I have a big disconnect in my life. In my job as a social worker, I try to be a compassionate person. I meditate daily and do yoga. But I’m so easily triggered by my husband! To be fair, I set him off too. I seem to be able to find peace except where I most want to find it. Is this common? And what can I do about it?
KEVIN: The kind of tensions you’ve mentioned are not just common, they are nearly universal in longterm relationships. The fact that they’re so common, however, doesn’t mean they’re no big deal.
How a couple handles tensions determines the trajectory of their relationship. Most couples fall into one of three patterns: Both partners volatile, both avoiding, or one pursuing tensions and the other avoiding or minimizing them. These patterns playing out over years can make people feel stuck going through loops again and again.
I was at a marriage conference twenty years ago when I heard marriage-counseling pioneer John Gottman say that he had given up on teaching couples how to do empathic listening. “Most people just can’t do it. It’s too hard—we need to teach them lots of other skills,” he said. Yet I agree with theologian Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen.”
You asked what you can do about the difficulty of finding peace in your marriage. I tell partners that the best thing each of them can do is work on the “I” in marriage. When both partners are making lots of “you always …” and “you never …” statements, that’s a losing game. A deeper, more spiritual growth process begins when each partner starts admitting how challenging it is to interrupt her or his own volatile or avoiding patterns. Clearly seeing one’s own reactivity is the first step in learning to show up to conflict with mindfulness, nonjudgment, and the intention to be a loving presence.
Any “listening skill” isn’t best used as a technique we trot out occasionally to fix our problems. What most needs fixing is the energy we bring to conflicts. We’re on a different path when we begin accepting tensions as mindfulness bells calling us to apply our meditation practices at crunch time in our relationships.
Much of the difficulty in approaching listening this way flows from thinking of conflict as something bad that we want to get rid of. We treat tensions like ants in the kitchen: They don’t belong there, so let’s get rid of them! We’re conditioned to think love is more about being happy than learning to be holy, so we think conflicts shouldn’t be in the picture. But Soul Mates author Thomas Moore wrote: “Love finds its soul in its feelings of incompleteness, impossibility, and imperfection.” From a Buddhist perspective, Moore’s insight points to the reality that the inherent unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of life shows up in our most important relationships. Love gets no exemption from the first noble truth.
How do we make listening a spiritual practice? Here are four guidelines.
1. Practice mindful awareness throughout each day of how reactive your inner world is. When you meet every small or large tension in life with the habit of mindful awareness, you will have a better chance of responding to relationship tensions that way.
2. Notice tension when it arises with your partner. Notice your wish that the tension was not there. Notice your reactive impulse to do something about tension by escalating it or by pulling away from it.
3. Center by being aware of your breath, which allows you to find the mindful gap and avoid reactive words or behaviors. In addition, you can touch the fingertips of both hands together or focus on the point of contact between your thumb and index finger. Breathing and physically feeling a center point can remind you that conflict is a call to centered, mindful presence. Even one partner changing their reactivity can, over time, help the other partner see their reactive energies more clearly. (This is not true in abusive relationships; I am addressing common, ordinary conflict patterns.)
4. Shift from furious to curious. I find it helpful and fun to remember that furious begins with FU and curious begins with CU (see you). The practice of putting our reactive responses on hold so that we can be curious about understanding a partner more deeply allows mindfulness to be turned into loving presence. Try: “I’m interested in how you feel. Can you help me understand?” When confused about how to stay curious, just say, “Tell me more.”
If none of the above works because the tension is too escalated, agree to take a break so that both of you can allow the tension in your minds and bodies to settle. This is not a failure. It’s what wise couples do when they are too triggered. A spiritual way to return to discussing the tension might involve taking a few minutes of quiet centering together and then one person offering, “I’d like to try practicing some listening.” The word practice is key. There’s no perfection in listening, only the commitment to keep returning to it as a spiritual practice.
Many religious couples talk about wanting God to be part of their marriage. I tell them, “Great! And the way God gets into your marriage is through your willingness to be a Godpresence to each other.” This doesn’t mean lots of pious language when times are good and cursing or cold-shouldering when tensions arise. It means spending a lifetime practicing to become a gentle, nonjudging, listening presence.