One of the first exercises you do with couples is to teach them “constructive communication.” And before you get to the principles of listening and speaking, you will be teaching them the importance of staying calm for the conversations that matter (see Appendix B). Even though, formally speaking, you haven’t yet taught them communication skills, you can make the teaching time about stress into a conversation in its own right.
Don’t bypass the part in which you have them describe and then write down their own bodily indications of stress. You want them to begin to pay attention to the signals their bodies are already giving them that now might not be the best time to forge ahead with a conversation. Get them to describe these signals in as concrete a way as possible. The point is to express them in a way that even their spouse-to-be would recognize.
That in turn becomes the foundation for a conversation between them. After they’ve filled in the blanks, you can have Jack tell Jill what he’s written, explaining as needed. You can then ask Jill, “Do you remember any times in which you’ve seen Jack stressed out in this way? What did you see? What was the context or situation?” Help them reflect together on what happened.
The point is to invite mutual understanding and then empathy: “Yeah, in that situation, I was really going crazy because… (fill in the blank).” Sometimes, Jill may notice that Jack is upset, but instead of seeking to understand the source of his distress, she responds automatically and defensively. But if she knows Jack’s signs of stress, and Jack knows that she knows, it can help create the basis for a different conversation.
Jack can take the initiative, noticing and acknowledging his stress, and asking for a break. Or Jill can take the initiative. She can notice his tension, realize that this is how his body responds to stressful situations, and soften her approach. Or she might actually say, “Honey, your shoulders look really tense. Are you doing okay?”
Use this teaching time to foster mutual understanding—a sense of unity and specialness as a couple that says, “We’re close enough that we know these things about each other and can talk about it openly.”