by Alan S. Wolkenstein, MSW, ACSW
Rituals around increasing the positive attachments in a couple are vital for the health of on-going relationships.
Christopher Moshe Elliott, LCSW-C
Working with families in therapy has always been challenging. The partnership component is the cornerstone of our families, and enhancing their partnership is the intention of this article. Development of bonding and strengthening the relationship by creating emotional intimacy between partners require skills and knowledge oftentimes left to chance.
I want to share with you "joe-time" as a relationship-building skill - to utilize for our own relationships, in teaching and education, couples and family therapy, and with couples who are pursuing on their own the bonding and intimacy necessary in creating and sustaining a strong and well-functioning partnership within their families.
Joe-time seems to have started for Kathy and me a very long time ago. It wasn’t a ritual then - just a half hour or so on Saturdays and Sundays and even holidays. We both worked full time so couldn’t do it during the week, and with small kids (Haran was about four and Matthew was an infant), it was nearly impossible. So, on the weekend we began by brewing a fresh pot of coffee in our beat up old coffee pot and would sit down in the kitchen to talk about us and enjoy the brew. There were no rules except that we would not talk about our work or even the boys, but to let the time evolve into any other conversation or even simple quietness. Joe-time usually lasted about 30 minutes. Then we got up, cleaned the coffee cups and pot, and resumed our lives. In a sense, we were learning to disconnect from as many issues as we could and going for “us-time” instead (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). We quietly let other couples and friends in on our discovery. Some thought it was much about nothing, some thought it was a nice gesture but not necessary for them, and some started it but eventually gave it up as demands on their time from work and children eroded it away. Kathy and I sensed that it was as if it had never happened. Eventually, we stopped talking about it with others.
As I look back, joe-time actually came on us unheralded, with no trumpets blaring or announcements in the local papers or on TV. It wasn’t even a ritual then - just one more attempt to cling to our relationship during busy and almost frantic times. Then we began to seek it out if we were traveling. We would find a coffee shop or a restaurant that allured us with the smell of fresh coffee. It still wasn’t a ritual - just time to be together and talk. I noticed it seemed to be at 9 and then at 2.
St. Luke’s Family Medicine Residency in Milwaukee
I began to brew coffee in a huge 30-cup coffee pot at 9 and 2 at the Family Medicine Residency, where I had been hired as the behavioral scientist. Some staff, medical faculty, and eventually residents would quietly wander in and pour some coffee. Sometimes, they would either rush out the door with the cup or sit down and talk. For the residents and medical students, it was a quiet time to talk over a complicated case or ask a question about the psychological sciences. I never considered it teaching time but, rather, an opportunity for learners to explore and think about themselves and their patients. At times, faculty would bring their own cups, and as they poured coffee, sometimes, but not always, they would begin to talk about critical issues that seemed to swirl above their heads. As I think about it now, I realize that when they gently closed my door, the conversation would quickly become very personal. They asked questions, they solicited information from my perspective, and they pleasantly challenged my expertise. Sometimes they shared about their families, or their dreams of the future, or their concerns of not being as gifted in their craft as they wished to be. It was not yet a ritual, or at least I never thought of it as one. It was simply joe-time in Alan’s office.
Joe-Time Suggested to Clients and Beyond
I suggested joe-time to some of the families I was treating in therapy. It was about creating a setting that would be for them to talk to each other without any fanfare. When couples were struggling with challenges that seemed to overwhelm them, joe-time placed no demands on them and didn’t judge or evaluate them; it gave them time to explore, to feel, to share, and to hopefully believe they could work through their conflicts. Most couples took the cue and tried it. Some could not sustain it. Some didn’t like it. Some loved it and proclaimed they would try to continue it after we stopped therapy.
I pondered whether joe-time could be a helpful experience for couples even though they were not seeking therapy or counseling, but looking for a dynamic process in which they could explore their relationships in a specific carved out period of time. Yes, I believed they could.
Second Generation Joe-Time
Our younger son, Matthew Evan, was an entrenched joe-time believer and was following through with his wife, Gabi Moskowitz. He must have seen us do it and wanted it initially for himself and for them as a couple.
Then after eons of time and we both had retired (well, semi-retired for me), we found ourselves even more into joe-time, every day that we were together. We structured our day so we would meet someplace for joe-time, at home or about the city. We talked about sharing the value of a lifetime of joe-times piled one on top of the other, every day for years and years. Yes, we talked about the laughter shared, the tears shared, the dreams shared, and the questions of what our relationship would have been without joe-time.
Questions That Couples Have Asked and Beyond
Did it have to be coffee? Did it have to be scheduled? How long should it last? What if it isn’t working? What about topics? What about rules? No, it didn’t have to be coffee. Some folks drifted to tea; one couple went for green tea in the morning and root beer in the afternoon; some went for wine and a few for hot chocolate.There seemed to be a theme that joe-time was special, regardless of the drink. Some couples really experimented and went for special colors to be worn, or music to announce they were moving to joe-time. One couple found joe-time to come upon them after a walk in the woods near their home. One couple created joe-time in their boat in the middle of a lake with a couple cans of cold beer. A sweet couple I worked with admitted that joe-time occurred after almost every sexual encounter when they would drink buttermilk and quietly talk about “them.”
