How to use mindfulness to overcome relationship conflict
Research tells us that couples who have a high level of relationship conflict and negativity are bound to end up separated or divorced. Negativity includes little acts like eye rolling, misplaced humor, sarcasm, and evidence of frustration, as well as more direct negative comments such as mocking, disparaging your spouse’s opinion, and insults.
Each bit of negativity, small or big, can have a huge impact on the climate in your marriage or committed relationship. Relationship conflict and negativity erodes the trust you have for your partner to be a supportive and loving sanctuary from challenges in the world. It can make you feel contempt and not want to be around each other. It can also instantly trigger fights.
The bad news and good news about relationship conflict and negativity "ruts"
Believe me, I know how infuriating and exhausting it is to be stuck in a rut of negativity and relationship conflict. It feels like you’re beating your head against the wall trying to get through to him or her. You know you’re not perfect, but in your heart of hearts it makes absolutely no sense to you why she won’t simply see things your way. You can feel so powerless to have any influence with your partner. It’s truly one of the worst feelings someone can feel—alone but married or alone and in a committed partnership.
But there is good news if you feel hopelessly stuck in a rut of negativity or relationship conflict with your partner—even after ten, fifteen or more than twenty years of marriage. The good news is summed up in two words: brain plasticity. Brain plasticity means that no matter how old or how deeply you’re stuck in low-road behaviors, you can quickly teach your brain to take the high road and form new habits that stick.
Relationship “ruts” are just as hard to get out of as cigarette addiction and why mindfulness is the ultimate tow truck for getting out of relationship conflict
If you’re frequently stressed by your partner and habitually relate to him or her out of frustration, anger, indifference, or by walling off and ignoring him or her, you create a subconscious habit in your brain that’s just as hard to change as giving up cigarette smoking. This is why cognitive and solution-focused approaches to help a relationship like those used in traditional couples therapy have such a high rate of drop-out and failure.
It’s the same reason why most people can’t quit smoking just by being told it’s bad for them. Going cold-turkey just doesn’t work. And if you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or go on a diet you know the familiar guilt-ridden roller-coaster of relapse and binging after trying to follow strict cognitive-based advice. The end result after trying unsuccessfully to force yourself out of a behavioral rut like relationship conflict is that the original rut—feeling hopeless and stuck—deepens. This is why my counseling practice long ago began using what I consider the gold-standard of care when it comes to helping couples, attachment-based couples therapy.
I became so bothered by the stories of marriages struggling with relationship conflict that failed despite investing heavily in couples therapy that I wrote a book on how to avoid going to the wrong kind of couples therapy, called Love Under Repair: How to Save Your Marriage and Survive Couples Therapy.
The secret behind the “gold standard” of couples therapy is mindfulness
What if your partner won’t go to couples therapy or if it’s simply too expensive for you? Or better yet, what if you’re doing some version of attachment-based couples therapy already but you want to make it even more effective?
The secret behind all of the most researched and effective forms of couples therapy that stops relationship conflict isn’t actually a secret at all. Research has clearly identified the traits that successful couples have and each of these traits boil down to creating an inner “off” switch to your body’s fight/flight stress response. Attending couples therapy with a skilled and experienced couples therapist will eventually do this for you. But if you are willing to learn the steps of mindfulness—which is simply a way of paying attention to what you are paying attention to—you can create powerful changes in the parts of your brain that regulates your sense of stress or relaxation. (And if you’re wondering what the research gold-standard in smoking cessation success is, check out Craving to Quit, a mindfulness-based program.)
Why is mindfulness so effective at curbing relationship conflict?
Mindfulness is a compassionate skill you can learn and integrate into your life, allowing you to have an easy, always available, way of feeling at ease and calm when you’re distressed. Mindfulness expands your awareness of what you’re experiencing and allows you to have room to decide how to act. As you can imagine, enhancing these abilities within yourself will lead to you getting a firm foothold on solid ground and stepping out of whatever relationship conflict rut you’re in.
No longer will anger bubble over from within you during a tense moment with your partner. Despite feeling strong distress you’d also be able to feel your emotions without reacting to them. You’d see the force of the feelings inside of you and notice your body’s automatic response, but your cortex won’t get dragged into the mix and therefore won’t supply you with a flood of associations which seem relevant but require finesse and context to apply properly (which you lack at the moment.) In short, imagine feeling yourself steering uncontrollably into the typical painful rut of relationship conflict with your partner but also feeling a strong inner force keeping you anchored and steady. The intense feelings surge but begin to pass. Like a strong wave that could have easily crashed onto you, tossing you about and leaving you exhausted and hurt, you knew how to lean into it at the right moment, allowing you to quickly bop to the surface with ease.
Over time you learn that the waves are predictable and follow certain patterns. With the right mindfulness tools, and knowing the right posture to apply to the emotional waves within you, you even learn to harness emotional friction and use its energy to have more fun and carve out the life you want with your partner. You learn that the big differences and relationship conflict you have as partners doesn't need to twist and crush you into the rocky ocean bottom. In fact it can propel you forward together, securing the bond you have even more in the process.