The ability to be mindful in a close relationship, is like the difference between two lumbering freight trains on rusty old tracks, and the free-flowing flight of hummingbirds dancing from one flower to the next.

When we are being mindful, we are noticing and making sense of our own experience and that of the other person in ‘real time’; that is, now. We are aware of what we are thinking, how we are looking at things, what we are feeling, (this means emotions, but also information the body is giving us through sensations like tension, energy or heaviness), what we want, and why. And we have some sense of these in the other person as well. We have a sense, a guess, (or at least some interest!) in what the other person is thinking, how he or she is looking at things, what is important to him or her, what he or she is feeling, what he or she wants, and possibly why.

Doing this changes how we show up in the relationship. First of all, if we are being mindful of ourselves, we are not going to be just reacting. When we know what we are thinking, feeling etc., we have choices in how to respond. So our reaction is not just a knee-jerk response. We hear what the other person says to us or does, and we can consider how this affects us, what it means to us, and then we can choose a response. Maybe a better one than the first impulse to comply, retaliate, withdraw, defend, or whatever our automatic pattern is.

Second of all, if we are being somewhat mindfully aware of the other person, we are much more likely to have empathy for him or her. Empathy prevents us from hurting the other person. When we feel attuned to another person, we don’t want them to hurt. This prevents downward spirals of conflict where the other person hurts us because of being hurt first. In addition, empathy connects us to the other person. This brings us closer, and helps us to work together, towards shared goals or solutions. It brings us into a sense of “We” rather than “you and me”, or worse, “you versus me”.

Third, if we are able to be mindfully aware of and tuned to the other person’s world, feelings, experience, and views, we are going to be more able to act in ways that help them with their distress, and make them feel more satisfied. We will more easily know what they want or need, and what will help. This will make us feel less frustrated and helpless, and we feel more effective. We generally like people better when we can understand them, and can affect them in positive ways. We will also be less confused by the other person, and so not so disconnected. We will also be less inclined to take things personally, when we are taking in the other person’s point of view. We’ll usually find out that it not all about “me”.

Fourth, when we have a good sense of our own experience and some idea about the other person’s beliefs, feelings, and their reasons, this transforms how we can interact. We can have conversations about what is going on, rather than just struggles. We can notice the patterns of interaction, and we can talk about them. We have the ability to say “When you get quiet, I start thinking that you are mad at me, and I want to withdraw”. This is the other person a chance to provide a reality check. He or she can say “well actually, when I get quiet, I am just not sure how to react, because I don’t want conflict.” What a difference to just going off in your different directions, neither person feeling understood or satisfied with what happened!

When we become mindful of ourselves, and of the other person, when we bring curiosity and good-will to our struggles, we get off the rusty tracks that go to the same old places. Instead, we have the chance to become closer, working together on solutions that bring us what we both need. This brings us hope and new energy for the relationship, as the nectar in flowers brings energy to the hummingbirds flying in the garden.

Brian Grady, Ph.D.
25 June 2008