Ask the Expert: Dr. Joshua Coleman on navigating relationships

With work, school, parenting, and other critical responsibilities vying for our time and attention, it can be hard to spare energy to nurture the relationships we have with our partners, friends, and family. How can we rekindle the spark and reconnect with those who matter most to us? Psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman, joined our Ask the Expert webchat earlier this week to address this question and give practical relationship advice to our users. Joshua is in private practice and is Senior Scholar of the Council on Contemporary Families. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, America Online Coaches, PBS Life Part 2, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice has appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Psychology Today, U.S. World and News Report, Parenting Magazine and many others.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Joshua. For our French users, we ran a similar webchat with psychologist Dr. François St-Père, which you can access here. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous and confidential.

Making time for your partner

QUESTION — “My partner and I used to have time for each other, but now with both of us working over 40hrs/week it seems like the romance is fading. We are arguing more, mostly about our finances, and it seems that he is tense all the time. What little time we have together goes toward housework, figuring out bills and schedules, and sleeping. What can we do to make sure that we aren’t too busy for our relationship?”

Dr. Joshua Coleman — “This is a very common problem in today’s marriages, especially if there are children in the mix. Marriages are like gardens; they need regular watering and weeding in order to grow. Otherwise, everything withers on the vine. It’s very important to have a regularly scheduled date night where you agree not to talk about anything controversial. The only goal is to get away from things and bond, and remember why you married each other in the first place. In addition, you both probably feel unappreciated, so daily compliments and appreciations go a really long way.”

Finding resources for separated parents

QUESTION — “What are good resources for parenting during a separation and for parenting with a difficult parent?”

Dr. Joshua Coleman — “There are a lot of good books online on parenting during a separation and after a divorce. One of the classics is Mom’s House, Dad’s House, but more get published every year so it’s worth seeing which ones have the most reviews and endorsements. Re: parenting with a difficult parent, here are some guidelines:

  1. Avoid directly criticizing the other parent’s parenting. We’re all sensitive about our parenting and you won’t get much of an audience if you start with a criticism.
  2. Better to start and end all conversations with a compliment. ‘I really like how __ you are with the kids. It’s obvious you love them. I do sometimes worry a bit about how they feel when you get angry at them. Is that something we can talk about? I know I’m not a perfect parent, so I’m not trying to act like a know it all.’
  3. Don’t act like a know-it-all. The more humility you have in your complaints, the more motivated the other person will be.
  4. Ask if there’s something that he/she would like you to work on as a parent.”

Navigating friendships as an older adult

QUESTION — “In my 50s, and after a stressful last 5 years of parents passing and an overly stressful workplace, I have found my friendships waning (granted I probably was not a fun companion to be around) and really don’t have a lot of energy to socialize. Also, friends are having their own issues with elderly parents, divorce, child-rearing. What should my next step be? Sometimes I think I should get some new friends for this next stage of life and move forward, as the last few years have been awful. Suggestions? (I am single with nil close family.)”

Dr. Joshua Coleman — “Sounds like it has been a really stressful last 5 years. I’m not sure about getting new friends as a solution. If you don’t have energy for your old friends, I can’t imagine you would have more for new friends, since typically that takes more initiative. If you don’t have energy to socialize, why is that? Are you depressed? Do you have social anxiety? Are you feeling rejected by your friends and that’s making you feel more discouraged? Finding your energy, or often faking it till you make it, is critical to whatever the next step is like, so get a proper diagnosis and make sure your self-care is up-to-date with proper sleep, exercise, diet and some kind of mental conditioning like yoga or meditation.”

Requesting affection and intimacy

QUESTION — “What are some healthy ways to ask a partner who is not innately affectionate for more physical touch and gestures?”

Dr. Joshua Coleman — “In general, these kinds of requests are best made in a friendly way, and not as a complaint. You can say, ‘I get that you’re not super affectionate, but it actually means a lot to me and makes me feel loved and cared about. Is that something you’re open to working on? And I’m happy to work on whatever is important to you too.’ If he says, ‘Sorry I’m just not that way,’ that’s not good enough. Being in a couple means compromise and negotiation. You could say, ‘Well, I’m not asking you to be as affectionate as I am, or radically change. Here are a few things that would make a difference to me:

  1. Hold my hand when we’re walking down the street,
  2. Give me a kiss when we see each other,
  3. Occasionally reach over and rub my back.’

He may feel too overwhelmed if he thinks he has to be completely different, so giving him a few examples will be helpful.”

Don’t miss our next Ask the Expert session!

If you weren’t able to catch our webchat with Dr. Joshua Coleman, you can always sign into your LifeSpeak account to read the transcript. And be sure to log in August 15 at noon EST to chat with Cam Adair, who will discuss managing screen time and understanding digital addiction. If you don’t have a LifeSpeak account, please have your HR team reach out to us about your company subscribing.

What is Ask the Expert?

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