“How Can We Stay in Touch?”

This important question reflects a concern about relationship connection. Spouses or couples who raise the question understand that the loss of connection invites trouble for their relationships. One man described his concern with the words, “My wife and I are hanging on together by a thread!” Perhaps you’ve felt a similar sense of anxiety about your relationship. The question about “staying in touch” encourages us to examine the concept of relationship connection and to explore specific tools that can increase and maintain connection.
The issue of relationship connection reminds me of the importance of bridges. Pretend for a few moments that you’re taking a journey somewhere. You’re on the highway, driving toward your destination, making good time and enjoying your trip.  Then, being the observant driver you are, you notice in the distance ahead a large blinking emergency road sign.  As you approach the sign you see the information you had hoped you would not see:  “Bridge Out—Detour.” 
The sign “Bridge Out” certainly conveys significant information to us.  Historically, bridges have always been important to people.  When intact, bridges are usually taken for granted; when “out,” the same bridge is both missed and mourned, especially if the detour involves a twenty mile trip!  Whether they are built over waters or wetlands, gullies or gorges, chasms or canyons, bridges play a vital role in connecting people.  Bridges have been essential for effective travel, commerce, and even war-time activities.
For our purposes regarding growing healthy relationships a bridge is a useful metaphor for “connection” and “disconnection” between people.  If we want connection with people, we build a bridge (“Let’s get together.”).  Conversely, if we want disconnection, we “burn the bridge,” as if to say “Let’s get apart!”  To build or to burn as a decision depends upon our goal—to connect or disconnect.  There are times when we may need to disconnect, to end the relationship, so we choose to “burn the bridge.”  On the other hand there certainly are times when we want to connect to insure that the relationship will endure, so we choose to build the bridge. The bridge brings connection; connection enables us to stay in touch.

In exploring the issue of connection we need to consider three realities related to our struggles with disconnection.  First, there are two key feelings we may experience:  “I’ve never felt connected to anyone” and “I’ve had connections but now I feel disconnected.”  In both situations the feelings are similar, perhaps being experienced as loneliness (“I feel very isolated and incredibly lonely.”).  Secondly, the feelings described above are probably related to two key concerns we may express:  “How much time do I actually spend with people?” and “How strong are my relationship ties with other people?”  Thirdly, these concerns relate to two key results we may expect:  “Inadequate time together results in relationship suffering” and “Inactive ties together result in relationship severance.” 
Too many of us have made mistakes that evolve into a state of relationship disconnection. To illustrate, allow me to share a limerick I composed recently about a typical couple struggling with this problem. (The couple’s name is obviously not the real name.)
                                      "The Married Singles"
                         There once was a couple named Kringle
                         Who failed in their goal to commingle;
                              By neglecting so much
                              They did not stay in touch
                        And now have the name “married single.”

                                                                 (Dr. Bill Baker – 2012)

Years ago I asked a fellow about his marital status and his reply puzzled me at first. He responded, “I’m a married single.” My curiosity prompted me to ask for an explanation. He said, “Oh, we live together in the same house and we’re civil to each other. But we just go our own separate ways. Basically, we’re two singles living together.” Unfortunately, too many married couples would have to respond in a similar fashion, at least if they were being totally honest. Such couples are “connected” not by their personal relationship but by other ties, such as marriage licenses, children, or mortgages and bills. Disconnection invites a “married single” lifestyle that is inherently disappointing and deeply painful. People do not begin a marriage expecting to wind up as “married singles.” 
As humans we often make mistakes regarding these issues of connection and disconnection.  Our mistakes usually lead to relationship messes and, ultimately, a lot of misery.  This reality brings us to an important and even critical question:  “How can we develop and maintain meaningful and sufficient connection within our relationship?” The best answer lies in an important principle about relationship connection that I define as“Sharing Life Together”:  “Both people in the relationship develop mutual connection through spending adequate time together during which they share meaningful life experiences together.”

This relationship principle involves two important efforts which could be thought of as relationship bridges. First, the two people must spend adequate time together. Secondly, while spending time together they must share meaningful life experiences together. Let’s explore each of these efforts a little further.
                                                                           Spending Time Together

The first effort (or bridge) toward relationship connection is “spending time together.” In the early phase of the relationship most couples somehow manage to spend a great deal of time together. However, the amount of time together tends to dwindle as the years come and go, particularly as other activities and extra responsibilities emerge on the scene. Since adequate time is crucial to the health of the relationship, let’s look at four steps we can take to promote the achievement of good time management.
Making the Connection . . .

