hurt or sadness from our partner, we create a barrier between us. It takes a great deal of courage to reach out and share our deeper self with them, but when we do, we deepen the bond between us – and in seeking their comfort, invite them to do the same. Elly Taylor, Author of Becoming Us: 8 Steps to Grow a Family that Thrives
In order to really connect, you need to slow down
True connection depends on the quiet, intimate relationship magic that happens when nothing in particular is happening - except being together.
But in our “do it all/ there’s never enough” world it’s hard to slow down to make room for such moments. Making time to connect isn’t necessarily “productive” and it can be challenging.
There’s an app for everything, but there’s no tech solution that will strengthen intimate connections. The single best way to really connect is simple.
Just be together.
We're mammals, after all, and wired to connect, sync up with each other, and sleep in puppy piles.
When we're somatically aware, or tracking the subtle sensations of our bodies, we're more aware of the shifting tides of our emotions. Ours and our partners. We're more able to feel where our emotional blocks to connection are and to push past them in the most simple and heartfelt ways.
Firm supportive touch is one such way. Just laying a hand on your partner’s shoulder, or brushing their hair aside and creating a couple culture that allows for physical holding without the expectation of sexual contact (which is great when you're both there, but can feel like pressure and obligation when things are momentarily difficult).
Simple firm touch is something we're wired for as mammals. It both calms and heals our nervous systems and communicates connectivity without the need for words.
Simple, consistent, intentional touching keeps those important bonding hormones flowing and can form the backbone of moving forward together in a more and more connected manner. Victoria Wallace Schlicht, LMFT, SEP
Want to feel more connected to your partner? Develop a ritual of connection
As you start to tune in to your feelings and needs more often, you will also begin to notice when you need to consciously come together again.
It only takes a small gesture to start a ripple of connection. The problem most couples have: when one person attempts a reconnect, the partner may not notice.
It’s common for you or your partner to miss a “we need to connect” moment simply because you didn’t realize the other desired some extra support and attention. Now and then, it’s understandable, but when “little moments” repeatedly get missed, negative sentiment builds up.
You or your partner may wonder how the person you entrust with your deepest vulnerabilities can be so unavailable or unresponsive. Over time, one or both of you may begin to feel angry, panicked, and alone. This is not the space that healthy relationships live in.
The Gottmans talk a lot about this in their work. They calls these moments “bids for attention” and they reminds couples that not all bids are spoken or obvious. And missed bids are most often missed out of mindlessness (not malice).
A “ritual of connection” is just a shared moment
Remember those little moments we discussed in part 2? These are the things couples fight about most. That is to say, nothing in particular, just missed opportunities to connect are the heart of most arguments. That’s why making a mindful effort to connect is so powerful.
So, with that in mind, and in the spirit of connecting and being mindful of catching one another’s “bids,” I encourage you to pick something that feels good for both of you.
It could be something that you do when you’re walking by each other, like touching each other on the shoulder. It could be pinching each other on the behind. It could be ruffling each other’s hair. It could be what my husband and I like to do - a six-second kiss. It could be a deep hug until you relax or a simple firm touch.
Get creative. Yes, it may feel forced at first, that’s ok. The point is to make this a regular practice that can become a safe, playful and meaningful way to tune back into one another in the midst of your disconnects.
Release the need to stay in connection at every moment. Understand that you can manage the anxiety that arises when you fall out of connection. Practice the art of reestablishing your connection.
Trust that you can find your way back.
>> PART 5 | WHAT IS PLAY? <<
I'd love for you to share your ritual of connection (or what you might try to make into one) with me via email or post in the comments below.