Hunter and Gina have come to see me for relationship guidance. They’ve been together for nine years, have two children, and are admittedly stuck. They’ve driven here separately, meeting up after a busy day of work and family. This is their third visit, and although Gina seems fidgety and Hunter distracted, they both say they are glad to be back in my office. As I guide us through a short, heart-centered meditation to help them get present as to why they’ve come, tears start to stream from Gina’s eyes. When the meditation is complete, both of them are visibly more relaxed and are softly gazing at each other as Gina exclaims, “I don’t even know why I’m crying!” Hunter smiles empathetically.
This is a common scene that I see with couples. There is something about having a dedicated space—in this case, my office—where sharing vulnerable truths and having them heard creates an atmosphere of intimacy. Whenever I first meet with couples, I always inquire about two key factors that affect long-term relating: How many hours a week do they devote to their relationship, and how much appreciation do they feel and express with each other? Often, couples admit that their attention is going everywhere else—jobs, kids, pets, projects—and that their relationship is starved of quality time.
So how much time is required for successful relating? Well, according to renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., five hours a week of “you-and-me time,” is key to long-term thriving partnerships. Gottman should know. He has spent four decades observing, interviewing, and videotaping couples and cataloging the multitude of micro-expressions and macro-patterns that make—or break—a relationship. He is credited with more than a 93 percent success rate in predicting whether a couple will divorce or not, based on his studies over the years.
While time spent together is a predictive ingredient for relational harmony, I focus more on the quality of the space a couple provides for their relationship. Space is not just a physical phenomenon, it is an atmosphere that includes nonjudgmental attention, mutual respect, and appreciation. When we create “sacred space” for intimate relating, a palpable atmosphere emerges that evokes breath, allows presence, and invites connection. And, with practice, it only takes a few moments to establish.
Shifting our physical environment can be a first step. Many couples find that their relational stresses melt away when they go to a place that nourishes them both, whether it’s a five-star hotel or camping in the wilds. Yet it’s also important to find ways to create space for your relationship at home, where habits are more embedded. Like many couples, my husband and I have our favorite places to sit in our living room. Sometimes, though, he surprises me by moving two chairs and a small café table we have to a completely different location. As we look out onto the garden or some other less-familiar visual, there is an atmosphere of freshness and playfulness in our communication. One of our primary sacred spaces is our hot tub. When we enter it together at the end of a busy day apart, our intention is to get current with each other and to reestablish our connection anew. We also consider our bedroom a sanctuary for relating and relaxing. We do our best to keep it technology and clutter free.
Working with elemental energies—whether through warm water, lit candles, deep breathing, or sitting on the earth—is a reliable way for us to cultivate inner spaciousness. Yet physical ambience is just the backdrop; what matters most is the quality of presence that resides in that space. Ultimately, what sets sacred space apart from our normal habits is intent—we must choose to turn off our phones and tune in to practices that allow us to listen, breathe, touch, and literally face our beloved.
Carving out five hours a week for your relationship can seem daunting, especially with children and staggered work schedules. Yet, what if you committed to simply pausing, deepening your breath, and taking a full 20 seconds to meet your partner’s eyes at the end of the day? Twenty seconds is how long it reportedly takes for our oxytocin receptor sites to be activated and to begin flooding our systems with this well-known “love hormone.” Intentional greetings are a space where we ritually acknowledge our shared connection; oxytocin seals the deal by rebooting our biochemistry so that we feel bonded. I encourage couples to get a steady diet of both if they cherish their life together.