First, if we’re going to spend adequate time together we must start by making the connection.  Understandably, people who desire healthy relationships wonder “How do I start?” Every human relationship, whatever the degree of healthiness, began in some way. Something “started the ball rolling.”  For electrical appliances to work effectively they must be plugged into a “live” receptacle.  We understand the necessity of “plugging it in” or “hooking it up.”  In short, a connection must be made.  Similarly, in beginning a relationship we must somehow say “hello” so we can start building the connection.
Matching for Cohesion . . .

Secondly, we must match for cohesion.  The question worth exploring is “What’s the glue?”  What is it which would help us to “stick together” long enough to develop a strong, healthy relationship?  Any two people must match up sufficiently if any kind of meaningful relationship is to grow. Essentially, there are two efforts we need to make:  (1) acquiring mutual interests—finding common ground, and (2) attaining mutual inclusion—sharing activities together.  As we discover our common interests and share them with each other, hopefully we match up well and, as a result, cohesion (“relationship glue”) is produced. Through positive cohesion the relationship begins to grow.

Over the years I’ve encouraged couples to get serious about their involvement in mutual activities designed to build connection. I’ve even provided a worksheet for them to use in their efforts to identify shared activities. A spouse begins by brainstorming and developing a list of activities he predicts will be enjoyable and productive for both spouses. Once the list is complete, he assigns a number to each activity to indicate the level of predicted benefit, resulting in a low, moderate, or high level of couple connection. If the second spouse also completes a worksheet, the two of them can discuss their individual ideas and predictions. This effort usually results in a number of activities they have “in common” and that they both would find enjoyable and productive for their relationship. Then they select specific activities from the list that they predict would be positive couple activities for them to implement. The final step is the development of a plan of action for a selected activity, and a specific time is placed on the couple’s calendar for that activity. This action leads us into the next step.  (By the way, to view this worksheet in a PDF format, you can click on the link provided at the end of this article.)
Managing the Calendar . . . 

Thirdly, we must manage the calendar.  Here the key question is “Where’s the time?” Relationships require time, and time is often in short supply in our busy, hectic schedules.  Many of us wish for relationships and have good intentions for making the effort, yet we fail to dedicate the time in our calendars necessary for relationship growth.   Our calendar will not manage itself; we must become very assertive in prioritizing our time.  How much time do we want to devote to our relationship growth?  How can we block out and protect that time from other distractions and demands? We must learn to safeguard the time on our calendar that we’ve committed to relationship growth, even if we have to say “No, thank you” to a lot of other positive activities. We must learn to say without hesitation and guilt, “I checked our family calendar and that time is already committed to something.” We are not obligated to describe the activity that is already on our calendar, and there’s no need to justify or explain why that time is not available. We have a prior commitment—period! Protecting our priorities is a responsibility we must own and fulfill in order to safeguard and strengthen our relationship connection.

Effective time management involves two important efforts:  (1) availing growth opportunities—that is, “using them as they come,” and (2) arranging growth occasions—that is, “making them happen.”  We look for growth times as they occur spontaneously. We learn to seize the moments, and we use them effectively to take additional steps in building connections within our relationships.  Also, we become assertive in creating periods of time for shared activities, and we follow through and practice the art of “making it happen.”
Moving toward Completion . . .

Fourthly, we need to move toward completion.  The time spent together needs to be purposeful and directional. The key question involved in this effort is “What’s the goal?”  Where are we heading in this relationship and what’s the best way to get there?  The issue of destination relates to the basic purpose that each person has for his individual life. Every relationship effort needs to help each individual move toward the fulfillment of his/her purpose.  Hopefully, both spouses have talked at length about their individual life purposes and they are supportive of each other’s purpose.  Additionally, the couple’s joint goals must be remembered and monitored so that the time together will move them toward those goals. In every relationship the two individuals need to work at two things: (1) accepting a joint partnership—“being on the same team,” and (2) accomplishing a joint purpose—“moving toward the same goal.” 
These four steps are very important in our first effort toward relationship connection in that they promote spending time together. Long-term success at spending time together will not happen accidentally or automatically. Deliberate and regular attention is required to insure that the two people in the relationship will be able to spend adequate time together.

