It is not difficult to extend the lessons I’ve learned in my virtual sessions to every couple in their own homes. My advice is to start by not talking—literally learn to “mute” yourself. Pausing to actively listen is not our instinct; we rush to tell our side of the story. But when you create space for silence, you listen more. That reduces assumptions about your partner and encourages greater empathy and deeper intimacy.
Heather Genovese, a psychoanalyst in private practice, describes listening as “critical to making space for another’s feelings. It makes your partner feel that they matter.” She cautions, though, that “active listening is never about finding solutions.” Being distracted by behaviors like checking a text, losing eye contact, and interrupting shuts down communication and ultimately leads to disconnection.”
The second lesson I derived from Zoom is that removing yourself temporarily from an escalating conflict is critical. When things get tough, the best solution is often not to jump into the ring to duke it out, but to retreat to your respective corners. Because my Zoom couples are often beaming in from different locations, it becomes a relatively simple matter for one of them to end a session. In real life, fight often takes precedence over flight, but it shouldn’t. Taking time out from a fight, 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 in the moment it occurs? But living to fight another day is critical to resolving any kind of conflict.
The third lesson we can derive from Zoom is not intuitive. It’s to “take space.” But that doesn’t mean just leaving or pausing the conflict when it escalates. It means literally changing the physical space between the two of you. When one or both of you stop feeling understood, transform the conversation by changing physical positions. That might mean going to different rooms and continuing to speak virtually rather than in person, changing to text from voice or vice versa, going to different parts of the house to speak by phone, or sending each other voice memos. When something isn’t working, don’t dig in. What this can do is reset your nervous system by allowing you to catch your breath. Releasing even a little bit of tension can return the autonomic nervous system from an overactivated sympathetic state to a more balanced parasympathetic state.
Jocelyn Charnas, who sees couples in Manhattan and specializes in premarital therapy, was not surprised that simply changing positions could elicit such dramatic results. “All couples have bad relational cycles, and there is rarely any breathing room between the components of those cycles. Any way we can provide space between the components can breed insight, compassion, and empathy. It’s the digging in that we are trying to move away from.”
“It’s when I need you most that I withdraw,” one wife texted her husband, abruptly shifting the conversation after they had moved from their battle positions on the couch to texting in different rooms. Just as the couples Zooming in from different spaces were suddenly less deadlocked, moving from voice to text allowed them to exit the destructive cycle of hurt and withdrawal in which they’d become ensnared.
“What?!?” he texted back. “You always just tell me all the mistakes I’ve made, how badly I disappointed you.”
“I know,” she said, “but it’s because I feel so vulnerable, I have to push you away.”
Technology has helped my patients slow down, pay better attention to each other, and feel less powerless when they are scared. The instinct to protect yourself, especially when you feel wronged, is human. It will always be easier to stay in the Chinese finger-trap of being “right.” What I’ve seen, though, is that my patients who battle these urges connect more profoundly. “The ability to be vulnerable and open and risk sharing your true self,” Genovese stresses, “requires tremendous internal strength.”
It is also the surest way to lasting connection.