'So many frustrating family dynamics and workplace dramas erupt because of the misplaced belief that manipulation [of] motivation is the key to changing behavior. But … simplicity is what reliably changes behavior.' — Dr. BJ Fogg

If you’re anything like me, hearing “tiny habits” might make you think small means weak. It turns out the opposite is true! Dr. BJ Fogg talks about creating tiny habits in his book, “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.” Baby steps are essential in building new ways of, well, anything really, including new ways of interacting with one another. But don’t resort to the old standby of nagging your partner into submission! It is essential to keep in mind that creating positive interactions will do more for making changes than anything else. This is the idea behind “small things often,” which comes out of the research of Dr. Gottman. He learned this from watching successful couples interact in healthy ways. Whether it is in making tweaks to how you have conversations or making intimate moments for frequent, small positive interactions, tiny is the way to go!

The first thing to learn is how to compose a tiny habit recipe. Here’s the general formula: After I … (choose an anchor moment), I will … (the tiny behavior); then, I celebrate (your choice)! All you have to do is figure out what these three elements need to be for the habit you want to create. The first element is to identify an anchor moment. This is an existing routine or event in your life that will remind you to do the tiny behavior (the second element). This tiny behavior is a scaled-back version of the new habit you want to develop; it should be super small and super easy. One way to think about it is what is the first step you would take to perform the action. Then you get to decide how to celebrate immediately. This could be by smiling, doing a slight head nod, visualizing fireworks, inhaling and thinking of energy coming in, whatever works for you. This is important, as the celebration is what gets your brain interested in repeating the tiny behavior in the future.

You can now create tiny habits with your partner to boost moments of connection in your life! To get you started, here are some examples of how to use the recipe for making tiny habits that improve your relationship:

    Painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Dans le lit, le baiser. In bed, the kiss. 1892
  • After we get into bed, we will kiss one another for six seconds. Then we will bask in the moment of closeness a moment more, nose to nose.
  • Painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Dans le lit, le baiser. In bed, the kiss. 1892
  • After I notice my partner doing something positive, I will say how much I appreciate it. Then I will give them a quick hug.
  • Or how about this one: When my partner irritates me, I will remind myself of one quality I admire in my partner. Then I will imagine a gentle glow around me.

You get the idea. Note that tiny habits do not have to be done as a couple (as with the kissing example). They can be a habit one partner does that is positive for the relationship (as the last example). Have a conversation together about what you want to try. This is a great way to increase intimacy, whether you decide on one to do as a couple or not. If you fancy diving deeper into tiny habits, head on over to tinyhabits.com.

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In this time of global concern and stress, it is worth taking a moment to make sure we are taking care of ourselves and our families. Part of this is taking care of our mental health, which means managing the stress as effectively as we can.

“The vast majority of cases are going to be mild, and people are going to recover just like they do from a cold or flu-like illness.”
— Dr. Amesh Adalja
Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

and breathe

Below are some links to resources that could be helpful. I want to briefly outline the tips that the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists put together. Their public service announcement is aimed at reducing anxiety and stress during this time:

  1. Practice acceptance. It is normal to feel uneasy at this time. Allow for your feelings and also allow for the fact that most of us are not in immediate danger, that we’re working together to find solutions.
  2. Make a plan. Comfort yourself by controlling what you can, like washing your hands. Check out the Red Cross Coronavirus Safety and Readiness Tips, and share your readiness plan with your family.
  3. Stay in the present moment. When we bring our mind into the present, we realize that we’re ok. Make sure your mind is where your body is. Use a mantra, if that’s helpful—“This too shall pass.” Meditate. When you feel overwhelmed, turn your attention to your five senses to ground yourself.
  4. Don’t overexpose yourself to the news. Repeatedly viewing or listening to the same scary story can push your nervous system into full panic mode. Schedule just a few times a day to turn on the news or look at the internet for about 20 minutes at a time. Set a timer to keep yourself from fixating on the scary stuff.
  5. Pay attention to your body. Our brains and our bodies are intricately connected. We feel better emotionally when we feel physically rested. Make sure you are eating healthy, getting a little exercise, and practicing good sleep hygiene. See if you can find a part of your body that feels at peace and calm. Sit with it a bit, see if you can visualize or describe the sensation—maybe it’s a shape, a color, a sound… Check-in with yourself a couple times a day in this way.
  6. Practice deep, slow breathing. When you practice this, you’ll feel less anxious because your lungs will send a message through your vagus nerve to your brain that all is well. Breath in for a count of six, breath out for a count of six; do this for one full minute or more.
  7. Stay connected. We are biologically wired to connect with one another, there is real healing in connection. Make sure you’re not isolating more than necessary. Use technology to your advantage, using video chats and other means, as appropriate. Instead of social distancing, think physical distancing.
  8. Keep a balanced perspective. Even in the most challenging times, we can find a few aspects of our lives that are going well. If you realize you haven’t laughed or smiled in a while, watch a funny show or call a friend who makes you laugh. Even amid a crisis, we can find silver linings.