                                                                         Sharing Life Together

The second effort (or bridge) toward relationship connection is “sharing life together.” While the first effort is necessary it is true that spending time together will not automatically result in the sharing of meaningful life experiences. For example, I’ve talked with spouses who reported an extended road trip in which they were in the same car together for many hours—but without any meaningful communication or connection development. One woman lamented, “How can two people travel in the same car for ten hours and never speak to each other?” Many couples actually spend a great deal of time together, but the interaction is shallow or superficial. There is too little depth or intimacy in their interaction. Somehow the two people must put forth the effort to share together the experiences and events in life that will enrich and deepen their basic relationship. Through my experiences as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve seen at least six categories through which couples share life together. Let’s look briefly at these six categories which represent “bridges of connection” between the two spouses.

(1) Working together to achieve goals . . .

Both people in the relationship will work hard to fulfill the goals they establish for themselves. These goals must be inherently right and positive if the basic relationship is to be healthy. This partnership in goal fulfillment involves a number of important skills, including effective skills for communication (self-disclosing and listening) and for conflict resolution. As both joint and individual goals are achieved through consistent teamwork, the couple’s relationship is strengthened by the increased connection.
(2) Witnessing together the big events in life . . .

Many events will occur during the life of a relationship, some of which will be viewed as “big events” by one or both relationship partners. The “big events” list could include such things as certain medical checkups or procedures, the birth of a child, special events in the children’s lives, graduations, weddings, funerals, spiritual activities—just to name a few. When we choose to be absent from any occasion considered by the other spouse as a “big event,” we miss an opportunity for increased connection, and, worse yet, we take a major step toward relationship disconnection. Positive connection occurs when both people are able to experience together life’s “big events” when they happen.
(3) Weeping together in times of grief . . .

Every couple will experience losses of various types and proportions, each of which involves some level of personal grief. Loss needs to be faced together by the spouses as they serve as a mutual support system. Spouses who grieve together tend to be more connected than are couples in which the grief is not shared. Unfortunately, some individuals are unwilling (or unable) to share the grief being experienced by the other spouse, and, as a result, a meaningful opportunity for relationship connection is missed.  A failure to share grief together poses a major threat to every relationship, particularly when that loss involves the death of a child or another significant family member or friend.
(4) Withstanding together to deter threats . . .

Hardships occur during every couple’s travels along the Relationship Highway. External threats may come in the form of criticisms or accusations from other people. Some spouses choose to respond to these threats by fighting each other, thereby harming their own relationship. Wise spouses who are committed to connection will join hands and as a team withstand the threat as a united front. This experience of “fighting enemies together” to protect and safeguard the relationship will usually increase the level of connection within the marriage.
(5) Watching together in times of crisis . . .

Sometimes a crisis will occur that impacts the family in some significant way, but the two spouses cannot do anything to fix or solve the problem. All they can do is to wait and watch while certain events are unfolding or developing. This practice of “watching together” helps to build patience within each individual, and, when the watching is done together, additional connection is achieved.
(6) Withdrawing together for rest . . .

Life can get hard and people can get weary. There are occasions when the couple needs to get away from a situation for the specific purpose of resting. The ability to rest together is an important component to a healthy relationship. Sometimes a much-needed vacation can allow for relaxation and refreshment which, when shared together by both spouses, will add connection to the marriage.
All of these categories can promote connection through the sharing of life together. You can probably think of other categories of activity through which positive connection can be strengthened within a relationship. As life is shared together an important bridge is constructed and maintained that serves to keep the two people connected and in touch with each other.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

What would your personal response be to the question, “How important is mutual connection in a relationship?”  Hopefully you’d respond, “Connection is vital!”  Without connection a relationship cannot and will not grow into a healthy relationship.  Connection requires the construction of two important bridges:  spending positive time together and sharing meaningful life experiences together.  As these bridges become stronger and stronger the relationship gets better and better. We inspect our relationship bridges often. We repair them as needed. We maintain them conscientiously.  These two bridges enable us to safeguard and develop our relationship. They provide the connection that is vitally necessary for growing healthy relationships. Through healthy connection we maintain the practice of “staying in touch.”

I wish you well as you examine the current level of connection in your relationship and as you make efforts to improve your bridge-building activities. I hope that you’ll be able to achieve reconnection if through negligence or negative behavior you’ve somehow lost the connection you once had within your relationship. You may have to extend some apologies and make some restitution to start the reconnection process, followed by a lot of hard work in bridge construction as you spend time together and share life together.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.
Resource:  Dr. Baker has developed a worksheet that couples can use to identify, assess, and consider activities that can build couple connection. The worksheet can be printed for your usage. If you would like to view that worksheet (PDF format), please click on the link given below.
VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Relationships:  Staying Connected" please click on the image to the right or click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog please click on the Play button below.)


                 (Blog HR #112)



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