My theory is that relationship issues can be thought of like emotional allergies. Negative feelings can be greatly relieved by learning the most basic mindfulness skills. It doesn’t have to get more complicated than that. Once you know how to control where your relationship stress hits you the hardest—inside your noggin—you’ll be able to respond to difficult moments with your partner productively.
Not a joking matter
Dom and Eryn had been married for six years before things got really rough between them. They met when Dom was a patient in the military hospital where Eryn worked as a physical therapist rehab specialist. Dom was recovering from a broken collarbone he’d suffered when the construction rig he was operating in Afghanistan overturned in a ditch. Eryn’s sweet personality and good looks endeared her to most of the men she helped, but she always kept a professional distance and focused on her work. But Dom’s flirtatious charm captured her heart. Months after he was discharged from her care, she wrote a note to Dom to “check on him.”
The trouble in their relationship started when Dom began to feel irritated by Eryn’s way of giving attention to him. She was normally a very responsible woman who was considerate of others. But people who really got to know her knew she had a mischievous streak. One of her favorite things to do was to act goofy and make dirty jokes and innuendos with people she knew well. Dom had always gone along with it. Although he was much more conservative than Eryn, he kind of liked the sense that Eryn felt safe enough with him to show him this side of herself, because it was definitely something others rarely saw. And Dom was by no means a prudish guy.
But for Dom, the charm had worn off Eryn’s interminable sense of clowning sometime after their daughter was one year old. She seemed to lapse into full goofball mode at the worst times. Dom knew all she wanted was a smile or warm eyes when she made a funny face, but instead of feeling warm or amused, he felt icy inside. Dom accused her of acting childish because she wanted attention. He stopped playing along with Eryn’s banter and found himself constantly reprimanding her for going “over the top.” Even when she was playing with their daughter, Dom would cringe.
“You’re killing me, Dom! Who made you the fun police?” Eryn would say. Why can’t she just act normal? he’d think.
They fought often.
“Everything she does drives me crazy!”
Typically, they’d both accuse each other of being the one who started acting weird. Feeling desperate to get a better reaction from Dom, Eryn turned her caustic wit, normally reserved for others, on him. To defend himself, Dom would insult her and call her a baby. At first, after a fight, they’d each apologize and things would feel better. But by that point, the stable of goodwill in their relationship was empty. Dom grew more and more hypersensitive and reacted negatively anytime Eryn did something on purpose to get his attention.
Dom confessed to his friend, “I just can’t help having this wall up inside of me when I’m around her. I just want her to go away. Everything she does drives me crazy!”
Avoidance isn’t a real solution
Dom considered his difficulties with his Eryn to be really irritating, but he told himself he could live with it. And you know what? He was right. You can actually be lifelong partners with someone you have strong feelings of aversion to. But do you know how you accomplish this? It’s the same strategy 99.9 percent of allergists proscribe to their food allergy sufferers: avoidance. Dom’s strategy to deal with his negative feelings for Eryn was to emotionally shut down and avoid being himself around her.
There’s a much better way.
Thankfully, Dom and Eryn didn’t just continue down the well-worn path toward marital dissolution that’s marked by conflict and fighting. But they didn’t attend couples therapy to learn communication skills. Neither did they practice each other’s “love language,” the way a popular book advises.
Instead, Dom learned how to stop his brain’s out-of-control allergic reaction to Eryn. He learned new mental habits that helped him pay full attention to his anxiety and negative feelings, which helped him relax and ride out the difficult moments. He learned to override his brain’s typical fight-or-flight response that occurred when he was around Eryn. And he learned a revolutionary intervention that helped him purposefully detach from Eryn when he’s feeling negative, calm his feelings, and stand up for himself without putting his partner down. In short, Dom learned to practice mindfulness during his “allergy attacks” with Eryn.
Even just a few short days after beginning a course of mindfulness practice, Dom felt a noticeable shift inside him when Eryn would say something intentionally off-color to test if he was feeling open to her. Instead of feeling the inevitable rush of adrenaline and the here-we-go-again realization that he was having the same argument with his wife (again!), he felt calmer and more aware of subtle choices he could make about how to respond to Eryn more productively.
Dom and Eryn were going to be okay. They started liking each other again, but more important, they were going to stay married and raise their daughter together. All because Dom took action to treat a simple case of emotional hives.