Three years ago, I did my first “Mindfulness for Couples” retreat with my friend and colleague, Don Ferguson, Ph.D. Don is one of those unique individuals who think deeply about the way things are and he can translate that insight into something that makes a real difference.
He understands something about intimate relationships that few of us realize.
While an intimate relationship can be the most wonderful thing that a human being can experience, our intimate partner also holds more power to hurt us than any other person in the world. In a truly intimate relationship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner. He or she knows us in ways that no one else does. Being rejected by this person feels different than being “dissed” by an acquaintance or a co-worker. While rejections in a relationship that is not as deep can be distressing, the potential to be told we are unwanted by a person who truly knows us intimately feels like being told that the essence of who we are is bad.
This is why fights between couples can often be both so scary and so intense. The potential to be told, by the person who knows you most deeply, that you are disappointing to him or her triggers an intense feeling of threat that can result in a primitive neurobiological reaction nearly equal to the reaction that your life is in jeopardy.
To make matters worse, this reaction happens amazingly fast. You can be having a full-blown, fight-or-flight reaction toward your partner even before you can formulate a thought! So you are feeling angry or wanting to escape before you even have a clear thought about what is going on between you. Many arguments that couples have, even about very trivial things, rapidly develop a quality of self-preservation (because you and/or your partner feel threatened) rather than working together to find a solution. Because you are in a mode of self-preservation, you are much more likely to say things in order to hurt your partner. You find it difficult to listen to his or her point of view. You may want to win the argument and even want to destroy this person you love because you feel like you will be destroyed by him or her if you do not emerge victorious.
This is, of course, an irrational response. (You and your partner are both irrational during one of these fights.) When you are not fighting, you want the best for your partner. You trust him or her with your feelings and dreams and fears.
When Don and I first talked about putting this retreat together, I understood that he had identified one of the most difficult and confusing aspects of relationships that couples faced. To a lesser degree, this is even a problem for many other relationships – with friends and co-workers. But it is a significant problem within deep and committed relationships. Don understood the potential of mindfulness to navigate these difficult issues within intimate relationships.
Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. as a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present, and without judgement. The skill of mindfulness increases awareness of the present moment.
When you learn to become more mindful, you can learn to notice the neurobiological threat reaction that occurs within intimate relationships. A mindful awareness allows you to notice the physiological change that occurs when you perceive a potential threat. But rather than react, you can choose to pause to evaluate first. Is this person attempting to harm you? Or are you reacting because of your own feelings of vulnerability? With a brief pause to become more aware, you are able to make a more rational choice.
With the development of a more mindful relationship, you can act with more compassion toward each other and be more self-compassionate with yourself. You and your partner do not need to be perfect to deepen your connection to each other and to recover from mistakes and miscommunications that happen in the course of trying to share your lives with each other.
With practice, this means that you are able to develop an ability to regulate your response rather than react to the circumstances. If you are able to recognize that the issue that is sparking a neurobiological threat reaction is actually a relatively minor annoyance, you can choose a response that is appropriate to the situation. When your partner is also mindful, there is less defensiveness and more willingness to work together to resolve issues.
Developing this kind of relationship takes practice. When you know that both you and your intimate partner are working to make the relationship a place that honors each of you as fully and as completely at possible with all of your strengths and weaknesses, you can safely let go of the impulse to react to each other from a defensive place and treat each other with the love and respect that you dreamed of when you committed to each other.
Being in a truly successful and loving relationship takes hard work. It does not happen by accident. And it does not occur because you found the right one, so now you will live happily ever after. You must work on yourself and learn to work together with your partner to make your relationship become what it truly can be.
Since Don and I developed this weekend retreat, he has accepted a position out in California where he continues to work with couples using this approach. I continue to offer weekend retreats, although I really miss doing them with Don. The next retreat is scheduled for October 28-30, 2016 at the Whitehaven Bed & Breakfast in Minocqua, WI. To learn more you can contact my office at (262) 544-6486.