The only other thing I will add is to support one another in your relationship as much as you can. The best way, at this point, is to practice having a stress-reducing conversation. For tips on how to do this, see the blog Holiday Survival Kit, the last bullet point. If you find yourself in conflict with your partner (e.g., differences of opinion as to how much you should be going out), be sure to discuss things calmly. It is essential to avoid the four horsemen—see 3 Ways To Stay Calm When Your Partner is Driving You Nuts!; How to Get Rid of Criticism and Defensiveness; and Contempt, the Battery Acid for guidance around this. If it feels like the discussion has turned into one that is all too familiar, it may be a perpetual issue. In this case, talking about it in a specific way is important—see Do the Same Arguments Keep Coming Up Again and Again With Your Partner?

Here are a few reminders and suggestions for talking to your partner if you find you’re feeling frustrated and misunderstood:

  1. Remember, your partner has good intentions, and your partner loves and values you!
  2. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re likely to be more reactive, and it’s much harder to connect with your partner. Practice grounding yourself first, by understanding how your body feels and what your core emotions are (the ones underneath whatever irritation, anxiety, or anger you may be experiencing).
  3. Ask your partner what his/her perspective and emotions are, being intentional about listening to understand, not listening to respond. Your partner has valid feelings about this, too! Your emotions and your partner’s underlying emotions make sense—focus on learning how.
  4. During and after listening to your partner share, reflect back what you heard him/her say to check for accuracy. Invite your partner to add or clarify.
  5. Validate your partner’s perspective and emotions (make sure to ask what he/she is feeling!): “It sounds like you’re feeling       because      . That makes sense to me! (or:) I would feel that way if I were in your shoes.”
  6. Switch roles and have your partner listen while you share.

Phew! That’s a lot of information! My hope is that you and yours stay healthy and that we pull together to make it through this challenging time as safely as possible.

My thanks to Wren Gray-Renebrg, AMFT (AMFT 109983), for her contributions to this blog.

Helpful Resources

California Department of Public Health:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Red Cross:

CAMFT (California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists):

NPR:

There is also good news around all this. Peter Diamandis has been collecting some of these stories, so tune in for the positive as well.

If you want to give meditation a try, Headspace is making available a Weathering the Storm collection, free for everyone. It includes meditations, sleep, and movement exercises to help you out.

BJ Fogg, Director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits, is offering Tiny Habits for Coronavirus Challenges.

If you need support from a mental health professional, and you are in California, you can contact me for my availability. I also offer telehealth as a remote option. You may also contact Wren Gray-Renebrg, or reach out to one of these resources to find a therapist near you:

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'Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.' — Gustav Mahler

Why should you care about rituals? Well, for starters, they are necessary to have in any healthy relationship. Like it or not, we are creatures of habit. Making sure you have healthy habits in your relationship—practices you can count on to stay connected with your partner—is essential. We call these rituals of connection. Bill Doherty first coined this term in his book The Intentional Family.

Two people reaching for each other.

Two people reaching for each other.Rituals of connection work best if they are thought out and planned. Here’s what to think about: When will the ritual happen? How often? Where? Who will initiate it? How will it unfold? How will it end? Here is what I recommend: Have a conversation with your partner about a ritual of connection you would like to create as a couple. If you would like inspiration, the Gottman Card Decks app has a deck with great ideas to consider, called, aptly enough, Rituals of Connection. Choose one of these and first share with your partner why you chose the one you picked (what’s important about this for you). If your partner agrees with the suggestion, answer the questions above to make practical plans to incorporate it into your relationship.

It’s a good idea to have a conversation about rituals of connection regularly, at least once a year. You want to see if there are any changes you wish to make to tailor these to what you need at that moment. For instance, if you think of bedtime rituals, you will realize that these rituals change as children grow. It should be the same in your relationship. Make sure that you have rituals of connection in your life that keep you connected consistently! For other examples of rituals of connection, take a look at these blogs: Holiday Survival Kit, 7 Valentine’s Day Date Ideas, and Is Technology Ruining Your Relationship?

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'I think people spend too much time staring into screens and not enough time drinking wine, tongue kissing, and dancing under the moon.' — Rachel Wolchin

Cartoon by Trevor Spaulding, The New Yorker Magazine, April 27, 2015.Have you ever binged streaming episodes on your favorite service (Netflix, etc.) only to come around to yourself and realize the whole weekend is gone? Or have you ever felt like the last time you had a real conversation was sometime in the past century? All too often, we get wrapped up in our online accounts and other forms of media, at the expense of ignoring those we love and other priorities. Even cartoonists have turned their focus on this issue; take, for example, this cartoon by Trevor Spaulding, which appeared in The New Yorker magazine on April 27, 2015.

