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Isolating With A Partner? Relationship Therapists Share Stress-Reduction Strategies

Apr 21, 2020
Originally published on April 21, 2020 8:14 am

Many Americans are spending a lot more time with their partners these days.

And some of those relationships are being tested by the inevitable "pressure-cooker" moments that come with weeks of being confined to the home in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

"What we're seeing is that there's a clash between the terrible anxiety about catching the virus and having to stay sequestered 24/7," says relationship therapist Julie Gottman.

So if a relationship is already on the rocks that anxiety, Gottman says, "has nowhere to go but towards the partner."

She and her husband, John Gottman, who is also a relationship therapist, are continuing to see patients, virtually, during their time of self-isolation.

In an interview with Morning Edition host David Greene, they offer research-driven techniques to help foster successful relationships during a particularly stressful time.

On the "stress-reducing conversation"

Julie: What we found in our research is that couples, when they are trying to deal with stress, such as this virus, will often try to solve a problem rather than listening to each other's emotions.

So, what we advise is for one person to be the speaker, the other the listener — and for that listener simply to ask questions to deepen their understanding and then to just simply offer empathy. And empathy simply means naming that person's feelings and saying, "It makes sense to me that you're really feeling that." It really helps reduce the stress.

John: Ask questions like: What is your worst-case scenario, here? What are you really terrified about? What do you ruminate about, what kinds of thoughts come to your mind when you're just relaxing? What's your default program that goes into your mind? Let me know what you're thinking.

To be really like a tourist in the landscape of your partner's mind and heart. And just listen and try to understand. That can have an enormous impact.

Research shows that that's one of the things that keeps relationships and sustains relationships — is being your partner's ally during times of stress.

On knowing when to take a break from discussion

Julie: We start bickering, little disagreements, the tone gets a little negative. And it's at those times when it's really good to stop ... take a break to calm down. Don't think about the discussion you're having, get out of visual range and audio range of your partner, and do something self-soothing that calms you down, that gets you out of fight or flight.

And then return to your partner at a designated time you've already agreed to, and continue discussion. Especially if you've done some good self-soothing, it'll feel like you've had a brain transplant and it's a brand-new conversation.

John: That physiological part of conversations is a very, very important thing. Because when people's heart rate exceeds 100 beats a minute, they just can't listen very well. They feel like they're physically in danger. And so don't feel like you have to solve the problem immediately. Taking a break is a really great idea.

NPR's Ziad Buchh and Catherine Whelan produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Listen to the full interview with Julie and John Gottman on Morning Edition.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some Americans are more than a month now into social distancing and hunkering down at home. If you're living with your partner, that means you may be seeing a lot more of each other. And for some, tensions and frustrations are inevitable given the circumstances we're currently facing. Julie and John Gottman are psychologists and therapists who specialize in relationships. They also happen to be married. They are both seeing patients virtually. And the Gottmans say, if you are struggling to handle this pressure-cooker moment with your partner, you're definitely not alone.

JULIE GOTTMAN: What we're seeing is that there's a clash between the terrible anxiety about catching the virus and having to stay sequestered 24/7, which means that anxiety has no place to go but towards the partner. Then what happens is there can be an explosion when they have a difference of opinion, whereas there's no place to escape now. It makes it very tough to negotiate how to solve problems that are very substantial these days.

What we found in our research is that couples, when they are trying to deal with stress, will often try to solve a problem rather than listening to each other's emotions. So what we advise is for one person to be the speaker, the other the listener and for that listener, simply, to ask questions to deepen their understanding.

JOHN GOTTMAN: Exactly, to be, really, like a tourist in the landscape of your partner's mind and heart. And just listen. And try to understand. That can have an enormous impact. And research shows that that's one of the things that keeps relationships and sustains relationships is being your partners ally during times of stress.

GREENE: I guess one thing we all have realized in relationships and in times of quarantine, we're spending - many of us are - much more physical time in close quarters, cohabitating with our partner. How does that play into the kind of therapy you're talking about? Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Do you need to find ways to create your own space sometimes?

