A story from the end of a marriage:
It’s time to change the bed sheets; as she strips the bed she finds the usual stash of bunched up pants her husband has taken off in the night when he gets too hot. Thoughts run through her head: ‘he’s so thoughtless’ .. ‘I can’t believe he didn’t think to put these in the laundry basket’ .. ‘I do everything around here’ .. ‘he treats me like a maid’ .. ‘he’s like a child’ .. ‘what if I end up like my mum’ .. and so on. She stalks down the stairs to where her husband is drinking coffee and reading the paper and lets him have it. Her husband looks at her, rolls his eyes, stands up and walks out of the house. She sits down and starts to cry.
Most of the time when couples first come into my relationship therapy practice something similar to this has been happening for a while. The relationship is being driven by reactivity. Unfortunately usually by the time a couple seeks help from a relationship counsellor this pattern has become chronic.
In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Viktor Frankl points out that between that initial stimulus (finding the underpants, being shouted at) and our action is a space, and in that space is an opportunity to be mindfully present to ourselves and with our partner.
One way of doing that is to use Michelle McDonald’s RAIN acronym when we feel triggered by something in our relationship:
R = Recognize the feelings that we are experiencing and the internal messages that fuel them. Be curious: Where do they come from? Why are we tempted to blame them on our partner? Push your shoulders back and breathe into your belly, release the tension.
A = Allow the feelings to be there, just as they are. They are probably difficult feelings, but remind yourself they are merely emotions and will pass. Breathe in and allow calm, breathe out tension.
I = Investigate the feeling with kindness. What are you feeling physically? Where are you feeling this most strongly? What memories does this emotion bring up? Using a diary can help some people, use drawings as well as words.
N = Non-identification. Remind yourself that this emotion is not who you are, it will change with time and is a useful piece of information about your situation right now. How can you usefully use it for the good of your relationship? For example if you feel overwhelmed by your
responsibilities maybe a break or a calm conversation later about who does what at home is in order? If you feel attacked by your spouse you could ask them what they need from you right now, and consider scheduling regular sit downs to talk more calmly about concerns.
As with anything to do with our relationships we can’t make our partner engage with mindfulness but we can take responsibility for our part and very often make a difference without our partner changing a thing on their side.
Michele McDonald’s RAIN technique comes from a long commitment to Buddhist meditative practice, but a mindful relationship doesn’t mean you have to meditate every day, although it does call on us to be more present with ourselves, our spouses and our kids.
The key to a mindful relationship is to be kind with ourselves and incorporate mindfulness techniques as consistently as possible. Once we’ve become more mindful as an adult we can encourage mindfulness with our children. Kristen Race PhD’s Mindful Life website is a great resource for practical ideas to foster mindful family life.
Armele is a qualified Relate practitioner, relationship counsellor, educator and dating coach, practising in Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside in the UK. She is also a practising Buddhist with an interest in how mindfulness can be harnessed in the therapeutic environment. To find out more you can visit Armele's website here
Frankl, V. Man's search for meaning. 1st ed. Boston: Beacon Press; 2006.More about Michelle McDonald . http://vipassanahawaii.org/teachers/Kristen Race TEDx talk on mindful parenting . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jRND5IU3QgKristen Race’s website on mindfulness with kids . http://mindfullifetoday.com/