Marriage is for life—or at least, that is the intention. The traditional vow states that you agree to take each other for better or for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish, ’til death do you part. So where does it go wrong? Could mindfulness be what your marriage is missing?
Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate. ~Barnett R. Brickner
Life can be long. Daily living can get tedious, marriages become complicated and often ending up on auto-pilot, where we stop being mindful. Many things cause this conundrum, such as having children, job and career changes, health problems, financial pressures, retirement, and more. The days when you first met, have no doubt changed. Life has become more challenging. In fact, life may seem like a daily survival of the fittest, where you must focus on getting problems solved, just to get through the day. A marriage might begin to feel more like an “I” instead of a “We,” with each of you caught up in your own onerous to-do list. The to-do-list becomes the driving force behind everything.
Many marriages end up on autopilot. Couples get so caught up in everyday routines, work, and kids that they stop working on their marriage. Autopilot in marriage is when you give up control, much like a pilot who allows the plane to fly itself for a portion of the flight, or a car driver who uses cruise-control to set a car’s speed. Eventually, even a plane or a car needs actual hands-on to fully function. The good news is that auto-pilot is often preventable and fixable.
What is the way back to a happily-ever-after marriage? Mindfulness…
A good definition of mindfulness is offered by the Greater Good Science Center. “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment, rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
To avoid sinking into autopilot, we must live in the moment, being active, remaining open, and paying attention to the present. The term was coined by a British scholar, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who explains that “Mindfulness is what keeps the perspective of appropriate attention in mind.”
Mindfulness can bring marriages back to survive and thrive
Most of us have heard of the Alcoholic Anonymous creed, “One day at a time.” Alcoholics say this, meaning that just for today, they will not drink. One day seems like a manageable time frame, compared to the rest of your life. Likewise, mindfulness is measured in small increments. Try a simple experiment. Focus for a minute on the next breath you take. Observe the rise and fall of your chest when you breathe in and then as you breathe out. The feeling of your lungs expanding and filling with air. This small and easy process creates a feeling of mindfulness because you are aware of what is happening. Focusing on your breath is just a simple way of being mindful, and it demonstrates how putting your focus on something makes it more important and valuable.
Being mindful can be helpful to create a loving, happily-ever marriage, one that can withstand the threats of divorce. Here are some ways to stay mindful and conscience in your marriage.
- Focus on the present moment, no matter where you are. How many times can you recall when you were doing one thing and thinking about something else? For instance, being on vacation and thinking about what needs to be done at work; or even worse, being on a vacation and lying on the beach with your laptop checking work emails? Sound familiar? Unfortunately, I am sure it does, because it has happened to me. In her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a friend. Whenever her friend sees a beautiful place, she exclaims in near panic, “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!” Gilbert comments, “It takes all my persuasive powers to try to convince her that she is already here.”
- Savor the moment. What are you doing? Are you standing in the moonlight? Perhaps you are eating your favorite decadent dessert. Maybe you are lying in the sun by the most beautiful beach. Perhaps you are just going through your daily to-do list, such as taking a shower, working out or driving to work. No matter what you are doing, notice everything that your senses tell you: notice taste, touch, smell, see, and hear.
- Practice meditation. According to Wikipedia, meditation is “a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content or as an end in itself. It is designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force and develop compassion love, patience, generosity, and forgiveness.” By practicing meditation, you can turn off the distractions in your mind and relax. Then return to those distractions when it’s appropriate. Practice this art regularly until the resting process becomes natural.
- Listen to your spouse as he or she is speaking to you. Avoid planning your response. Find out what your partner is trying to convey. Ask questions and show interest in your facial expressions and body posture. Only then you can respond with a mindful answer, one that tells your partner that you listened to what they said.
Benefits to your marriage
Let’s talk about what you can achieve from having a mindful relationship. If growing old together as a couple is your goal, then you must begin to be “present” in your daily life. It would seem like being “present” is a common-sense, no-brainer. But when auto-pilot creeps in, it will act like a parasite on a marriage, and grow like a weed.
- The first benefit of being mindful can be seen in communication. From my book The Gift of a Lifetime: “Good communication between husband and wife is the glue that holds a marriage together, and it can be the difference between a happy relationship with someone, or one of contention and strife.”
As a counselor, I have seen many couples who cite communication as their main problem. I often hear statements like: We have grown apart. All we have to talk about is the kids. We are so tired at the end of the day that we don’t even want to make conversation.
- A second benefit from being mindful can be seen in being happier. Mindful people are happier because they focus on the here and now, fully embracing each moment, enjoying life more. Many unhappy people are those who are either obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. Keeping your head in the past or future robs you of today and keeps you from appreciating what is.
We all have 1,440 minutes a day. How we spend them is totally in our control. The one thing that is universal is that once those 1,440 minutes are gone, you can never get them back. There is no “do-over.” Not being present for those minutes is a choice, and typically not a good one. As poet Leonard Cohen put it, “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.”
- A third benefit to mindfulness can be seen in having a stronger connection with each other. Many people become defensive in their interactions with others, often getting caught up in their personal ego struggles. This allows them to form a protective layer around themselves leading to increased feelings of being “out of touch” with their spouse. When people are not worried about defending their egos, it is easier to connect with them.
Having empathy for each other also brings people closer. A personal touch, such as holding hands, fosters awareness and brings us into the moment. I have seen couples in my office, thoroughly enraged at each other, change their demeanor once I asked them to hold hands.
“I have a hand, And you have another; Put them together and we have each other.” – Unknown
In real life
Being mindful does take practice and may feel very uncomfortable at first. It takes effort, and many of us are accustomed to thinking that a relationship should just be easy and not require effort. Anything worthwhile usually takes effort, commitment, and attention. Begin now as you are reading this. Focus on the words you are reading and notice if you are thinking about what is next on your to-do-list. If so, stop those thoughts and redirect your attention back to these words. The learning to do this will be worth it, not only for yourself but for your marriage.