It is not difficult to extend the lessons I have learned in my virtual sessions to each couple in their own home. My advice is to start by not speaking – literally learning to “mute” yourself. Pausing to actively listen is not our instinct; We hasten to tell our side of the story. But when you make space for silence, you listen more. This reduces assumptions about your partner and promotes greater empathy and deeper intimacy.
Heather Genovese, a psychoanalyst in private practice, describes listening as “essential in making space for the feelings of others. It makes your partner feel important.” However, she warns that “active listening is never about finding solutions. Being distracted by behaviors such as checking a text, losing eye contact, and interrupting cuts off communication and ultimately leads to disconnection.”
The second lesson I learned from Zoom is that it is crucial to temporarily withdraw from an escalating conflict. When things get tough, the best solution is often not to jump into the ring to assert yourself, but to retreat to the respective corners. Because my Zoom couples often beam from different locations, it becomes relatively easy for one of them to end a session. In real life, fighting often takes precedence over flight, but it shouldn’t. Taking time out from an argument, going for a walk, or getting a drink from the kitchen can de-escalate and defuse conflict. In other words, come back to the conflict later, when heads have cooled. This is harder than it seems. Who doesn’t want to solve a problem the moment it occurs? But living to fight another day is crucial to resolving any kind of conflict.
The third lesson we can derive from Zoom is counterintuitive. It should “take up space”. But that doesn’t mean simply abandoning or pausing the conflict if it escalates. It literally means changing the physical space between the two of you. If one or both of you don’t feel understood anymore, change the conversation by changing your posture. This can mean going to different rooms and continuing to speak virtually instead of in person, switching from voice to text or vice versa, going to different parts of the house to speak on the phone, or texting each other voice notes. If something doesn’t work, don’t dig in. What this can do is reset your nervous system by allowing you to catch your breath. Releasing even a tiny bit of tension can revert the autonomic nervous system from an over-activated sympathetic state to a more balanced parasympathetic state.
Jocelyn Charnas, who treats couples in Manhattan and specializes in premarital therapy, wasn’t surprised that a simple change of position could produce such dramatic results. “All couples have bad relationship cycles, and there’s rarely room to breathe between the components of those cycles. Any way we can create space between the components can bring about insight, compassion and empathy. It’s digging that we’re trying to get away from.”
“When I need you most, I’ll retire,” one wife wrote to her husband, abruptly shifting the conversation after they left their fighting position on the couch to write in different rooms. Just as the couples, who zoomed in from different rooms, suddenly found less blockage, the shift from voice to text allowed them to break out of the destructive cycle of hurt and withdrawal in which they were enmeshed.
“What?!?” he wrote back. “You keep telling me all the mistakes I’ve made, how much I let you down.”
“I know,” she said, “but because I feel so vulnerable, I have to push you away.”
Technology has helped my patients slow down, take better care of each other, and feel less powerless when they’re afraid. The instinct to protect yourself, especially when you feel you’ve been treated unfairly, is human. It will always be easier to stay in the Chinese finger trap of “being right”. However, what I have seen is that my patients who are fighting these urges make a deeper connection. “The ability to be vulnerable and open and to take the risk of sharing your true self,” Genovese emphasizes, “requires tremendous inner strength.”
It’s also the safest way to stay connected.