Cartoon by Trevor Spaulding, The New Yorker Magazine, April 27, 2015.

A couple, each on their own smartphone.

I recently heard an interview on the podcast Design Matters with Debbie Milman. Debbie interviewed Tiffany Schlain, (who created the Webby Awards) and who, among other accomplishments, has written, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week.” Tiffany has practiced and is a proponent of taking a tech sabbath (time off from technology use) one day a week. Whatever you think as to the merits or deterrents of technology, there has been more and more attention paid to the effects of it on our lives. It is worth considering how to manage this powerful tool to make sure technology is helpful to us (in work, and even in love — such as staying connected) while also minimize some of the downsides it can have (the loss of eye contact and the constant distractions it can supply, both of which can erode intimacy).

Pocket watch.Here are some of the suggestions Tiffany has for managing tech in general:

  • Practice not looking at your phone the first thing in the morning.
  • Instead, replace this habit with something that gives you joy (like kissing your partner, journaling, and/or drawing).
  • Wear a watch so that checking the time doesn’t encourage the rabbit hole of a smartphone.
  • Carry a notepad in your bag as an alternative to your phone, again to manage possible rabbit hole moments more mindfully.

Pocket watch.

And here are suggestions for preparing for a tech sabbath:

  • Make a wish list of things you wish you had more time to do. Pull out this list on your tech sabbath, and/or plan these activities for your tech sabbath. I would suggest making connection time with your spouse and other meaningful relationships a priority.
  • Make sure you have a clock in your home.
  • And a landline!
  • Have a black marker and a big pad of paper to write things down you want to remember.
  • Consider what rules you would like to have (when will it begin and end, what is allowable, etc.).
  • Make sure you have modified rules for travel and other occasions that may arise.

Live one day a week analog-style, and you might be surprised what you will be gaining! Although it may feel daunting at first, you will likely learn some wondrous things about yourself and your community (remember the library? The park?). You may find that you are more excited about and proficient in your technology use when you are using it. You may find that you begin to look forward to this time off of tech to concentrate on other priorities, such as connecting with your partner and others!

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Love note.

Love note.If you haven’t made plans yet for Valentine’s Day, it’s not too late! There are plenty of great things to do, not only on Valentine’s Day but for the weekend and beyond.

Valentine’s Day can be a great day to develop a ritual of connection. Rituals of connection are ways to stay connected consistently. They provide a way you can count on to interact in both small and important moments throughout the day, the week, and the years to come. Examples include date night, birthdays, how we greet one another at the end of the day, etc. It is a good idea to discuss these. Talk about why it is important (why you’ve chosen to talk about it). Then go into the nitty-gritty of incorporating it into your life (the who, what, when, and where of it).

Two swans embracing.

For Valentine’s Day, our culture promotes various different ways to celebrate, most of which are date night type activities. Date night is essential as a ritual of connection for couples. I’ve talked about its importance and some ideas for what to do in Date Night Blues, but here are some great ideas for Valentine’s Day:

    Two swans embracing.
  • Take a chocolate-making class together (there are plenty of options, search online for one close to you).
  • Tour a few of your favorite places as a couple. Each person chooses 2-3 places to tour that have been important to you as a couple. Visit these and remember the good times together.
  • Night at the museum. Many museums have evening events on special occasions. Check out your local museum websites for events. One related example is Chocolate, Champagne and Art at the Gallery House in Palo Alto, CA.
  • Have a poetry reading. Check out the local library for romantic poetry and read to each other favorite poems over a glass of wine.
  • Take a Ghost Tour! For example, Valentine Haunt and Ghosts of Valentine’s are options in the Bay Area.
  • How about the Great San Francisco Pillow Fight!? This is held at Justin Herman Plaza on Market Street at 6 p.m. Valentine’s day.
  • Have a themed dinner and a movie night at home. For example, watch 50 First Dates dressed in your favorite Hawaiian shirts and enjoy an umbrella drink!

Notice that some of these options are pretty low cost. It doesn’t take much money to create a Valentine’s Day ritual of connection that can be one more way of keeping the romance stoked in your relationship. You can also check out other rituals of connection ideas on the Gottman Card Deck app under rituals of connection. Happy Valentine’s Day!

'If I had a flower for every time I thought of you... I could walk through my garden forever.' — Alfred Tennyson

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LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT About LeMel...
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFC 42162
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor LPC 1534
Certified Gottman Therapist