This morning I awoke feeling peaceful and happy. I smiled as I listened to the singing birds. Then I heard the revving of a garbage truck. Leaving. I turned toward the man I love and snapped, “Arg! You forgot to take the garbage out AGAIN didn’t you? You’re so lazy!” I jumped out of bed, grabbed the mutts and headed for the beach. I glowered at the overflowing trash cans, blaming them for not strolling to the curb. Then my angelic tufted-toed orange dog saw another canine. Instead of a wiggly hello, she barked and lunged. Like mother, like daughter.
Let’s face it. Sometimes, despite the hours logged on the cushion, despite the meditation retreats, and certainly despite our best intentions, we don’t handle relationship conflict well. I’ve written a lot about how mindfulness makes us better lovers. But can it make us better “fighters”?
The short answer is yes. Mindfulness practice can help us fight fair, and fighting fair predicts relationship success. Marriage research tells us that even healthy couples argue, sometimes with plenty of negative emotion and yelling. But they don’t fight dirty. Their skills? They learn to take breaks. They express their needs without name-calling. And when they mess up, they acknowledge it and they do something about it.
Shut Up and Breathe
When we are upset, our systems flood with cortisol and adrenaline and we are temporarily irrational. We tend to lash out with words, creating wounds rather than solutions. It is difficult to bite our lip and calm down before we continue, as most of us know. Mindful breathing really helps. Next time you are emotionally flooded, take your pulse rate for one minute. Then practice mindful breathing and check your pulse again. A slower pulse indicates you have soothed your system, and can now speak more skillfully.
Bring It Up Mindfully
My dog and I both made the same mistake this morning—we opened with hostility. Research shows that the first few minutes of a conflict discussion tend to predict the outcome. In other words, if you bark, the other is likely to bark back, and things get worse from there. If you want positive results, be skillful in how you broach a loaded topic.
When you are upset about something, first get clear on what you are feeling. Next, determine what your needs are. What do you wish or hope for? Then express your feelings and needs in positive terms. Make your request explicit. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind (or your body language as you slam their tea mug on the table). The formula I feel ________ about ________ and I need ________ is simple and effective. And try to be polite—a pleasant tone is way more likely to be heard by your sweetheart and, frankly, to get your needs met.
Take a Love Mulligan
What about when you fail? In golf, some players allow themselves a do-over after a lousy shot, a second chance to make it right. This works great in love, too. When the damage has been done, skillful couples make a repair. So afterward, apologize and own your part in the conflict.
This morning when the garbage truck drama unfolded, instead of snapping I wish I’d paused and noticed that my mind was creating a ridiculous storyline where I am Cinderella and my mate a spoiled prince. I could have calmed my racing heart with a few breaths and then said something more skillful, like “I feel frustrated and stressed when you don’t take the garbage out and I need you to be more reliable.” But I didn’t. I went too far. So it was time for a love mulligan. I took my sweetheart a cup of tea, gently handed it over, and apologized for barking at him.
Mindful loving is about acting with kindness, whatever the circumstance, rather than reacting from anger or fear. So does this stuff really work? Practice, and see for yourself. Trade the boxing ring for the cushion. Then stop, breathe, and remember love.
This article also appeared in the August 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.
For the sake of all beings, Wisdom, ComPassion, and Mindful Loving