Want a Better Relationship? Try These Two Things
Let’s get real about relationships. Relationships are one of my favorite topics to read and talk about, but when it comes to actual application in my personal life it’s not always been sunshine and rainbows. But good news, many of the situations that plagued my past relationships have become clearer and easier to navigate since I have started practicing mindfulness.
My fascination with relationships began to unfold in my freshman year intro to psychology course when I was introduced to John Gottman’s research on love and relationships. I remember learning about the “Love Lab” and being completely captivated by the idea that stable or unstable relationships could be predicted by examining a couples’ interactions with each other. I’ve recently revisited his work, specifically something called the 5:1 ratio since beginning my mindful practice. Without getting too complicated, the 5:1 ratio is the idea that stable and satisfactory relationships typically experience five positive interactions to every one negative interaction.
It might be unclear what all this has to do with mindfulness, but I believe it’s key to striking this balance. For me, the two best things (so far!) that have come out of practicing mindfulness have been: the ability to not let my emotions get the best of me, especially in stressful situations and being able to see things from others’ perspectives. When thinking about Dr. Gottman’s research, I think mindfulness is an important piece to the puzzle because these two outcomes facilitate more positive interactions.
1. Learning to Respond versus React
In episode two, Andrew Radja explained to us that practicing mediation is key to helping us be more intentional about how we are responding to stressful situations. A lot of us have a tendency to react to upsetting news or a stressful situations in a way that’s familiar to us, but one of the goals of mindful practice is to recognize these emotions so that we can break the cycle and begin responding in more intentional and productive ways.
I’ll be honest with you, this is something that I’ve really struggled with and I frequently have to work very hard to not act out of emotion. Let me give you an example of how my reactions have played out in the past.
A few months ago I had plans to hang out with my boyfriend one Saturday after he visited with his family. We were supposed to meet to go to a friend’s party at 8pm, but by the time he told he was running it is well past 8pm and I became upset. Once he got to my house to pick me up I was very frustrated to the point that I didn't want to go to the party anymore and it turned into an argument. Although he admitted he was wrong for not communicating and apologized, I don't want to hear it and I continue to be mad and irrational. Eventually we were able to move past the situation but it took an emotional toll on both of us and put a damper on what was supposed to be a fun night.
Although he could have communicated better, my reaction didn't accomplish what I wanted. I wanted to have a fun night with my boyfriend and our friends, but instead I almost spent the night alone being angry and stubborn.
Before I started practicing mindfulness, this situation was not uncommon. I would frequently react in ways that I always had, instead of thinking about what I am really trying to achieve. Meditation and self-observation have helped me become much more aware and in control of my emotions versus playing in to those typical responses.
2. More Empathy
If you’ve been doing your research on mindfulness, you’ll notice that the word empathy keeps popping up. It is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others and if you haven't guessed it is very important in relationships.
Lucky for us, the practice of mindfulness, specifically self-compassion exercises, have been proven to enhance the capacity for empathy towards others.
It allows us to see from others’ point of view.
Have you ever heard the expression: walk a mile in someone’s shoes? It turns out there’s a lot of wisdom in this expression. Being able to see a situation from someone else’s point of view is incredibly important, especially in relationships. We all get caught up in our emotions and we can often perceive our loved one’s reactions as something that they really aren’t. Take the example I explained above: part of the reason I was so upset with my boyfriend was because I felt like he was ignoring me and that our date was not important to him. But when I really consider his point of view, I can understand that he was probably having a good time with his family, got caught up in the moment and lost track of time.
When we think about it this way, doesn’t that whole situation feel a whole lot better?! Instead of reacting to the situation and assuming the worst, I am better able to put myself in his shoes and understand that it wasn't intentional.
It Cultivates feelings of common ground and intimacy
Not only can empathy potentially save you from an argument, it is a great way to foster connection. As human beings, we crave the feeling of being understood and connection to each other. A lot of times it can be easy to just assume that people’s actions are negative and intended to hurt us, but if we can try a little harder to understand things from their perspective you will start to see that there’s a whole bunch good happening and most people have good intentions.
These subtleties might not seem like they are important but they can make a world of difference in our relationships and practicing mindfulness helps us develop these skills. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, I encourage you to recognize the emotions that you are feeling and really think about how you want to respond. It's tough and you'll probably get frustrated with yourself, but be patient and kind to yourself. Remember you are trying to break 20+ year habits – it takes time and practice!