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

Coronavirus-induced isolation means many couples are adjusting to spending a lot more time together. Psychologists Julie and John Gottman share what's helped their patients de-escalate tension.
Jenny Meilihove
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Coronavirus-induced isolation means many couples are adjusting to spending a lot more time together. Psychologists Julie and John Gottman share what's helped their patients de-escalate tension.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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