Couples, Learn to Strengthen Your “Noticing” Muscle

By Anna Harcharik

Has your relationship been affected by COVID-19? If so, you arent alone.  Depending on your situation during this time, your relationship might be affected in different ways.  If you or your partner is an essential worker and is leaving the house for work each week, you both might be experiencing the stress and fear of becoming sick.  You may be worried about your partner leaving each day, or they may be worried about you.  If you and your partner are both stuck at home together, this carries a different bundle of emotions, ranging from feeling closed in because of lack of space, or possibly anger and frustration as a result of unbalanced domestic responsibilities.

Whatever your situation, this is hard.  We are all coping with this time differently.  Some people are coping extremely well and actually feeling a little less stressed due to the break in the hustle and bustle of their typical lives.  Others feel like they are barely surviving.  And finally, some feel like they vacillate between the two.  Wherever you may fall on this list, you are experiencing a major shift in your life and so is your relationship.  Just as your life has been affected by the pandemic, so too has your relationship.

I have one tip that I hope will help you and your partner navigate these unfamiliar waters…that is, to notice and validate.

You may be the only person who is able to be truly supportive to your partner.  An essential skill in any committed relationship is to realize and act on the knowledge that your partner must feel supported and noticed by you. Whatever is going on, be it a global pandemic or just a hard day at work, your partner needs to know that you support them and notice their best qualities.  And in order to do this effectively, you will need to build up your noticing” muscle, that is, your ability to notice what your partner is experiencing and what qualities they have that are important, valuable, meaningful, and worth highlighting.

We get so used to living with someone that it is easy to stop noticing the positive small things our partners do that make them who they are.   Notice how your partner calls to check in with the family.  Notice when your partner has been patient with the kids and has taken time to teach them something.  Notice that they did the dishes.  Notice… and then say something.  This could be as simple as a quick statement, Hey, I saw you called your mom to see how shes doing.  You are a great son.”  Or, Wow, you really held it together through our daughters meltdown!”

However, when validating, there are two things to watch out for:

  • Make sure there are no strings attached.  Validation is just empty words if accompanied by a criticism or other negative feedback.  For example, when you say something like, I noticed you washed the dishes…wish I could say that happened more frequently!” your partner will only hear what they did wrong.   
  • Dont keep score.  When working on building your noticing” muscle and beginning to validate your partners actions, you may become increasingly aware of a lack of validation for what you are doing.  This can begin to feel hurtful, and you can become resentful, thinking, Thats the 4th time Ive noticed what they are doing, and they havent noticed one thing I have done!”  Try first giving this time.  Your partner might catch on and begin to validate more once they feel supported.  If not, then try to communicate this need in a gentle way.  For example, you could say, I love when you notice things I do; it means a lot to me.  Would you mind doing that more often?”  Remember, the key is to let your partner know how much validation would mean to you, not how terrible they are at doing it!

An essential key to a successful and fulfilling relationship is to recognize and support each others strengths.  These skills become even more essential during times of change or crisis.  Many couples I talk to in counseling will say the one thing that really built the connection between themselves and their partner from the beginning was feeling like that person understood them or saw” them.  Sometimes after a few years, its easy to stop seeing all the great attributes of person you are with.  Building your noticing” muscle can help you get that back.  Noticing the positive things that your partner is doing that makes them who they are will not only help you support them through covid-19, it will also help you see them through a more grateful lens and, in turn, strengthen your connection.

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