Yes, joe-time should be scheduled for about the same time each time, for everyone is busy and it can easily be swept aside by other, seemingly more important, things to do. No, there should be almost no rules except to focus on the couple and their interactions, inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. The seeming lack of rules appeared to make it easy, but it was not for us at first as it was true for others. The tendency to move ahead, get to really “important” issues, not to permit joe-time to find its own cadence, and even struggling to keep joe-time “us-focused” caused people to give it up too soon, or try to change the deceivingly simple, but demanding rules such as scheduling and being “us-focused.” As to how much time, I realized that the experience may be very new and suggested that they begin with just 10 minutes and move ahead when comfortable with their new skills and the emotional rewards in doing so. As in physical exercise, one begins slowly and moves along as skills are mastered and strength is improved. For couples doing this type of “us-time” as part of their relationship already, joe-time may not be necessary, but it can’t hurt. In fact, it might be fun and contribute to the relationship in some interesting ways: emotional warmth and a sense of earned trustworthiness are extremely important values that people look for in others (Cuddy, 2015). I believe joe-time gives a couple terrific opportunities to seek out, enhance, and enjoy these two vitally important virtues within a meaningful relationship.
My friend, William Beyer, is Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in nearby Thiensville, Wisconsin, and officiates at a “Blue Christmas” service for people in the community who have lost loved ones. It is a wonderful ritual, for it is about coming together and being part of a healing experience. A spiritual joe-time.
But I also have talked with people who fashion their own personal rituals. For example, how they arrange their time in the morning is one, how and when they select their clothes or not, how they arise in the morning, and maybe take a few deep breaths as a short meditation, or invite the Divine into their hearts, or what they love to cook for breakfast. I believe these are more than simply habits or time saving. Our days are filled with examples of rituals, but most are accepted and followed without our conscious awareness of their underlying significance and value to us. We tend to become aware of them only when we cannot follow them any longer. It is in the loss of them that we feel less secure, less aware of options, and less sure of the future. Appreciation often comes later, when they are no longer available for us. Losing health, a partner, even a vision of the future can drive them away from us at the very time we need them the most. Careful guidance by a mentor or guide can facilitate the development of new experiences, coping strategies, and eventually new rituals to replace the old and help people navigate through their future.
Joe-Time and Relational Cycles
Joe-time can be successful at any time in relationships: for young couples struggling to find their partnership relationship without losing their individual identity, for couples with children to retain a sense of partnership when so much of their identity is going to the children and parenting role, for middle aged couples who are challenged by losing their parenting identity back to a partnership, and for elder couples coping with the changes of aging (Wolkenstein, Lawrence, & Butler, 1985).
It is to all couples, but especially the elder couples, that quality of life can be measured in many ways, but a sense of continuity between the partners is one of utmost importance (Wolkenstein & Butler, 1992). Using joe-time to stay connected to the memories, values, beliefs, and attitudes that they developed and that helped sustain them through their relationship cycles is valuable. You can identify Kathy and me as we live through our elder relationship. Joe-time can be the place where memories are created and built up as they nurture and guard us - memory upon memory carefully laid down, one on top of the other like a stack of fine linen sheets.
Young couples, consciously or not, create rituals to positively influence and shape their relationships. Older couples and individuals create rituals to help them deal with their losses and grieving. The reality is that older couples and individuals who created rituals earlier in life find it easier to create them now, for they have the skills and the experience in doing so. Earlier success facilitates success at this time.
Reflections on Joe-Time
Joe-time is an opportunity for relational reflection, communication, enhanced self-awareness, and psychological depth (Wolkenstein & Wolkenstein, 2009). It is about the space and time to search for the all-important and necessary exchange of love, respect, mutual regard for each other, and sometimes even sadness as part of their joy. However, the biggest single obstacle to joe-time is simply beginning it. People are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with its process and seemingly unclear content. For them, let me offer four questions to “prime the pump” and get them going:
- Who am I in our relationship?
- Where do I want to go with our relationship?
- What are my gifts to you? (Muller, 1997)
- What determines my view of how I want our relationship to be? (Peck, 1978)
Each person listening will then repeat back what the first person said for clarity and further understanding, and then ask the same questions. If done over time and with sincerity, these questions will gently open the couple up to a deeper sense of insight and self-realization of the value and importance of working within their relationship. As an anonymous member of Al Anon once said, “First uncover, then discover, then recover.” (Edery, 2013)
Ultimately, you can experience joe-time as part of your relationship. You create your own experiences, your own emotions, and uncover your losses and your gains. It can be successful for it gives security and strength. No more and no less.
Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. San Diego, California, Talent Smart.
Cuddy, A.. (2015). Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Edery, R.. (2013). Trauma and Transformation: A 12 Step Guide. Brooklyn, New York: Createspace.
Muller, W. (1997). How Then, Shall We Live? Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Peck, M. S. (1978). The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Wolkenstein, A., & Butler, D. (1992). Quality of Life Among the Elderly: Self Perspectives of Some Healthy Elderly. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education, 12(4), 59-68.
Wolkenstein, A., Lawrence, S., & Butler, D. (1985). Teaching Family: The Family Medicine Chart Review. Family, Systems, and Health, 3 (2), 171-178.
Wolkenstein, A., & Wolkenstein, M. E. (2009). Using Reflective Learning in Graduate Medical Education and Practice. Medical Encounter, 23 (3), 97-102.
Alan S. Wolkenstein, MSW, ACSW, is Senior Educator and Consultant, Wolkenstein and Associates, LLC, Mequon, Wisconsin. He is a retired Clinical Professor of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public health. "Prof" writes, reflects on, and lectures about the psychodynamics of caring for elders with the challenges they face and the needs of all of us for continuity in our lives and continued connections with important others.