Why the First Few Minutes with Your Partner Today Are Crucial

Couple smiles at each other with faces close together under duvet coverWhen you come home at the end of a workday, do you notice a difference in how the evening goes depending on how you and your partner greet each other? Similarly, do you notice any patterns in the outcome of an argument with your partner based on how the issue is presented? Those first few minutes can have a terrific impact on how the rest of that exchange, and the next several hours, may go, and may ultimately set up your relationship for success or failure.

The First 4 Minutes Together

Imagine walking in the door to your partner handing you a stack of bills and then turning to a household chore while they tell you the oil light in the car is on again, the dentist says one of the children needs braces, and an extended family member you do not look forward to seeing is visiting next week. Or worse, your partner greets you by telling you all the ways you disappoint them.

Now imagine walking in the door, seeking out your partner wherever they are, and—before discussing the latest family news or obligations—taking a few minutes to sit close while you both talk about how good it is to see each other and how you are glad to be sharing life together. Or better, add a few kisses and hugs to the greeting.

Begin each day with some kind words to each other. In the evening, whoever gets home last is to find the other person. Focus total, positive attention on each other for at least 4 minutes. At the end of the experiment, consider how you feel about each other and yourselves.

Zunin and Zunin (1972) believe the first 4 minutes when a couple awaken together, and the first 4 minutes after returning to each other at the end the workday, are critical to the success or failure of the partnership. If, for example, a couple begins each day with complaining, listing the trivial tasks to accomplish that day, or insisting one partner cannot talk to the other until after the third cup of coffee, this sets a negative tone for the day that over time erodes the warm, loving feelings between the couple. If, on the other hand, the morning’s opening minutes are spent on something mutually pleasurable, such as caressing or rubbing a partner’s back or neck while gently saying, “Good morning,” it reinforces the foundation of the partnership.

Zunin and Zunin (1972) also believe the 4 minutes when many couples meet at the end of a workday are an opportunity to renew the most gratifying feelings they have for each other. As an experiment, try this with your partner by talking about what would help you each feel more connected. Begin each day with some kind words to each other. In the evening, whoever gets home last is to find the other person. Focus total, positive attention on each other for at least 4 minutes. At the end of the experiment, consider how you feel about each other and yourselves.

Couples who have less aligned work schedules may need to be more creative. Those who work vastly different schedules, such as one works days and the other nights, may schedule a few minutes when they pass each other at home. Similarly, couples including a partner who travels a majority of the time may want to select an appointed time to talk for a few minutes, and stick to a plan to spend the first few minutes renewing positive feelings for each other.

The First 3 Minutes of Conflict

How important are the first few minutes of a conflict with your partner? In one of the many studies on couples performed by The Gottman Institute, Carrére and Gottman (1999) observed 124 newlywed couples, married for the first time for less than six months, to learn if it was possible to predict divorce or marital stability based on how a couple interacted in a conflict. The couples were video recorded while participating in a marital interaction session in which they were asked to discuss a marital issue that was ongoing along with two recall sessions in which the couple viewed their initial session. The couples completed questionnaires and were followed up with annually for between four and six years.

The results were fascinating. Using quantitative data of the couples’ affect, it was possible to predict whether the couples would divorce or remain married by observing just the first 3 minutes of interaction in conflict. If, for example, issues were introduced as complaints about a specific behavior, the receiving partner was less likely to respond defensively or negatively, and the couple was more likely to report marital stability years later. If, on the other hand, issues were presented with criticism of the partner that suggested the partner is bad or wrong in some way, the couple was more likely to divorce.

What This All Means

While the entire interaction with a partner matters, the first few minutes can be crucial. By allocating a few minutes at critical times in your day to let your partner know you are on their side, and by being more thoughtful about how you present concerns, it is possible to create a more loving, lasting bond.

References:

  1. Carrére, S. and Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, 38(3). Retrieved from http://www.johngottman.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Predicting-Divorce-among-Newlyweds-from-the-First-Three-Minutes-of-a-Marital-Conflict-Discussion.pdf
  2. Zunin, L. & Zunin, N. (1972). Contact: The first four minutes. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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  • steve

    steve

    September 22nd, 2016 at 8:02 AM

    We always make time for each other when we come home, and not with a stack of bills either!

  • Camille Larsen

    Camille Larsen

    September 22nd, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    Steve, I love to read that! Do you find that your evening together goes better because you connect when you first get home?

  • dia

    dia

    September 22nd, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    Our work schedules are totally opposite, usually when he is coming in the door we are headed out. But we still make an effort to have that time when it is available to us. It is not always the most ideal, but when your marriage is a priority then you start to make this time that you do get to spend together a priority as well.

