Lonely Together

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Do you find yourself struggling in your intimate relationship now that you’re spending a lot of time together? One surprising experience people have reported is that the extra time together leaves them feeling more lonely, not less! How could that be?

Imagine this. You’re in the living room next to your partner, watching television while they read news on their phone. After scrolling through several screens on the phone, your partner tosses their phone down with a loud sigh. As you look over, they pick up their phone, and you return to your show. A few minutes later, your partner gets up and makes several trips to and from the room, footsteps louder than usual. Finally, they turn to you and say, “Why are you watching that show anyway? Reality TV is so inane. It’s all made-up.” How would you respond in this moment?

How we respond depends on how we understand our partner’s behavior. What if I interpret it as an unjustified attack or put-down of my tastes? I could react defensively, “I’ve been working all day and I just need something mindless to de-stress. I don’t have to be doing something deeply meaningful in every moment!” I might respond with anger, “You’re always so critical! Can’t you just give me a break! I didn’t ask you to stay here and watch it with me!” Or, if I guessed that my partner’s behavior and words might be signifying what psychologist and scientist, John Gottman (Gottman and Silver), calls a bid for connection, I might turn towards them with curiosity. “I enjoy the escapism I get from this show even though I know it’s partly scripted. It’s not a broadcast show, so I can watch it later. Is there anything you need my attention for right now?”

Misinterpreting or completely missing each other’s bids for connection is one of the great causes of disharmony in relationships. Sometimes, bids for connection are explicit and clear. “Will you take a walk with me to see the sunset after we finish eating, then come back and do the dishes together?” Or “It was a tough day at the hospital. Can you hold me now while we sit quietly together so I can decompress from the frustration and sadness I felt today?”

Requests — the fourth step in the MVC communication model — guide us to ask our partner for what we’d like. To make an effective NVC request, it’s important to include exactly what you want your partner to say or do, and when you want them to do it. Letting them know why it matters to you if they meet your request is also helpful. I am much more likely to say yes to taking a break from my task to sit and hold you if I get that you’re needing support in letting go of the tension of the day.

The challenge for many relationships is that we often do not make beautiful, clear NVC requests. Like in the examples above, requests from our partners may come in the form of a sigh, or a criticism. NVC is helpful in those moments too. If I accept Gottman’s premise that these behaviors can signify a bid for connection, we can use that as a hypothesis to check in on what’s up for our partner when we see those behaviors. Instead of thinking, “They called the show I was watching inane, so I have to defend why it’s not or why I’m watching it” I can look for the deeper need. Why, at this moment, is my partner attacking the show that I watch every week? What is likely to be important for my partner at this moment? Focusing on the need supports the relationship on two levels.

On the first level – the content-based level – there are a multitude of guesses I might make if I don’t react to the perceived attack. I might check in about my partner’s longing for companionship in purpose-driven activity. Perhaps they genuinely want to know if we share the understanding that reality TV shows represent a limited viewpoint shaped by the producers of what is likely a more complex, and possibly even scripted, interaction. Maybe they’re wanting my attention so they can share about what they read on their phone that led them to toss it down and sigh. While we can aim to accurately guess what is going on for our partner, we do not have to be 100% correct because the magic that nurtures our relationship occurs on the second level.

Regardless of the content driving my partner’s statement, underneath that content is usually a need for connection – a need to know that their presence matters. Responding to that second layer of meaning is the second level of connection. Whether or not I guess incorrectly about the content, just by doing what Gottman and Silver (2015) called, “turning towards,” or paying attention to them and choosing to interact, I’m letting my partner know that they matter. I am accepting their bid for connection. And when I use NVC to accept that bid for connection open-heartedly, with curiosity, no matter how it’s framed, that important need – to matter – is met. Gottman and Silver (2015) found that this one skill – recognizing and accepting a partner’s bid for connection, was so important that it was a powerful predictor of whether newlyweds were married 6 years later. Those who were married recognized and accepted bids for connection 86% of the time, while those who divorced missed 66% of each other’s bids for connection!

This dynamic is one of the factors driving the increase in loneliness, despite more physical time together, that some couples report. More physical time together can lead to more bids for connection, and increase the number of missed bids. If you’re experiencing loneliness in your relationship, try these two steps. Strive for fearlessness and make more explicit requests for your partner’s attention. And, when your partner says or does anything, remember: Embedded in this action is a request for my attention because they want to know they matter to me. How can I respond in this moment that will convey that they do matter?


Works Cited: Gottman, J. M. and Silver, Nan (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony Books.

Photo credits from top: mark@rocketclips.com, VitalikRadko, stanciuc1

Roxy Manning is a CNVC certified trainer and clinical psychologist who is passionate about creating systems that work for all at all levels of human experience – individual, relational and systemic. Join Roxy in two unique opportunities starting this week! Roxy and the team from the Nonviolent Leadership for Social Justice retreat will explore how we can respond to the many challenges that COVID-19 has exposed in our lives and communities – especially as it relates to social justice. Roxy will also be presenting at the first Global NVC online retreat, with trainers from 6 continents!