In my experience working with couples, it’s not uncommon to find that partners have a considerable difference in their need or tolerance for emotional contact and intimacy. One partner may be more emotionally expressive and generally talkative, while the other may be less emotionally expressive and less comfortable with one-to-one contact with their partner. Contrary to what we might think, it is not a dynamic confined to women as the “emotional” partner in the relationship and the man as the “withdrawn, uncommunicative” partner. In fact, this dynamic appears in all permutations of relationships, including same-sex partnerships of all gender identifications. The notion that “opposites attract” has a ring of truth to it. As human beings we’re hardwired to strive for a secure attachment to an important other, and unconsciously we seek partners with an attachment style that is often different from our own. This can provide us with an opportunity to re-experience the insecure attachment patterns of our earlier relationships with the hope for mastery and transformation. Partners repeatedly push each other away in an effort to pull one another closer, resulting in a dynamic where emotional closeness and intimacy feel dangerous. One person may feel chronically lonely, unheard and unseen, and hungry for contact while the other may feel threatened by their partner’s need to connect and remain in a constant or fluctuating state of emotional withdrawal. As a result, the couple might rarely make time to be together and connect.
The “check-in” is a relatively simple exercise for couples where partners have unequal tolerance for connection. It’s designed to help them share their internal world with each other when their fears around closeness and intimacy prevent them from connecting. It provides safety for partners to experience each other more deeply without the fear of abandonment, overwhelm, or shame.
The exercise requires a 10-minute time span, a comfortable, quiet place in the home away from distractions, and an easy-to-read clock.
The best way to be successful at the check-in is to treat it with sanctity. The performance of the exercise on a daily basis is non-negotiable. You must both agree to do it every day, or it may easily fall by the wayside if one person isn’t in the mood, or pleads being too busy. The stresses of daily life can easily derail the best intentions, and unless there’s a solid container for the exercise it can get lost in the shuffle. Create a space for it as you would for a special occasion. Stake out a place away from distractions, after the kids have gone to bed or are unlikely to otherwise intrude. The living room couch is a good place, or, if you need more privacy, the bedroom. However, don’t do it at bedtime when you’re tired. Don’t do the exercise while fixing dinner or even eating dinner. The goal is to have each other’s undivided attention. You are learning to listen and speak freely, and to tolerate a deeper connection.
In order to do the check-in with open heart and mind, you need the freedom to negotiate when it occurs. If one partner is busy he or she may not be open to participating. Therefore, one of you has to be the “initiator” of the exercise, which means your task is to get it started. As the Initiator you can approach your partner and say, “When would you like to do our check-in?” and your partner may say, “I’m in the middle of something right now but I’ll meet you on the couch in half an hour.” This way, you can both trust the other to respect your time. It is helpful to establish a system to determine which one of you will be the Initiator. One way is to alternate the Initiator role on odd/even days of the month.
Once the two of you are settled in your designated space, the Initiator starts the check-in by speaking for five minutes about what happened that day (this is where your clock comes in. Place it where both of you can see it. The listener’s task is to let the speaker know when the five minutes are up). You must include your feelings about these events; it is not simply a recounting of facts. An example is, “I had a meeting at work that I was worried about because I wasn’t adequately prepared, and I felt like I didn’t come across well to my coworkers” or “On the bus I saw a man who reminded me of my Dad, and I got sad because I miss him.” You may talk about something that happened between you at an earlier time, but you must be careful not to be hostile or accusatory. An example is “Last night I felt hurt when you didn’t call to tell me you were going to be late.” The subjective piece is the most important because it is the window into your internal world, which you are inviting your partner to share in an effort to feel closer and more knowing of one another.
It is very important that the listener doesn’t interrupt the speaker or make any comments about what the speaker has said, especially after the speaker has finished.
When five minutes are up, you switch roles and the speaker becomes the listener. When each of you has spoken and listened for five minutes, the exercise is over. Neither person may comment on what the other said. Neither person can hold the other “hostage,” insisting that they expand on what was said in the check-in. Either of you may bring up what was said in the check-in at a later time, but not immediately after. It is important that the check-in be a time when each person can speak openly without fear of judgment, reprisal, or any other potentially negative response.
The check-in is designed to create a safe space for both of you to speak and listen fully. Often, the person craving more contact becomes anxious because he fears his partner will shut down. The person less comfortable with contact worries that she will be found lacking or inadequate because she is unable to tolerate her partner’s communication. The check-in creates safety by its brief duration and firm limits as to what can or can’t be said. It works because most people can remain fully engaged for five minutes while talking or listening.
Over time, as you become more comfortable with sharing your internal world with your partner and discover there are no bad consequences, the process will seem more natural and even pleasurable. You may find yourselves sharing more openly at other times. To varying degrees most of us have suffered psychic injury that inhibits our ability to feel close to others. Regardless of how we present to our partner, we all want to feel closely connected to them, and share with them our deeper hopes, fears, and feelings. The check-in can help facilitate this.
I wish to thank Jonathan Rosenfeld, PhD, for teaching this exercise to my husband and me over ten years ago. We still do it daily.