Close relationships can bring out the best and worst in us. A mindful approach to relationships requires a mindful approach to life in general.
This series is intended for information purposes only and is not intended as a guide for any reader’s specific mental health situation. If you are struggling with mental or emotional symptoms, see your physician for a physical checkup and consult a mental health professional.
A man came to me years ago and told me his wife and children would not talk to him. They all said he was controlling, but he had no idea what they were talking about. I wondered if I would get a glimpse in our first meeting what his family could see that he could not. It was a windy day and the ceiling tiles in my office jumped a bit with each strong gust of wind. It was a quirk I and my clients had lived with for years—no big deal. But not to this man. “That’s just not right!,” he said, and before I could stop him he was up on a chair removing ceiling tiles to investigate the problem. “I think I see what your wife and children are saying,” I told him. As I worked with him in future meetings, he would often instantly greet my best professional input with “I don’t believe that for a second!” I told him that his quick reaction time may have served him well when he was a star athlete, but it was seriously harming his relationships.
If we’re honest, whenever we’re not at our best in relationships it is usually because our reaction time is too quick. Moving into tension rapidly (what marriage researcher John Gottman calls “fast startup”) instead of pausing, breathing, and considering our best response to the situation usually makes a difficult situation worse. Harder to spot, however, is the reactivity of habitually moving away from tension quickly, preferring to avoid any possibility of conflict. Such a person will often deny they played any part in a tense interaction because they only wanted to keep the peace. But moving too quickly away from tension can be just as habitual and reactive as moving too quickly into tension.
I saw Gottman years ago say at a conference that he no longer believed in teaching couples how to do empathic (or active) listening. He said it is just too hard for people to do, so he didn’t want to make it a focus of therapy anymore. At the time I remember thinking: Well, that can’t be the answer when something is difficult—to just give up on it! What are we missing that would allow more people to experience some success at hearing each other at a deep level? In time, I’ve come to see that the missing element is mindfulness practice.
It’s easy to focus on the other person when problems arise but harder to focus on oneself. I often tell couples that both of them need to “work on the I in conflict.” How do we work on the I in conflict? We need to become aware of our own habitual response patterns when tension arises. Are we quick to criticize or defend? Quick to look for the nearest exit from the conversation? Quick to accept all the blame or assign all the blame to the other? All of these reactive styles can benefit from mindfulness practice. Why? Because when we practice mindfulness, we’re getting reps at putting a gap between stimulus and response. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, put it this way: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Listening to a loved one with whom we’ve had a conflict is perhaps the truest test of our mindfulness practice. People who can stay calm in very difficult work situations may lose it when an intimate partner pushes an old button. And when such buttons are activated, it is so easy to just focus on telling the other person to stop pushing the buttons! That, however, will likely just push her or his buttons! A tense encounter can easily become like a feedback loop in a microphone. The way to stop the feedback loop is for each person to put a gap between stimulus and response. And this requires daily mindfulness practice—not just a few minutes a day, but treating everything that shows up each day as an invitation to find the gap.
I consider really listening to a loved one who is upset to be mindfulness meditation in practice. It’s crunch time, I tell myself as I begin to notice my reactive mind want to cut the other person off and set them straight. Are you going to be reactive, or are you going to keep a gap between stimulus and response? I ask myself. Do you want to go with your quickest, habitual responses, or shall we try slowing down and really listening? Now is the time to put all that mindfulness practice into action.
There are two questions we can ask the other person when listening that can help us avoid falling back into our reactive patterns. The first is, “Can you tell me more about that?” This invitation replaces debating, disagreeing, ignoring, and other responses that are sure to complicate the situation. When we ask to hear more and keep asking for more until the person feels truly heard, we stop the reactive loop.
The second question, which comes from Gottman, is a way of shifting from an unhelpful conversation to the one we really need to have. The next time you’re in a tough conversation with a loved one, try asking: What’s the dream within this conflict for you? This question assumes the other person is not being difficult just because they want to make you miserable. Rather, they feel something is important enough that they are willing to go into tension with you over it. When you really listen to the dream or ideal that is so important to the other person, you are in a conversation that is relationship-building rather than relationship-damaging. Letting go of a reactive conversation and asking about the dream within the conflict is putting mindfulness practice into action.