How to Communicate Your Self-Care Needs to Your Partner

by Jackie Coleman

Quick Takes

  • Find a time to talk that is free of distractions and relatively calm
  • Use “I feel” statements to avoid blame or criticism
  • Listen actively—and be willing to compromise
  • Do regular checkups on your relationship and family

The morning rush: shower, eat breakfast, get the kids dressed, start the day. The workday: meetings, then calls, then more meetings. The evening: dinner, baths, bedtimes. Climb into bed, only to start over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As a working parent with a seemingly endless array of responsibilities, it can be hard to make space for yourself. The tendency to focus all your energy on work or family and put your own needs on hold is the norm. And extreme or unusual circumstances—like the recent Covid pandemic—can only make this more difficult. As parents and children found themselves stuck at home juggling work, school, and entertainment, it felt as if there was even less time to dedicate to their own needs.

But the benefits of taking care of yourself, whether that’s physically, emotionally, spiritually, or mentally, are undeniable. It’s the whole “adjust your oxygen mask first before assisting another” principle. My husband, John, and I call it creating a “third space”—space outside of home and work to explore interests, decompress, and find personal fulfillment. This can lead to decreased anxiety, increased productivity, and overall higher levels of life satisfaction.

But even when you know the benefits of focusing on your own physical and mental health, it can be challenging to communicate your personal needs to your partner. Feelings of guilt or shame may prevent these conversations, but not sharing your feelings and needs can lead to resentment, exhaustion, and contempt. And failing to reserve time for yourself can make you less happy and less effective both at work and at home.

So how can you better communicate to your partner a need for a third space or personal time? As a wife, mother of three, and former marriage counselor who has worked with numerous couples, I see a few distinct ways.

First, know what you need. Take two minutes right now to list what third space would most benefit you. Jot down whatever comes to mind. The stereotypical picture of self-care is a vision of someone lounging in a white bathrobe with cucumbers over their eyes. And while some spa time can be great relaxation for some people, there are so many other possibilities. Is it taking 15 minutes after work to sit and decompress before jumping in to help with the kids? Maybe it’s enjoying a couple of hours on a weeknight or weekend to read a book for fun. Research has found that simply anticipating an activity or event has many benefits.1 So maybe you don’t need weekly time but would enjoy having something big to look forward to, like a future weekend away with friends or a night alone in a hotel. I have personally taken up guitar and voice lessons, which at first seemed self-indulgent (read: guilt!) but has quickly become life-giving. Even virtual lessons can offer you the space you need. Look at your list and highlight what sticks out to you the most. Then consider whether the top few choices are feasible for your available time and finances, and whether they’ll truly recharge you.

Create a Third Space

by Jackie Coleman and John Coleman

When professionals have families, their entire lives can revolve around their responsibilities at work and at home. Busy executives run home to help with kids (changing diapers or shuttling preteens to soccer games) or to do the little things that keep a home humming, like laundry, yard work, or cooking. But having a third space outside of work and home can help enormously with stress management.

Each partner in a relationship should maintain habits and times that allow them to explore their interests, relax and seek fulfillment, and find space outside of home and work. These spaces are different for everyone—quiet cafés, virtual book clubs, trout streams, karate classes, poker nights—but they are important for maintaining our identities and our sense of peace.

Make the sacrifice of offering your partner a third space to find themselves, maintain their friendships, and explore their interests, and ask that they do the same for you. This may mean taking over as solo parent on a regular basis—prepping meals, assisting with schoolwork, even covering bath- and bedtime. Third spaces mean no person runs from responsibility to responsibility without having time to breathe.

Adapted from “Don’t Take Work Stress Home with You,” posted on hbr.org, July 28, 2016 (product #H0315M).

Now that you have thought through your own needs and desires, how do you actually have a successful and productive conversation? Consider these tactical suggestions.

Timing is everything

There are moments during the day when a conversation of substance would fail miserably: the minute your spouse or partner signs off from work or walks in the door, the bath-time rush, and the “witching hour(s)” getting kids fed and ready for bed, to name a few. To avoid this, set aside a time together that is free of distractions, relatively calm, and likely to be when neither of you is overtired. The best approach is to make it fun and think of it not as a way to challenge your partner, but as a way to connect. John and I love grabbing a snack and sitting together by our little pond in the front yard after we finish the kids’ bedtimes. These moments are peaceful and never feel onerous. Finding this type of breather provides the right context for a promising conversation.

Remember you’re playing for the same team

Approach the conversation in this way: You are your spouse’s advocate and supporter, just as they are yours. And you both have one another’s health and well-being in mind. John Gottman, a prominent researcher on marital success, encourages a “soft startup.” This means handling the conversation with gentleness and avoiding blame or criticism. You can do this by using “I feel” statements that focus on your own thoughts and needs instead of universal and accusatory statements like “You always” or “. . . never,” etc. Realize it is much easier to hear, “I am feeling really tired and burned out lately, and I was thinking about how much I would love to learn to paint. What do you think?” versus “You always get to do what you want and never let me have a moment to myself.” These are extreme examples, but one encourages partnership, while the other sparks defensiveness.

Actively listen

Really try to hear the heart behind your partner’s statements and don’t just listen to respond. It can take effort to set aside your personal agenda, but after taking time to think about what your spouse’s needs or wants might be, this will be easier to do. When your partner says something, be curious, paraphrasing what you hear (even if you don’t agree). And ask for clarification by saying something like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” Aim to truly understand how your partner feels. Creating an empathetic atmosphere will encourage understanding in the relationship.

It’s about give-and-take

You want something, but be willing to give a little, too. Relationships aren’t about demands. They’re about mutual understanding, compassion, and sacrifice. While you have thoughts on what you need, be open to what your spouse verbalizes, too. And I’d encourage you to take it one step further. Preemptively take some time to think through what your partner might be needing or wanting, and incorporate these thoughts into the conversation. Demonstrate that you have been considering them. Empathy goes a long way in deepening connection.

Do regular relationship checkups

It is so much easier to talk about things in a casual way when resentment, frustration, or utter exhaustion hasn’t developed. Doing regular check-ins (like our nightly post-bedtime hangouts by the pond) provides a natural time and space to ask how the other is doing and to share ways that could help us flourish more. We have gotten in the habit of doing a weekly date day on a Saturday or Sunday to go on a hike together or explore a new part of our city. You can take a walk around the neighborhood, have a special meal together after the kids are in bed, or even conduct a regular “board meeting” for your relationship and family. These conversations certainly don’t need to take place every week, but having regular times mapped out is a helpful way to foster connection and open communication.

The day-in, day-out of raising children and fostering a thriving career can feel like that “lather, rinse, and repeat” cycle. But with some self-reflection, empathy for your partner, and thoughtful conversations, it can turn into “lather, sing a bit in the shower, rinse, repeat.”

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, April 22, 2020 (product #H05J42).

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