We enter a partnership with good intentions and high hopes. But despite our best efforts, relationships often fail to fulfill their tender promise. What does it take to put the proper foundation under our fondest dreams?
Couples often enter my office eager to point out their partner’s flaws. They may use the session as a forum to convince each other how they should change. They’ve spent hours analyzing their partner’s flaws, convinced that if they would see the light, the relationship would improve.
It’s understandable that we want to know what’s going on. It’s difficult to live with ambiguity and uncertainly. Unfortunately, what we often cling to is the conviction that there’s something wrong with our partner rather than turn the mirror around to explore how we might be contributing to the mess.
Here are three key factors necessary for creating a fulfilling partnership and friendships.
Bringing Awareness to Our Felt Experience
Clinging to our ideas about what’s wrong with our partner rarely produces any positive momentum in a relationship. Swimming in our internal dialogue usually keeps us stuck in a quagmire of pre-conceived ideas, opinions, and interpretations. Relationships don’t thrive when we stay in our heads. We need to access another part of our being.
What needs to happen to move from our head to our heart? Love and intimacy can only thrive when two people cultivate the skill of dropping down into their felt experience, rather than holding onto ideas about their partner. Befriending our feelings is the first step toward creating a climate where two people can peer into each other’s inner world — and move tenderly toward each other.
In the short run, it might feel gratifying to analyze our partner rather than to open to inner feelings that might be uncomfortable. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable to go inside and ask, “What am I feeling right now?” Or “What feelings are brewing inside me when my partner says or does….?”
Through such inquiries, we take responsibility for our own experience rather than perpetuating the endless cycle of blaming and judging — and the predictable defensiveness that this triggers.
In contrast to imposing our beliefs or sharing our perceptions of the other person, no one can argue with our felt experience. If we’re feeling sad, afraid, anger, hurt, or shame, then that’s how we’re feeling. We don’t need to justify our feelings; they are what they are. Noticing and expressing our feelings becomes the starting point for a potentially productive dialogue. Our partner or friend is then more likely to hear us without getting defensive, which will likely happen if they’re fielding our critical and often self-serving beliefs and perceptions about them.
Of course it is much easier to pinpoint another’s flaws than to recognize our own. Bringing awareness and mindfulness to our own feelings and our own inner process requires that we draw upon another quality our being: courage.
The Courage to Attend Inside
It’s may comfort us to believe that conflicts and difficulties are another person’s fault. It’s easier to consider what’s wrong with them than to turn the mirror toward ourselves and wonder, “How am I contributing to our difficultly?” It takes courage and inner strength to uncover feelings that might feel vulnerable or unpleasant—or that we might judge as revealing an imagined weakness.
It takes a hearty amount of courage, which derives from the word “heart,” to press the pause button when we feel agitated by another’s hurtful comment or behavior. We’re wired with a fight, flight, freeze response that designed to protect us when there’s a real or imagined danger to our safety and well-being. That’s what we’re up against! This is why tensions can quickly escalate, especially when one of both individuals grew up in an environment where they didn’t have healthy attachment with caregivers, which is necessary for developing a secure internal base.
It takes awareness and courage to recognize what’s happening inside us without immediately succumbing to our survival-oriented limbic brain and it’s predictable responses and aftermath. Approaches such as Focusing, Hakomi, and Somatic Experiencing help bring mindfulness to what’s happening within our body and being. Getting a handle on what we’re actually experiencing can bring soothing to our emotions and calm down our reactions, which prepares us to reveal what we’re experiencing.
Communicating Our Felt Experience
We might think we’re a good communicator, but what we need to ask ourselves is: What is the nature of my communication? Am I communicating my thoughts and perceptions about the other person or conveying the texture of my inner feeling life? Am I courageously communicating from a vulnerable place inside my heart or taking the seemingly safer route of expressing what I think is wrong with my partner?
Am I saying “You only think about yourself! You never listen to me, you’re so self-centered!” Or do we take time to go inside to ascertain our more deeply felt experience, bring gentleness and caring to our feelings, and finding the courage to convey it without blaming: “I’ve been feeling lonely and sad. I want to feel more connected with you. I love when we spend time together and I need more of that with you.”
One helpful approach to communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication (NVC). As we learn to attend to our inner life of feelings and needs, we’re better positioned to communicate our inwardly felt experience, which is more likely to touch the heart of our partner or friend.
Summoning the courage to notice what we feel and want — and patiently practicing communicating our felt experience — can go a long way toward cultivating the deeper, lasting connections we’re longing for.