- When Russ walks in the door, Carol looks up from her newspaper and says, “How was your day?”
- When Christine and Steven are walking down the grocery aisle he asks, “Aren’t we almost out of milk?”
- When Jay peers over Liz’s shoulder to see what she’s doing, she turns and gives him a quick kiss on the chin.
Each of these mini-scenarios represents a couple connecting in some small way. A wife acknowledges her husband’s entrance instead of keeping her eyes glued to the newspaper. A husband engages with his wife as they grocery shop instead of thinking about the football game.
Even in brief exchanges husband and wife are choosing to turn toward each other instead of away. John Gottman coined the phrase “turn towards each other” to describe this kind of behavior between couples.
Why is turning toward each other so vital? Because it helps love grow and prevents discord from penetrating the relationship. Gottman has studied hundreds of couples, and found that loving, romantic relationships are not maintained through vacation getaways and lavish gifts. Instead, happy couples keep their love alive through small, everyday acts. They talk, laugh together, and pay attention to the other. In small ways they turn toward each other.
Gottman: “Couples who turn towards each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married…. Turning toward is the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.”
Here are five ideas to help you practice turning toward each other.
I. Do everyday activities together. From the following list, choose three you wish your spouse would do with you. If you like, include items you already do together sometimes but you want to do more frequently.
[Caution: This exercise has potential to trigger conflict about who does what and who should be doing more. To prevent this, remember to focus on what you can do now in your marriage, and not on what has or has not happened in the past. Couples who keep the focus on now are communicating, “I love you so much I want more of you,” and not, “I’m upset with you because of your foul-ups, and I don’t want to be around you.”]
- Reunite at the end of the day and talk about how it went.
- Make up a grocery list and go shopping.
- Cook dinner or bake.
- Clean house.
- Shop for gifts or clothes (for self, kids, or friends).
- Go out without the kids for brunch or dinner.
- Read the morning paper together.
- Help with self-improvement plans, such as a new class, weight loss, exercise, a new career.
- Plan and host a dinner party.
- Call or think about each other during the workday.
- Stay overnight at a romantic hideaway.
- Eat breakfast together during the work week.
- Go to a church, mosque, or synagogue.
- Shovel the walk or do yard work, home repairs, or car maintenance.
- Volunteer in the community.
- Go on a picnic or drive.
- Spend everyday time with the kids – bedtime, baths, homework.
- Take the kids on outings (zoo, museum, dinner).
- Attend school functions like teacher conferences.
- Spend time with parents, in-laws, siblings.
- Entertain guests.
- Watch TV or videos.
- Order take out.
- Double-date with friends.
- Attend sporting events.
- Share a favorite activity, like bowling, bicycling, hiking, horseback riding, camping, canoeing, sailing, water-skiing, swimming.
- Talk or read together by an open fire.
- Listen to music.
- Go dancing or attend a concert, nightclub, jazz club, or theater.
- Host your child’s birthday party.
- Take your child to lessons.
- Attend your child’s sporting events or performance.
- Pay bills.
- Write letters or cards.
- Take kids to the doctor or dentist.
- Go to a community event.
- Go to a party.
- Drive to or from work together.
- Celebrate milestones in your children’s lives such as confirmation, graduation.
- Celebrate milestones in your lives such as a promotion, retirement.
- Play computer games, surf the Internet.
- Supervise your children’s play dates.
- Plan vacations.
- Plan your future together. Dream.
- Walk the dog.
- Read aloud out.
- Play a board game or a card game.
- Put on plays or skits.
- Do errands.
- Paint, sculpt, make music.
- Find time to talk without interruptions.
- Attend a funeral.
- Help other people.
- Hunt for a new house or apartment.
- Test-drive new cars.
- Other ____________________.
Next, share your top three choices with your spouse so you each know how best to turn toward each other.
II. Have a daily chat. At the end of each day, talk about how the day went. Gottman calls this a “stress-reducing conversation.” Couples who learn to manage outside stresses keep their marriages strong. Those who don’t, often let outside stresses spill over into their marriage and damage their relationship.
For your daily chats, pick a time when you’re both free from distractions. Spend at least twenty minutes. Don’t talk about conflicts or disagreements. Keep this time for talking about things outside your marriage. While you’re talking, keep in mind eight guidelines:
- Take turns. Give one another the chance to talk for ten or fifteen minutes uninterrupted, even if it’s all complaints (but not complaints about each other).
- Don’t give unsolicited advice. Don’t play mechanic and try to fix the problem. Simply listen to understand.
- Show genuine interest. While your spouse talks, stay focused on him or her. You can let him or her know you’re truly present by nodding, smiling, grimacing, asking for details, etc.
- Communicate your understanding. Let your partner know you understand. Show empathy with expressions such as, “Wow, it sounds like that was really painful.”
- Take your spouse’s side. Be supportive, even if his or her perspective seems unreasonable.
- Express a “we’re-a-team” attitude. Let your spouse know you’re in all situations and dilemmas together. He or she is not alone. Express solidarity.
- Express affection. Hold, touch, and embrace your mate. Tell him or her “I love you” often.
- Validate emotions. Respond to your partner in ways that confirm his or her feelings are important to you. For example, “I can see why you’re so upset.” “That would have annoyed me too.” “No wonder you’re sad.”
III. Start a daily tradition. Agree on a time every day when you and your spouse can enjoy doing something together. Try to make it a daily tradition. You could even do this together with your daily chat (see above).
For example, some couples like to talk in the morning before the kids get up or after dinner. You might want to read letters, read the newspaper, or watch the news together. If you enjoy exercising you could go on a daily walk. Even a short daily tradition will quickly become a special time you look forward to spending with your spouse.
IV. Emotional bank accounting. Gottman believes that couples who turn toward each other are putting “money” in their emotional bank accounts. That is, they are building up emotional goodwill – “savings” that will cushion their relationship should it fall on hard times.
To keep track of your emotional bank account, get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. Write “deposits” on one side and “withdrawals” on the other side.
Each time you do something kind or helpful – turn toward your spouse – write it down on the “deposits” side and give yourself a point. Enter things like, “Helped J clean the kitchen” or “Visited M during lunch break.”
Each time you do something negative, write it down on the withdrawal side and subtract a point. Be honest about this. Withdrawals might include: “Forgot to call before coming home late” or “Left dishes in the sink.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself when you forget to turn toward your spouse. Recognizing your withdrawals is an important step toward improving your marriage.
Also, don’t turn this exercise into a competition by measuring who has more deposits and who has more withdrawals. The point of this exercise is to help you see the positive things you’re already doing and realize further positive steps you could take to strengthen your marriage.
V. Learn to recognize when your spouse turns toward you. In one study where couples were observed in their homes, happily married couples noticed almost all the positive things their partners did for them. But unhappy couples underestimated each other’s good intentions more than half the time.
To teach yourself to notice your spouse’s positive efforts, try being the accountant for his or her emotional bank account. But only record deposits. That is, only record the times your spouse turned towards you. Leave off the negatives and focus on the positives.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Staying Connected with Each Other is adapted from the website Forever Families