Building relationship resilience during self-isolation
Developing relationship mindfulness
In my previous post, I introduced the idea of building relationship resilience by taking responsibility for how we behave during stressful times. In this post, I’d like to write about how to use mindfulness to increase your relationship self-awareness and your awareness of your partner.
Mindful awareness of your partner
If we want to change our behaviour towards our partner, then it can also help to raise our awareness of our partner using mindfulness. You might already have used a mindfulness app, or (even better) gone on an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is the gold standard. He states that mindfulness is not about clearing your head of unwelcome thoughts, or controlling the way you feel. It is a mental stance we take towards our experience He describes it as:
“awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally…in the service of self-understanding and wisdom”
Dr. Alan Fruzzetti in his self-help book for high conflict couples describes some everyday relationship mindfulness exercises you could do to increase your compassionate awareness of your partner. Here are three of them that I’ve adapted:
- Simply notice your partner when she or he is doing something near you that you are not involved in (e.g. reading the paper, playing with your child, sleeping, folding laundry). Notice your reactions too, but bring your attention gently and promptly back to your partner. Try to separate your judgments from your descriptive observations.
- When your partner is talking to someone else, notice and describe what she or he is saying and doing. Be curious about what you think she or he is thinking, wanting and feeling, based only on your observations. Again, notice any judgments but try to separate them from your observations. Open your heart by extending empathy, love, and compassion towards your partner.
- Practice listening mindfully to your partner (in a non-conflict situation). Listen for understanding. Again, be curious about what you think she or he is thinking, wanting and feeling, based only on your observations. Again, extend empathy, love, and compassion for your partner. When you respond to your partner, try to show that you get how they feel by validating them. Let them know that you sympathise and understand using simple phrases such as, “that sounds really hard”, or “it seems like that really moved you”.
When you notice that your partner is: 1) doing something that you don’t like, or 2) is not doing something that you think they should do, or 3) not doing it the way you think it should be done, that’s a cue to practise mindfulness of your own reactions. Try doing the following:
- Pause and take a moment to notice any physical or emotional signs of irritation or frustration, such as tensing or bracing.
- Try to give a name to any feeling that’s present (e.g. anger, annoyance) and rate its intensity out of 10.
- Check whether any other feelings might be present (e.g. sadness, embarrassment, guilt, anxiety) and be curious about what they might mean.
- Notice what’s going through your mind – what are you telling yourself about the motivation behind your partner’s behaviour – it might not be accurate?
- Before you react, think about what you want to achieve – if it’s to vent, or even to wound your partner, then wait until you’re calmer (an emotion level of 3 out of 10 or lower) and have had a chance to think through the consequences of what you’re about to say or do.
- If you have said or done something hurtful or intemperate, apologise promptly and sincerely.
Make requests, not complaints
When you give yourself a chance to reflect on something that might be getting you wound up, consider whether your reaction is disproportionate – is it more about your standards, or your current frame of mind, or perhaps an area of sensitivity for you. What would you need to do to let it go?
If, after reflection, it is genuinely important to you, (for example, if it seems dangerous or unreasonable), then think about how you’re going to raise the issue. What do you need to do to get across how you feel and what you want in a way that doesn’t antagonise your partner or make them feel criticised?
If you want your partner to change, they’ll probably need a good enough reason – in other words, it will have to benefit them in some way too. If you do want to bring up something that’s bothering you, ask yourself when would be a good moment? Check that out with your partner – it might not be a convenient time. Before you raise a concern or complaint, say something sincere, positive and appreciative.
Remind yourself that you are both trying to cope the best you can under very difficult circumstances. Beware of the scorpion’s sting in the tail, where a compliment is undone by the criticism that follows it. If you always preface a complaint with something positive, the next time you say something nice your partner might justifiably become suspicious of what’s coming next.
Try to tune into your partner’s experience – resolve to do your best to behave with compassion and gentleness for your sake as well as theirs, even if, right now, you’re struggling to get past your own feelings. Be prepared to listen to your partner’s point of view and take it on board – work to find the middle ground that leaves both of you feeling appreciated and connected. Remember that mindfulness takes practice. Extend compassion to yourself when you fall short of your intentions and focus on trying again.
I hope that you have found this post helpful. In my next post, I’ll talk about how to face the emotional impact of change.
For now, my very best wishes to all. Let’s keep each other safe, look after ourselves, and, above all, try to be kind.