I often receive calls for marriage counseling whereby one spouse is eager to get to work and the other spouse … well, not so much. Doing good couples’ therapy is a bit challenging when only one partner is present. As the old adage goes, there are always two sides to every story. And for the therapist, objectivity is essential.
In such cases, I’m reminded of clients whose tendency is to get caught up in the internal negative dialogue regarding the state of their marriage. When we find ourselves unhappy with our relationship, marriage, or with our partner we can succumb to a mindset that magnifies all of the wrong instead of what might be going right. Like an endless running commentary along the bottom screen of our mind, we keep getting drawn back into a spiral of disappointment, sadness, bitterness, and frustration.
Perhaps you feel your partner regularly fails you – they forget to complete tasks or keep promises. Maybe your spouse is often pre-occupied with their electronic device – hidden behind the screen of their mobile phone – you're reminded of how often you feel unimportant, dismissed or rejected. Instead of gently reaching out to our partner, to gain their attention and communicate our emotional needs, many of us choose to hold back and continue to gather more evidence that validates our feelings of unhappiness. Until we are willing to become more self-aware of such attempts of cognitive sabotage, we are guaranteed to remain stuck.
In such scenarios, I remind clients of alternatives actions they can consider that will potentially better their relationship – even if it’s just you alone who’s working on things. Part of the distress clients feels is very much aligned to how we choose to think about a problem. In other words, we become focused on what appears broken and overlook the good stuff happening right in front of us. Plenty of research lends itself to the understanding that our negative thoughts can be a “source of enduring suffering in both the mind and body.” Further, we know that certain mindfulness practices can significantly improve our experience of happiness and satisfaction within ourselves and in our romantic relationships
To break out of the negative feedback loop make the decision to give yourself, your partner and your relationship the benefit of the doubt. Practice very purposefully and mindfully those things that naturally enhance the experience of joy and connection.
To gain this most benefit from mindfulness, you must first realize that mindfulness is a practice that can be learned more practice. First, there are a few rules about the practice you must apply: 1) Toss out all assumptions about your spouse’s behavior or motivations that you have no way of confirming; and 2) Silence the cynical voice in your head and get rid of the tendency to judge your partner – these habits interfere with opportunities for you to experience sincere openness to something new.
Step 1: To start, take a moment to purposefully notice something big, small or random about your partner that you like or makes you feel good. Be open to finding or noticing something about your partner that perhaps you’ve never really spent much time thinking about before. Remain open … you just might be surprised.
Maybe it’s the way he laughs out at his favorite late-night comedian
Maybe it’s the gentle movement she makes when handing you a mug of coffee in the morning
Maybe it’s how handsome he looks in the color blue
Maybe it’s just how hard she works to balance work and home life
Maybe it’s the way he folds the bath towels differently from you
Step 2: Now, just notice – bring your full attention to the moment, especially that about your partner that has caught your attention
Step 3: Remain aware – let what you notice in. Feel and experience what the moment is like for you. How does it make you feel? How do you notice your body responding?
Step 4: Sustain – Can you sustain this moment and this feeling for as long as possible? Can you let the moment resonate within you, and with your awareness fully open allow yourself to be present?
What did you notice yourself feeling towards your partner? Warmth, joy, gratitude, appreciation, attraction, compassion? Do you think you could communicate that with your partner? There will be good things about your partner that you will notice if you simply take time to look. Even noticing your spouse without any expectation at all can lend to discovering something new. Keep working with this practice of mindfulness and you should soon realize how it can help break the negative thought spiral that once kept you stuck.