Couples Communication Hygiene For Stressful Times
By Christina Cowger, MA, MFT

Currently we are all living very different daily lives with Covid-19 and for couples this stress can start to take a toll. Maybe the first few weeks of shelter-in-place you were a team and had an in-this-together perspective. But now, as the stress wears on, the differences between you can begin to feel more pronounced. In this “danger-sensing” mode, we are primed to defend ourselves – even within our closest partnerships.

Real or perceived threats produce stress and activate a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. Maybe your partner is not taking the threat as seriously as you, or maybe you manage your daily routine differently or maybe you differ on how household tasks are accomplished. These differences, under the “microscope” of being around each other more can begin to affect the relationship. Practicing a few simple techniques can help to keep communication “clean” during this stressful time.

Below are four simple tools that you can begin to apply that can shift a perceived threat response into something more positive, collaborative and current:

1) Calm yourself before introducing your thought/topic. This means getting clear on your own goals. It could mean taking time for some deep breaths, self-talk, journaling, etc. This technique keeps your brain in its executive function mode vs. reactive mode.
2) Stay in the present versus the past. Eliminate words like always and never.
3) Use “headlines”. Headlines are neutral, collaborative, present tense and solution focused conversation starters. Headlines offer an opportunity to calm down those automatic internal reactions when we sense something negative is about to be directed at us. This helps to neutralize the environment both internally and externally. When the use of positive signals increases, defenses decrease! Headlines create communication “road maps” that can help a couple feel more open and collaborative.
Here are two simple examples:
Example #1
Common Conversation Starter:
“The house is constantly a mess and I need to get more help.”
Constructive Headline:
“Do you have time to brainstorm a cleaning schedule for the house?”
(Present focused, collaborative)
Example #2
Common Conversation Starter:
“I feel like we never go out anymore…”
Constructive Headline:
“I have a new goal of getting out once a month and would like to talk about some ideas for how to do that.”
(Present focused, collaborative)
4) Discuss a problem NOT the person as problem. Name the issue not the partner as the issue.
Communication can develop, over time, into patterns that create emotional distress. With the use of simple tools, new opportunities can emerge that can help to create positive shifts in a relationship.

Remember you are in this together!

Copr. 2015, Christina Cowger. All rights reserved.