You have probably heard about mindfulness. In fact, unless you live under a rock, I’d be really surprised if you haven’t. However, the term gets thrown around a lot. Often without a clear definition. Mindfulness, in the context of relationships, really lacks press time. However, mindfulness is essential for a healthy relationship.
What is Mindfulness?
I write alot about mindfulness in prior posts here and here. However, as a recap, mindfulness is moment to moment awareness. It is not thinking about the past or future. Many of us spend most of our day planning for future events. Sometimes, that is positive, like we are really excited about it, and other times, we are worrying about what will happen next.
Conversely, many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the past. We may be ruminating on regrets and mistakes or pining for better times. Either way we are not mentally where we are physically. Certain activities can force us to be totally present. For example, often playing music keeps you in the moment. Years ago, I learned to surf–and that was total mindfulness!
How Do I Know If I’m Being Mindful?
If you are totally plugged into what is happening in the present moment, you are being mindful. This means you are observing the smells, sights, sounds, events around you. Mindfulness means you are not creating storylines. It is important to understand that mindfulness does not equate happiness in itself. Therefore, you may not feel awesome when being mindful but you are present. If you find your mind wandering to what you need to buy at the grocery store or regretting running that stopsign earlier in the day, you are not being mindful.
Mindfulness and Relationships.
So what does this have to do with relationships? Everything! Many of our relationship problems stem from being in our own worlds, our own heads. Take this vignette:
You walk into the kitchen and see a mess of dishes in the sink. It is your spouse’s job to clean up the kitchen after breakfast. You automatically fly into a rage and scream at them. They, in turn, get really defensive. It turns out their best friend called. Since he never calls, your spouse wanted to pick up right away. They fully planned on cleaning the kitchen after the phone call. Now you are both angry and the dishes are still not done.
Let’s rewrite this scenario using mindfulness.
You walk into the kitchen and see the dishes piled up. Because you are observing your body, using mindfulness, you notice it getting tense. You then notice yourself getting angry. But, because you are in the moment you observe the anger instead of engaging in your habitual reactive reaction of yelling. Then, by being aware you are angry, you calm yourself down enough to ask your spouse in a non accusatory tone why the kitchen is a mess. They then reassure you that they are going to clean it now, they just wanted to take an important call. All parties leave happy.
Two Problems That Arise When You Are Not Mindful.
1. You are stuck in the past.
This can be either positive or negative thoughts. Either way, it creates a mental discrepancy. Instead of experiencing what is in front of you in the present, you are operating from the past. This can mean you are interpreting your partner’s actions and words through the lenses of past hurts. This is not fair to your current partner.
Additionally, if you are so attached to qualities of a past partner, you may not be seeing the good in your current partner.
2. You are stuck in the future.
Have you ever been with a friend and she is on her phone off and on the whole time? She is checking texts during your conversation, and even answers the phone. Unless there is an extreme situation in her life, she is attending too, it’s not cool. She is more concerned with what’s coming up then what is going on presently.
How Mindfulness Can Help Your Relationship.
You probably have guessed it. Be present! When you are focused in the moment, your attention is on where you are and who you are with. This makes the people around you feel valued and loved. In turn, they treat you better. You are also not weighed down by past memories or fears of the future. Being present opens you up to learning new ways of relating to others. You can stay focused on what is happening–not imputing bad memories on someone else.
For example, in the dishes vignette above, perhaps the angry feelings stem from a history of partners not pulling their weight. So when you see the dishes, all the old feelings of being used surface and drive the show. Where, in fact, the current partner fully participates in the relationship–just digressed from their typical routine.
There are numerous ways. The most simple technique is taking a daily activity and using it as an object of mindfulness. For example, showering. The next time you are in the shower, instead of thinking about the day’s agenda, focus on the sensations. Notice the sound of the water, the smell of the shampoo, and how the water feels on your skin. As other thoughts come up (they will!) gently refocus on the sensations.
Mindfulness takes a lot of practice. However it is worth the work.
About the author: Sharon P. Fisher, MS, PMHNP-BC is the founder of Nurtured Well, a boutique women’s mental health practice in Towson, MD and a long time mediation teacher.