It seems counterintuitive at first glance: how could sitting quietly by yourself be beneficial in romantic relationships with other people — talking and texting, going out for a drink or dancing, and running around in the world? In reality, it might be the most useful thing we can do to improve our relationships.
Pumping our Internal Iron
When athletes train for peak performance, they condition their bodies for the sport, whether it’s extra cardio for endurance or flexibility exercises to target key muscles and bones. In the same way, we condition our hearts and minds (mostly unconsciously) based on the activities we undertake or neglect: the music we listen to pump us up or cool us down, the time we set aside to talk to friends, or the hobbies we engage in to nourish our creativity. On the flip side, constantly checking our phones, pushing ourselves constantly at work, or ignoring our vital friendships also reinforce our actions and reactions.
Our conditioning colors how we show up in our relationships—at work, with friends or family, and especially with our partners. If we’re stressed out and unaware, we rush into our interactions with a metaphorical bag of snakes, dump them out on the ground, and shriek. Meditation allows us to notice what we’re doing throughout the day and respond accordingly, so that our partners aren’t required to be constant snake charmers.
Balancing Internal and External Awareness
Does that mean we should pretend that we’re not struggling? Absolutely not. Once we have some awareness of how we’re conditioning our mental habits on an ongoing basis (and how we have throughout our life), we can keep an eye on what’s arising in the present moment. Mindfulness is a skill that allows us to pay attention both internally and externally.
For me, that often plays out in noticing how I’m feeling and how I’m reacting to my wife. It’s given me the ability to notice if I’m feeling distracted, hungry, or irritated, and to not blame it on her or take it out on her—well, most of the time. Mindfulness isn’t about being perfect! It’s about paying kind attention to how something you’ve said or done affects your partner, regardless of your intent. But we’re not mind readers—meditation has a lot of benefits, but few superpowers.
So how do we navigate the messiness of our internal experience and all the external drama that gets blown up by the weird text from your partner (or lack of a text when you expect one)?
In her recent Netflix special Brené Brown shared the phrase that has changed her marriage: “The story I’m telling myself is ______.” Using that structure, she’s able to communicate mindfully with her spouse about how she’s feeling and what internal reactions and stories she’s creating. Being able to surface those stories with your partner allows for an honest exploration of how your conditioning and present moment experience are combining, and gives your partner a chance to see that clearly.
In the end, mindfulness is about seeing the present moment with clarity and acting with integrity and appreciation — qualities that any person would love to have in a relationship.