What Christmas gives to the family, Valentine’s Day offers to partners: a chance to revel in our romantic ideal versions of relationship. Both holidays are fraught with intense expectation and grave peril.
Thoughtfully matching all our feelings about our partner with a single, intensely meaningful gift is an impossible task. Even as we try to understand our partner’s predicament, we can be left nursing an overriding sense of disappointment. How have you chosen to punish your partner for their fallible gift giving?
Whether or not your Valentine’s Day hopes have been gratified or crushed this year, the reality of maintaining a healthy sense of self in partnership still awaits as the weeks move on. Real intimacy requires refocusing your attention on your own felt experiences, those of your partner, and the relationship between you. You are not alone if this seems to be an unfinished project. For all of us, partnership is a work in progress.
The following three-step conscious partnership practice offers support in staying present and connected while dealing with relational stress. Once learned, it takes no more than 3 minutes to practice (perhaps a little longer the first time as you read through the instructions).
Step One: Awareness of Selfmeditation practice by simply becoming aware that you are thinking. Right now you are thinking about this article. Perhaps comparing it to past articles you’ve read about mindfulness. Perhaps losing interest and considering whether or not to read just one more sentence before clicking the back button.
These are your thoughts:
Don’t use attempts at mindfulness to abandon your thoughts! They are smarter than you and will always win the contest for your attention.
“Yes, thoughts, I hear you.”
Since sensations of pain and pleasure also rate pretty high on our list of preoccupations, let’s include them in this meditation as well.
“My stomach is gurgling. I should eat breakfast soon.
My back still hurts so bad. Let me just think about breakfast instead.”
There’s a sensation and a thought. We can be aware of sensations and thoughts, almost at the same time. As we focus on sensations and thoughts, we can discover how coordinated they are. They work as a team.
“He totally blew me off on Valentine’s Day. It makes my stomach hurt, like I got kicked in the gut. I think he’s such a moron.”
Here’s a great mindfulness practice starter: How are your thoughts and sensations collaborating to give you an experience right now? Take a minute now to observe your thoughts and sensations as they take over. Set your cell phone timer if there is no clock in view. Make sure to allow a full minute before stopping.
Step Two: Empathy with Other
Once you have allowed yourself some dedicated time to self, it may be a little easier to imagine the experience of your partner. If you find yourself saying that you have absolutely no clue what goes on in your partner’s head, don’t believe yourself. We are a social species. You have neurons in your brain equipped specifically for reading the thoughts and sensations of those you care about. These neurons have been picking up messages for some time now. Your body has been matching the gestures, facial features, and word choices of your partner with corresponding muscles, thoughts, and sensations within your own body. Although you are certainly not able to experience what your partner experiences, you have skills that can bring you much closer to understanding. What’s more, the very fact that you have read this far into this article means that you have some interest in pursuing this!
A little advance warning: Feelings of guilt or fear will tempt you to use your understanding of your partner to your own advantage. Be aware of your desire to win whatever argument is currently in place.
“She’s feeling insecure so she’s probably going to manipulate me.”
Don’t confuse empathy with the attempt to regain leverage or control of your partner! For the purpose of this meditation, experiment with focusing simply on their felt sensations and thoughts.
“Her squint looks like she is worried.
She seems to think she is all alone.
She likes to hum.”
There is no responsibility to problem solve, only to note what you observe. Take a minute now to imagine and accept your partner’s sensations and thoughts. Make sure to allow a full minute before stopping. (This may seem like a very long time. If your mind goes blank, just wait patiently.)
Step Three: Tending the ‘We’
In every relationship there are three parties involved; I , You, and We. People will typically take notice of the We of their relationship during times of intense connection. More frequently, however, the We is noticed by feelings of loss during times of disconnection.
“Hey, were you just checking the game on your phone?”
“When your mom’s in the house, it’s like I disappear.”
In many ways, the We of your relationship has moods and rhythms just like a person. It can get busy, grow silent, have cravings, become overwhelmed—all the strange, unexpected tendencies of a unique being. Since people can tend to disagree on how much connection time is appropriate for a healthy relationship, their experience of We is sometimes that of a sad victim in a vicious tug of war. Of course, people wish to have the final say on how much intimacy to have with their partners and when. In reality, however, neither partner has control of the We. It is a gift.
Connection happens. Disconnection happens. Every relationship has its own patterns for successful regulation between the two. Similar to the practice of empathy, tending the We involves temporarily setting aside all desire for control. It is simply a matter of taking a realistic reading of what your body senses about the relationship. How is it feeling? What might it need? Where does it want to go next? Take a full minute now to imagine and accept the experience of your relationship. (Once again, this may seem like a very long time. If you have a few extra seconds, make room for gratitude.)
Siegel, R. (2010). The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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