I remember the exact moment I recognized and began to take ownership of my responsibility in marriage with my wife Heather. The moment is crystal clear in my mind because it was the catalyst that began to shift everything in our relationship.
This experience took place in our favorite breakfast spot in Dallas, which makes it hard to forget. Heather had just picked me up at the airport after an exhausting but rejuvenating five days doing co-therapy at a marriage intensive in Amarillo, TX. I was feeling good.
But like any marriage, there is a relational dance between a husband and wife that can spin out of control in a moment. My wife had unintentionally said something that instantly triggered familiar emotions that were present in my life before I even met her.
And once those emotions flooded my system, my anxiety spun out of control and I instinctually resorted to the coping mechanisms I was a master at—retreat, withdraw, pouting (yes, I embarrassingly and shamefully admit to pouting at times). I was in my “pain cycle,” to use the term we call it at the marriage intensive.
Or at least that is what I started to do. But something changed that day in our relational dance, helping me move from the “pain cycle” to what we call the “peace cycle” (i.e. living in our Truth and engaging our strengths).
And what I believe changed was this: I had become more mindful in my own life. There, I said it. Mindful. I have hesitated to use that word until this last year because growing up in conservative Christian circles, that word always produced stares as if I had left my Christian faith and moved into some New Age cult.
Being mindful simply means to be more aware of one’s life. What I ask of myself and of my clients is to simply practice paying more attention to our lives—that is to be more mindful. In his book, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness is basically just a particular way of paying attention. It is a way of looking deeply into oneself in the full spirit of self-inquiry and self-understanding.”
If you are wondering about this in your own marriage, here is a little experiment for you. For the next 72 hours (only three days) I want you to notice how often you distract yourself in your marriage.
How often do you turn on the TV or surf the web when you could be connecting with your spouse? How often does your spouse say something to you, but you aren’t really paying attention to what was said? How often do you distract yourself from talking about feelings and instead talk about the business of the house, the kids, work, etc.?
I believe our lack of mindfulness may be one of the biggest issues we face, as it has an insidious way of disconnecting us from the present and from our relationships. And in many cases creating neglect to the most important things and people in our lives—God, spouse, kids and friends.
So when I talk about being mindful, I’m speaking of that self-awareness that allows someone to truly be present and engaged in the moment. It creates an environment that fosters wisdom and discernment. And ultimately it leads to healthy action, rather than just reacting to something.
So let’s look at some simple practices you can experiment with over the next month:
First, slow down and breathe. It’s interesting to note that the word anxiety has some of its roots in the Latin word angere, which conveys the meaning of “choking off” or “closing/shutting in.” And for the Greeks, the word for mind, phren, relates to the diaphragm, as they saw a connection of the mind and body as it relates to breathing.
So one of the first things that we need to remind ourselves when we are anxious in marriage—which is often—is to simply breathe.
Second, practice being present. You need to make a conscious effort each day to be present in your life and in the lives of others. That can sound very vague and complicated, but it actually just takes effort and practice. So let me start with two simple suggestions:
1. Listen. Anytime someone is speaking, concentrate on just listening, rather than forming what you are going to say next.
2. Be patient. Anxiety often emerges when we aren’t patient and we are trying to live into the future.
Third, practice being curious. This also takes a conscious effort each day. We often assume a lot about what we think our spouse or someone else is saying or thinking. Over time, we lose curiosity for this person who at one time in our lives was a mystery we couldn’t get enough of. And when curiosity leaves our relationships, they often dry up and become stagnant. Here are two suggestions to get the ball rolling:
1. Ask questions of curiosity. Questions like, “Tell me what you experienced this week at work that was life giving?” “Where did you feel most connected to God today? Where did you feel most distant from God today?” “What is something that you have been really passionate about this year, and how can I best support that passion?”
2. Make a rule that when you go on a date with your spouse that you will create space to get to know them—that you will be curious. Often we spend a lot of time gossiping about friends, neighbors, family or talking about work and the business of family life.
I promise that as you begin to practice being more mindful in your life, you will take notice of these things in your own life and marriage. And as you notice these things, you will be compelled to actions that lead to positive changes. So practice these things over the next month and I believe God will lead you and your marriage into a new stage of connection and growth.