Good love can do wonders for stressed humans. We don’t sing songs about antidepressants or psychotherapy, but we do sing about love, almost exclusively.
Ironically of course, there’s also almost nothing more stressful than keeping good love going, and when it really goes wrong, that’s pretty much the definition of stress.
Once it starts going south, how do you get a close relationship back on track? What works best, and when? Because in love, as in comedy and war, timing is everything.
My training as a perinatal psychiatrist has shown me a lot about love, stress and timing.
In over a decade of early parenting centre and psychotherapy work I have seen countless parents and families caught in vicious cycles of stress and exhaustion as the ways people cope with stress take their toll on close relationships, worsening their stress, and so on.
I’ve found it helpful to think of 4 key points in these vicious cycles that end up in front of me, and arrange them as the 4 points on a clock face, like this:
(forgive the post-it note, it’s all I have had time for so far!)
The 4 points on the face of this Connection Clock are set out with connection up at 12, cues at 3, responses at 6 and resources at 9, because they have a flow-on effect in that clockwise direction.
Let’s go through it: If you’re feeling connected to your partner or child, you read their cues better, and are likely to choose responses that improve your resources.
Conversely if you’re feeling disconnected, you misread cues or don’t read them at all, and your responses are more likely to deplete what little resources you have left. Sound familiar?
Stressed parents and their kids have come to my clinic in a downward spiral with this clockwise direction to it, and so I aim to push that spiral up from below, by helping them work on all 4 of those key points: connection, cues, responses and resources.
It’s like turning a freight train around, taking the downward momentum out of the spiral, it’s incredibly slow hard work at first, but once the momentum is going in the right upward direction then that train can really go where we all want it to go, to a household that’s got enough love, care, fun, meaning and sleep.
So how do we do this? What do we do, and when?
With this Connection Clock model, you can intervene to help parents and kids at any of the 4 points. But let’s start at the top, with connection, because it goes to purpose. People can endure all sorts of difficulty if it means something, and kids usually mean the world to their adults.
Parents say they’d do anything for their kids, and we can usually talk about values there, the deepest sense in your heart of hearts, about what’s right to do, who and how you want to be in your life.
Even very stressed adults can agree they want a safe home and commit to that. If they don’t feel safe, they need to ask for help, connecting rather than disconnecting.
Between adults trying to co-parent, whether they are in an intimate pairing or not, there can be a commitment to building connection and trust so they can notice the cues in their household or households and read those cues thoughtfully.
Parenting support workers teach this sort of cue-reading as core business. It’s all about reading your child’s individual tired signs and working out where on their feed-play-sleep cycle they are.
But we adults were all kids once, and we do a version of feed-play-sleep too! Of course we also have to read more complex cues in one another, which tell us how much closeness or space a person we care about needs from us.
This is the heart of attachment theory – navigating the space between us in terms of distance from your safe person.
We are group animals, relying for survival on the quality of our close relationships; they essentially form the emotional environment we live in.
Sometimes we need space from our significant others, in which to explore our world, but at other times we need our safe person right there to protect, nurture and soothe us.
Timing is the key here, knowing what we need when.
Reading the cues in our environment in a timely way is key to surviving, and that environment is both external like a twig snapping in the underbrush, and internal, like your partner’s joke about your appearance going down like a lead balloon. If only they had read your cues and seen your tired signs! They would have responded better.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: what do we do to help? Parenting support workers teach responses to the cues of babies and small children that help settle them, be that needing food, the stimulation of play, or soothing towards sleep.
Again there’s an adult version of this. You can make your partner their favourite microwave packet meal or toasted carb load, tell them to go get some “me time” at the gym or on the couch, or stroke their hair until they conk out.
If you are separated parents, there is still a relationship by virtue of your shared interest in raising the human/s you made. You might not be romantically close anymore, but you can still turn that Connection Clock in good ways with caring responses based on reading the other parent’s cues.
For example, you can drop a requested takeaway meal off on their doorstep, make sure you turn up on time to take over care of the kids so they can go to work or to a movie with a friend, or be sure not to ring them in the middle of their nap… or drunk-text them at 2am.
You can also do this for yourself, reading your own cues. Eat well when hungry rather than comfort eating junk, choose activities that mean something to you if they are difficult, or come at a low price if they’re fun – the party has to be worth the hangover.
Choose your battles and the timing of your efforts, and you will build your resources.
Resources can be external, like shelter, money, food, belongings and so on. But the best external resources are really about building internal resources like purpose, energy, concentration, motivation, all the things you need to feel healthy.
If you’ve got a home and can buy meals and equipment, you’re more likely to feel well. The key link between internal and external resources though, is interpersonal resources, like mutual enjoyment, shared purpose, goodwill and trust.
If you get those things going on, of course you’re going to connect better, read each other’s cues better, respond better and on it goes.
Sounds simple, and I’m wary of this because I know that we are complex creatures, and simple ideas alone are rarely all that’s needed. So can you turn a stressed relationship around on your own? What will it take? Do you need help?
Professional help is an interpersonal resource, and it can fill the gap in that 9 o’clock resource position on the connection clock, and help push a downward spiral back upwards.
Partners in close relationships who are struggling to connect may need counselling to make a safe enough space to talk through their issues with a trusted professional present, be that joint sessions or individually.
But there are things people can do for themselves that build their resources, alongside or while waiting for professional help.
A lot of it is common sense – diet, exercise, chipping away steadily at household or workplace tasks, all the simple, obvious, boring stuff your mum and dad keep telling you to do!
I think though that we do live in a bit of a crazy culture now, in which our expectations of ourselves and our lives lead us down some unhelpful rabbit holes that are usually in the background when a family presents for help.
Amid colliding priorities of work and home, relationships can really suffer, and there just isn’t a supportive culture of caring for parents’ intimate relationships as we do for our cars, for example.
If people could feel ok about caring for their relationship the way you see them lining up to wash their cars on a weekend morning, or take the courtesy bus from the car servicing centre, as most people are willing to do… there’d be fewer breakdowns.
An example of the regular maintenance work you can do on your relationship is PACT, a model I developed for parents but which can help any close relationship I think. The post I wrote about it is The Parenting PACT That Puts A Roof Over A Child’s Heart
It’s just one example of deliberate action that feeds into the Connection Clock. But the strength of this model is that you get 4 points to choose from, according to where you and your loved one are up to in your day.
Sometimes you can just connect, just be together, and that’s all you need to do. Sometimes you are apart, building resources like personal health, money or goodwill with your other support people. But much of the time we spend together involves reading one another’s cues to work out how to respond.
I hope this model helps not just with how to do this, but crucially why: because positive cycles are the same machinery as vicious cycles, just pushed the other way. The Connection Clock could not only help you work out how and when to apply your limited energy in each day to your relationship, it could also assure you that it’s worth it, even if the results aren’t immediately apparent.
Of course it’s worth it – we only get so stressed about love because it’s the most important factor in human survival.
So what time is it now for you and your loved one? However you spend it, together or apart, if love is involved I think it’s never a waste of time.