  • steve

    steve

    September 23rd, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    Actually that raises a pretty good point. We struggled for a while to do this after the kids came along and yeah, coming home wasn’t nearly as exciting as it once was. But now that we have made each other a priority again, I think that even in small little ways, it has brought us closer together

  • Ava

    Ava

    September 23rd, 2016 at 3:11 PM

    no one wants to be bombarded with stuff as soon as you walk thru the door!

  • Gabe

    Gabe

    September 24th, 2016 at 8:13 AM

    I have stress too even though I work outside of the home. I think that there are times when my wife, who stays home full time with the kids, she believes I’m just out having fun all day while she is at home with the kids and taking care of the house. Believe me, work is no fun either! I would love it if I could be the one who stayed home but I have always made more money so it makes the most financial sense for me to be the one to work. I think that she is jealous or holds it against me and then she has nothing to say to me once I do get home and sit down. Does she think my life is roses all day long?

  • Nik

    Nik

    September 25th, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    and why then does my husband not see this and insist on going immediately upstairs to do more work when he gets home? he doesn’t quite see the wedge that this is creating between the two of us.

  • Camille Larsen

    Camille Larsen

    September 25th, 2016 at 1:20 PM

    Nik,
    Without knowing you or your husband and your particular dynamic, and writing only in general terms regarding partnerships, I find that 1. catching a partner when she/he is calm, fed, rested – in a good place emotionally and physically, and 2. expressing what it would mean to have a few minutes of time alone with the partner to get the evening off on the right foot, often has positive results. For example: “It has been on my mind lately that I don’t get the chance often enough to look in your eyes and tell you how glad I am that I picked you to share life with, how proud I am of you, and how good it feels to be in the same room with you. If we could pick a time that works for both of us and spend a few minutes each day re-connecting, it would mean that I matter to you and that you are interested in investing in us growing closer. What do you think?’
    One note: Many people, upon arriving home, need to use the bathroom, change out of their work clothes, and depending on the type of work they do, shower. In these instances, negotiate when the first few minutes could begin so both partners feel they are able to be present. The point would be to not skip it altogether and move on to other activities without re-connecting. I hope this helps.

  • Joyce

    Joyce

    September 26th, 2016 at 7:19 AM

    It is a give and take in most relationships.
    There can’t be one partner who is always trying to go the extra mile while the other sits back and does nothing

  • Aida

    Aida

    September 27th, 2016 at 10:50 AM

    We were always the couple who would come in and immediately go to the children to find out how their days went instead of coming home to talk to each other first. That was a big mistake for us and I see that now and we are working on that. But our lives became so much more about the kids and their happiness than it ever was about our own that when the kids all left and we only had each other to turn to then we sort of had to learn how to do that all over again.
    The transition has been a challenge for both of us because we invested so much time and energy into the kids that you start to wonder if there is going to be anything left over for your spouse.

  • samaNtha

    samaNtha

    September 28th, 2016 at 2:47 PM

    I hate that feeling like I am talking but that there isn’t anyone hearing me or listening to what I have to say.
    It hurts my feelings to think that no one really cares enough about me to take just a few minutes of their time to listen to me and find out how my day was.

  • Grant

    Grant

    September 29th, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    no matter what anyone says above all else we as humans have a need to be loved and appreciated

  • Nell

    Nell

    September 29th, 2016 at 5:38 PM

    But surely we can have coffee first right? Please say right

  • JoEllen

    JoEllen

    September 30th, 2016 at 12:42 PM

    Our schedules are different too but I think that when the person is important to you then you just have to have a make it work kind of attitude and go with it.

    So it might be different from other marriages or relationships that you know, but who cares? If you love each other then what difference does it make what others look like?

  • Liz

    Liz

    February 10th, 2017 at 7:53 PM

    My husband suffers with chronic pain. When the weather changes he is suffering. Last week he told me he was going to bed early but he wanted me to come sit in the bed with him and just be there for him. So, I was hungry and asked what we had to eat. He said he bought some potato chips and they were in the kitchen. So, I found the potato chips and corn chips and brought both bags with me in the bed. I propped myself up with my pillows and told him we were having potato chip party! I told him about my day and we talked about fun things we did as kids. We had so much fun! The next day he texted me, telling me how much he loved “potato chip party.”
    We’ve been married 31 years.
    We have learned that we each are in control of our own happiness. I stay in the “fun zone” all the time. That’s where the joy is. 😊

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