Mindful Marriages

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By Suzanne Burger

Couples who are in a constant state of bickering often start their first meeting with me by asking me how marital therapy can change their situation. I often respond by telling them that while I can give them skills to increase respect, improve communication, and promote intimacy; my hope is that they will become more aware of their intentions and more accepting of whatever they encounter. According to author Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Many marriages run into problems because each partner wrongly believes the following:
“if only my husband (wife) were more (less)…, then I would be happy.” Or, simply put, “fix him (her)”. Recognizing and giving up this false belief is one of the most important steps you can take towards improving your marriage.

There is a seeming paradox between accepting your partner with all the flaws and annoying habits he or she possesses and working to make positive changes in your relationship. Yet it is possible and even essential to discover that you can work towards change and make a commitment to improving your marriage while accepting who your partner is without judgment.

So, what are some easy ways to encourage mindfulness in your marriage? Here are 10 helpful ideas:

1. Notice and express appreciation for the little things your spouse does to support you and the family. A simple thank you for picking up dinner or diffusing a battle between your kids goes a long way to creating a warm atmosphere at home.

2. Take the time to listen, really listen, to your partner. Turn off all the distractions, look at your partner, and ask exploratory questions. “So, why do you think your boss gave you and not Adam that project?” as an inquiry that results from a commitment to be an active listener. “Hmmm. So, what should we have for dinner, anyway,” does not. Even conversations as short as 15 minutes during which both partners are fully present go a long way towards building a mindful marriage.

3. Check your own mood. For many couples, the first few minutes back together after a long day at work sets the tone for the rest of the evening. Be aware of what mood you are bringing home. If you are irritable, depressed or anxious, take note and let your spouse know. It’s almost like holding up a sign that says: “steer clear of me” or “treat me with kid gloves” as opposed to a more relaxed “life is good”.

4. Check your partner’s mood. As in the bullet above, be mindful of your partner’s mood. In mindful marriages, each partner is skillful at raising difficult issues or exploring a conflict. They don’t initiate these sorts of conversations when the atmosphere in the room is already tense or their partner is exhausted.

5. Be aware of your intentions. Can you stand back from an argument long enough to catch your purpose. Are you trying to prove a point? Stick it to your spouse? Add some excitement to an otherwise dull day (yes, some people actually set off emotional flares for this very reason)? Or are you genuinely trying to get your partner to understand your experience or to voice a specific need or complaint?

6. Keep track of your priorities. This might be another way of saying, pick your battles, but it extends beyond this platitude. What are your goals and values that you want to emphasize when you are with your spouse? How much do you take the time to consider and discuss your priorities?

7. Promote a culture of non-judgment. Couples who accept each other’s failings, who recover and reconnect after either partner has said or done something hurtful, maintain healthier relationships. This does not imply unconditional acceptance of egregious actions including, but not limited to, affairs, substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse. Accepting someone is distinct from being passive about what you will or will not tolerate in your marriage. Be assertive about what you hold to be the non-negotiables.

8. Stay with the present. When you are upset about something, as best you can, stay in the present. Sentences starting with “remember all the times you never…” are toxic. Recalling lists of past grievances does nothing to promote either acceptance or change.

9. Share your dreams. While one of the main aspects of mindfulness is to be present, being thoughtful about your future and your goals. In working marriages, each partner is comfortable sharing dreams without fearing that his or her partner will reject or ridicule them.

10. Recognize distractions and distortions. Whether considering an affair, spending hours in online chat-rooms, living at the office, be honest with yourself that part of you is seeking to fulfill that which can never be perfectly and permanently satisfied. Accept the feeling of hunger/emptiness/loneliness that invariably and periodically arises. It’s O.K. to feel the hunger. Acting on it is what proves destructive to the marriage.

The purpose of these suggestions is to provide a broad outlook on mindfulness in marriage and to offer specific ways for you and your partner to strengthen your relationship. If the list sounds overwhelming, just choose one or two items to focus on. Over time, couples who use some of these approaches will see their relationship form stronger roots nourished by mutual respect and acceptance.