Training the Heart to Love: Four Qualities of Mindfulness for the Intimate Relationship
Love doesn’t seem to work the way it used to—lasting for a lifetime, manifesting in forever after’s, or conquering all. We’ve proven to ourselves that it is not, in fact, all we need. As cultural norms shift and we recognize the missing bits of authentic relationship that our evolved selves now require, we are left unsatisfied. We boldly choose to question and fight for something more yet are left wondering… if not LOVE, then what?
There is a breakdown, a paradigm shift, in our collective view of all that love should be, yet we don’t seem to have the collective blueprint for the next step in designing this century’s model of “healthy intimate relationship.”
We are not the 50’s style generation with normed gender roles and our ancestor’s life expectancy. 40 is the new 20 and we want our intimate relationships to reflect this collective new lease on life. We have endless reminders of what love should look like due to snapshots of happily-ever-after’s on social media, films that portray unrealistic character development and actual “endings,” and enough “How to have your dream relationship” books to believe that we’ve somehow missed out on a universal relational truth.
What we do know, from other areas of human development, is that to progress into a stronger future vision, we need to build on all that we know from our past. Evolution requires a foundation of collective development—stories, shared progressive understanding, and “cellular imprints” from previous generations.
According to the most extensive research in relationship—our history of what works—there are certain things that some people naturally know how to do (sadly not many of us!) that lead to long lasting happiness in love. A few of those things have to do with Mindfulness—a buzz word that’s been circulating the arena of personal development over the last decade—which has some bearing on relational satisfaction as well. Attention to these can profoundly impact the “emotional muscles” we need to build, that research has shown are an absolute requirement for satisfying love to last. Take a look and see if these four are areas where you feel some strength or maybe areas that could use a little attention and practice:
1. Slowing Down
Sounds simple enough, right? But research has shown this to be one of the most difficult things to practice when we are in heightened states of relational discord, when we’re activated or triggered. Most often, when one person is upset, the natural habit of the brain is to focus on what the person did wrong rather than what we feel inside—“I’m upset” means (to a quick-paced brain) that “you did something wrong,” and of course this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, research also shows that almost 70% of the time, when one person in a partnership is upset, no one actually did anything universally wrong—we just forget that we are biased to our own perspective and what our partners want or believe, even when it is different than us, is as valid. Of course it is most difficult to slow our minds when it is most necessary to do so!
Putting our brains into slow motion, noticing the internal feeling—the physical sensation—“watching” our thoughts and not getting seduced by them, is a powerful practice of the Mindful couple. When we can do this without automatically assuming that our partners have done something “bad,” we begin to reorganize well-groomed pathways in the brain that, often, have historically gotten us off track.
Now you may be thinking, “But what if my partner really has done something wrong?” The same holds true—bad behavior is simply bad behavior—and it’s normal, at least every once in a while, even in a good, healthy relationship. The thing is, focusing on the bad behavior almost NEVER makes it go away. Focusing on our response, however, is the number one predictor of us receiving more or less of it in the future! Knowing how to slow the mind down, once again, and pay attention to what we feel, rather than what we believe to be the bad behavior itself, is a powerful starting point for a future of powerful love.
Compassion can often sound like other words—kindness, empathy—but compassion, true compassion has a different quality, especially in intimacy. Compassion listens for true intent, it gives the benefit of the doubt, it seeks to understand what’s underneath.These are powerful qualities in a relationship with Mindfulness at its foundation.
Often, our brains are on hyper-alert. We can be vigilant in scanning for any potential threat, and in difficult relationships, the threat to our emotional body is a big one. Our intimate partners often hold the strongest weapon when it comes to those emotional threats. It stretches our hearts to tolerate the upset feelings of a partner, and stay engaged in a positive way—it truly is like “strength training for the heart.”
When we can lean in to relational discord and remind ourselves that there is something legitimate that our partner is feeling or experiencing, even when they may be coming across as harsh or defensive, when we can love them through their own messiness, and through our urges to become defensive, and find the part of us that can relate, we give the powerful gift of compassion. And if we practice this skill consistently, we set ourselves up for receiving it when we’re in our own messiness too!
3. Proactive Positivity
As most people will agree, positive feelings of warmth, attraction, naturally occurring chemistry—these things tend to fade over time in intimate relationships. Even interest can sadly lessen due to feelings that the mystery has vanished in long-term love. And in fact, our brains are kind of wired to not pay attention to the positives—most of our attention is drawn toward things that feel threatening or stressful. However, these areas of positive focus are crucial for intimate love to survive and thrive!
Many believe that relationships dissolve due primarily to the big issues, such as infidelity, betrayals, addiction, and financial collapse; but actually, studies have found there is a much more pervasive yet subtle culprit—inattentiveness. When we don’t proactively practice positive interest and attention, qualities that nourish the systemic nervous system of intimacy, our relationships become depleted—they starve. Or course, “saying the words” will never fulfill a need if the words are not congruent with what you feel inside. Your partner will always feel your true intent, on some level.
The practice is to consistently seek and open to curiosity—open your heart to what is most beautiful about the soul of your mate. If you practice opening to this universal truth—that your partner is a perfect being, even in the messiness of being human, you will forever be renewed in finding novelty, newness, and beauty… and these qualities, being reflected in your eyes and words, will be strengthened in the person you love.
We are all experts at “reading between the lines” even when we don’t know we’re doing it—of course this idea can also get us into trouble in our intimate relationships, because sometimes we can misinterpret our fears as our instincts!
Neuroscientists have found that when a person is being dishonest, the other can feel it, on some level, and it is ultimately something that eats away at the foundation of intimacy. Even when the subtle ideas in our minds don’t match what we say, something will feel “off” to our partners. Equally disruptive, this lack of congruence can have a profound negative effect on our personal well-being as well.
Many of us were not brought up in families or communities that supported emotional openness and vulnerability—saying the difficult things that are a requirement in honest relationship. Many of us were taught to “be nice,” rather than to explore and share our deeper truths. Yet it is these deeper truths, being shared and held with love and openness, that ultimately leads to a fulfilling partnership. When we feel our partner’s deep knowing of our hearts, even when it’s not altogether comfortable to share, we create emotional stability that allows us to yield into authentic love, trusting our relational foundation. Congruence can become the birthplace of our relationship to self, which becomes the ground for our intimate lives, and for who we become in the world.
It might seem unrealistic to believe that these small practices of Mindfulness would have a powerful impact on the survival rate of love… or they may seem daunting to attempt. They are certainly life-long practices, not qualities we can cultivate overnight. Just like integrating a fitness regimen into our daily lives, it takes time to build these muscles and notice significant change. But I can assure you, if you focus on each of these areas each and every day, you will begin to deeply engrain a new way of being in your relationship, a new way of loving your partner, and you may feel that you’ve found the next generation of love!
Angie Tsiatsos Phillips, MA, LPC, NCC, ACS, CMT is the founder of Colorado Couples Clinic in Lakewood, Colorado. She has a passion for helping clients cultivate the relationships that we all innately desire. Angie works with individuals, couples, and groups. As a Somatic Practitioner, Dance Instructor, Massage Therapist and Personal Trainer, she has more than two decades of experience in grounding her therapeutic approach in the body and supports her clients in tapping into their own unique and innate wisdom. She helps clients identify internal "signals" that habitually get them off track, short-circuit ineffective relational habits, and strengthen internal states that are crucial for developing thriving intimate relationships.
You can connect with Angie here: www.coloradocouplesclinic.com