JULIE GOTTMAN: You know, I think there's a big spectrum, David, in how comfortable people are being in close quarters together. What can happen is those little bickerings (ph) begin - right? - little disagreements. The tone gets a little negative. And it's at those times when it's really good to stop. Take a break. If you're having a conversation with your partner, take a break to calm down.

Don't think about the discussion you're having. Get out of visual range and audio range of your partner. And do something self-soothing that calms you down, that gets you out of fight or flight. And then return to your partner at a designated time you've already agreed to and continue the discussion, especially if you've done some good self-soothing. It'll feel like you've had a brain transplant. And it's a brand-new conversation.

JOHN GOTTMAN: Right. That physiological part of conversations is a very, very important thing because, you know, when people's heart rate exceeds 100 beats a minute, they just can't listen very well. They feel like they're physically in danger. And so don't feel like you have to solve the problem immediately. Taking a break is a really great idea.

GREENE: So it sounds like it's really - it takes a balance. I mean, it's relying on your partner to feel less alone, but also finding those moments of space when you need it.

JULIE GOTTMAN: That's exactly right.

GREENE: We had some listeners writing in. And some seemed really interested in whether or not to make big life decisions when we're all going through a crisis like this. And I just - I - first I think about what advice you might have for couples who were maybe already in a difficult moment and thinking about breaking up but not having made that final decision. Like, what would you do if you were them now that we're in this crisis?

JULIE GOTTMAN: Well, David, if the decision they're trying to make is whether or not to break up, this is a terrible time to be (laughter) making that decision. There's too much external pressure. The circumstances that the couple is finding themselves in is negative in all kinds of ways. They're lacking, sometimes, financial stability. They're lacking support from their friends except virtually. Everything is different. They can't go exercise. They can't get social connection. They can't even go to work and be with their colleagues. It's very hard to make the right decision under the conditions of being inside a pressure cooker. Wait until life resumes, life becomes normal.

GREENE: Well, could I just ask you about the pressure-cooker rule as it's applied to a different decision, like getting married. What if a couple was really getting closer to making that big decision coming into this crisis? I mean, is it something you go forward with? And you say, wow, you know, our marriage is a product of this crazy time together. Or is - should you kind of put things on hold, as you said, because there's so many external forces?

JULIE GOTTMAN: Well, that's the kind of decision, I think, that takes a lot of conversation. And fortunately, most people have the time (laughter) to have those conversations.

GREENE: Yeah.

JULIE GOTTMAN: So they can have some wonderful talks that can lead them towards making a decision about that, things like, what would help you to trust me more? What does commitment mean to you? What did commitment look like in your own family growing up? And how would you want it to be between us?

JOHN GOTTMAN: Anchoring yourself in the future is a really healthy thing to do, projecting what the future can be once we return to normality.

GREENE: Well, let me finish by asking the two of you about your marriage in the time of quarantine. How is it going?

JULIE GOTTMAN: (Laughter).

GREENE: Have there been any bumps in the road? Anything you can share personally that might help all of us?

JULIE GOTTMAN: I think - for me, personally, at least - we're having time to have deeper conversations that are what we began with 33 years ago.

JOHN GOTTMAN: It's a time when we can set aside blocks of time to listen to each other and dream and think about things like, where do we want to travel? What adventures do we want to have right now? And how do we become more playful? We decided we're going to learn tai chi together.

GREENE: Nice.

JOHN GOTTMAN: So we have a set of videos. And we're going to both try to master tai chi.

(LAUGHTER)

JULIE GOTTMAN: At our ripe old ages.

JOHN GOTTMAN: (Laughter) Right.

GREENE: Well, best of luck with the tai chi. And Dr. Julie and Dr. John, thank you so, so much for all the advice and for talking to us.

JULIE GOTTMAN: David, thank you for the opportunity. It was a real pleasure.

JOHN GOTTMAN: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAFT SPELLS' "DWINDLE")

GREENE: Julie and John Gottman are relationship therapists who co-founded the Gottman Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAFT SPELLS' "DWINDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.