How to have a mindful marriage

Tired of fighting about the same old issues? Using mindfulness could be the key to resolving your relationship woes

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Tired of fighting about the same old issues? Using mindfulness could be the key to resolving your relationship woes

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You’re in the midst of what is shaping up to be an all-out argument over the same old issue with your partner. You’re angry and your emotional triggers are about to be set off – but instead of a battle you look into each other’s eyes, share your feelings and calm down to discuss the problem objectively. Sounds impossible? Not with mindfulness, a new way of approaching relationship problems that stops the blame game. Mindfulness means really “living in the moment”. Try it the next time when you’re revving up for a fight with your partner. Pay attention to what sets you off – notice how your reactions feel. Once you accept those triggers you can take responsibility for your reactions, and then take control of your worst knee-jerk responses and start to look at things impartially. All that sounds nice in theory, but in the midst of a fiery shouting match over bills, dirty dishes and who last put petrol in the car, it can be tough to remember. Read on to discover the art of mindfulness and six tips on how to control your emotions and settle things peacefully.

How To Be Mindful

Accept that you won’t be happy all the time. “Sometimes, couples quarrel because they expect the relationship or their partners to be perfect. However, a relationship cannot be always smooth sailing. It’s normal to encounter obstacles and have disagreements,” explains Dr Adrian Wang, Consultant Psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre. “It’s not only important to be mindful that one cannot be happy all the time; it is important to be mindful of your own and your partner’s feelings as well,” he adds. “For example, if you are feeling tired or irritable after a long day at work, you should be aware that it’s not the best time to engage your partner in any serious discussion. Agree to disagree temporarily when both of you are feeling upset and sensitive. Things that seem very important at the moment may be less so after you have cooled down,” he suggests.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you

Whether your partner gives you the silent treatment or stomps out during an argument, notice your physical sensations and consciously link them to your emotions. Perhaps you might have a fear of abandonment. Watch how it plays out: At first, you might be flushed with anger, then feel a familiar tightness in your chest over fear that the issue is too big to fix or that he may not return. But by consciously thinking “I have a tight chest when I feel abandoned”, you can step back a bit, see the situation for what it is and understand why you react a certain way. And with practice, through relaxation techniques, you can even learn to control your reactions when they are triggered.

Be specific about your issue

Rather than making generalised statements like “You never take my needs seriously”, be specific about how you feel. For example, if your partner spends more time with mates than you, say “I feel abandoned when you do your own things without inviting me”. Break down the situation piece by piece, rather than presenting it as an overwhelming issue that panics you both. It’s also helpful to approach the conversation after you’ve tried relaxation techniques or meditation.

Remember, this is your point of view

Even as you’re logically categorising the problem you’re facing, it’s important to remember you are seeing it through your eyes – and you could have the wrong end of the stick. If you’re in the midst of a fight, admit that this is your interpretation of the facts. This will help defuse the situation, says Dr Francois Rousseau, co-founder of the Ottawa Institute of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in Canada. “Your partner might be defensive, so acknowledge you may be mistaken,” he says. “Maybe your interpretation is wrong, but there’s a reason why you’re bringing up this conversation so state your needs. You can say something like to him, ‘I want you to spend more time with me doing something we decide to do together’.”

Take ownership of your reactions

Understanding and accepting your reactions is called “experimental ownership”. It boils down to this: The only person who can make you feel, think or behave in any one way is you. And that goes for your partner too. When you take ownership of your reactions and why you have them, you will stop blaming those around you.

Listen to each other

Resolving problems often involves a battle of egos, leaving you feeling negated, undermined or criticised. But you can turn that around by tuning into what your partner is saying. “Try to recognise what the other person is experiencing. Very often, we become sensitive to protect our ego. We get defensive and don’t even hear what the other person is saying,” says Dr Rosseau. “Focus more on the objective situation, hear the other person and go one step further to put yourself in their shoes.” When you do this, you also build compassion and understanding. “If you can let go of your need to win the argument, you can focus on addressing the other issues,” he says.

Be polite

One of the easiest and more important ways to keep your partner engaged and willing to work on a problem is to be polite, whether or not he agrees with you. Thank him for listening. Not only does it maintain a respectful tone, but it will encourage listening again in the future. If he disagrees with your interpretation of the issue and how it affects you, say “I can see we don’t agree and we’ll need to discuss and solve this, but thanks for hearing me out”.

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Tune in to what your partner is going through

Observe your partner’s reaction, objectively speculate why he feels as he does, and remember that it’s not all about you but about his triggers too. For example, during an argument over how much time he spends away from you and the kids because of work, he may breathe heavily and seem agitated. You might read that as a sign of irritation, but in fact it may be triggered by feelings of inadequacy or insecurity about his job. “Take a step back and let emotions settle during an argument,” stresses Dr Wang. Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, even if you don’t agree with what he is saying. Show that you understand his hurt or anger and that you are prepared to work towards a solution. This will help him understand better that there is a need to compromise as well.