Well-Being//

How I Almost Quit Couples Therapy—and Love—Until Mindfulness Saved Me

Practicing mindfulness can bring you closer — and help you better deal with conflict.

Richard Drury/Getty Images
Richard Drury/Getty Images

There I was, sitting silently on my meditation cushion, trying to pay attention to my breath, but all I could do was stare daggers at the back of my ex-boyfriend’s head.

Not a stellar moment for a “relationship expert.” I was a psychologist and sex therapist with a talk radio show giving love and sex advice, but I was having a hell of a time practicing what I preached. Maybe it was time to quit and grow organic tomatoes instead.

Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to know how people fell in love and lived happily ever after. But life kept teaching me that long-term love was really difficult, not just for me, but for almost every couple I worked with. And in this particular moment, cross-legged in a meditation hall, what was difficult was focusing on my breath instead of the story in my head.

“He said he loved me and we were so happy. How could he break up with me?” Over and over my mind rehearsed the miserable tale. But I was here to learn to calm that wild mind, so I kept trying to redirect my attention to the sensations of breathing in, and breathing out.

What was actually happening, right here, right now? And then, in the middle of the sadness and anxiety, in the middle of wanting things to be different, I experienced a moment of peace. Yes, my relationship was over. That was reality, and it was unpleasant. But under the turbulent waves of emotion was an ocean of calm. I dipped a mental toe, and it felt wonderful.

When I stopped fighting reality and wanting it (and my ex) to be different, I was okay. I felt the ocean, not the waves. The trick was to accept what was happening instead of always trying to change the parts that cannot be changed.

When I expected my boyfriend to make me happy, I set myself up for pain. When I changed my own mind, instead of trying to change him, I felt better. As I experienced the calm and the hope that accompanied that realization, I wondered if this could help me to help couples. Perhaps mindfulness was good for couples therapy, too? But wait, oh right, I’m supposed to be paying attention to my breath.

When that retreat ended, I returned to my private practice. And I re-examined the work I was doing. As a new couples therapist, I was good at helping my patients talk to me about their problems. But I wasn’t sure that this helped them experience how their own mind was at least part of their pain, and how they could relate to their problems (and their partner) differently—sort of like I had done in the retreat.

I also felt I was missing something when it came to facilitating couples to make the changes they craved, both in their thinking about their partner and in their actions with their partner. So I decided to take action so I could better help couples—and, maybe, myself.

I’d been familiar with John Gottman’s research since graduate school, and I referred to some of his findings—the four predictors of divorce, for example—often in my private practice. But I decided to delve more deeply into the Gottman Method.

So I set out to become a Certified Gottman Therapist. I discovered one of the key ingredients to helping couples love better, fight fair, and be happy over the longterm was dyadic work. That is, instead of always talking to me, describing past difficulties, couples needed to talk to each other, and examine the difficulty in the present moment, here on the therapy couch.

When two people face each other and participate in exercises—for example, debriefing the aftermath of a fight by explaining their own experience, attempting to understand and validate the other’s experience, apologizing, setting intention for actionable improvements—understanding moves into action.

Meanwhile, I was deepening my study of Buddhism and meditation. I spent months in India and Tibet studying and practicing the teachings of the mind. Back home, I did multiple three-month silent retreats, sometimes solo in an off-grid cabin in the snow of a Canadian winter.

Why? After all, three months in Hawaii sounds like a lot more fun. I wanted to understand why we suffer in life and love, and how we can turn suffering into happiness and compassion. More and more I discovered that our ability to observe the workings of our mind, challenge our stories, and see what is really happening is a major predictor of happiness. And I started to use this approach with my couples.

Why add the teachings of mindfulness to couples therapy? Quite simply, because they work. Research indicates that mindfulness has a positive impact on relationship satisfaction both in and out of the bedroom. Couples with a meditation practice report improved relatedness, closeness, and acceptance of each other. In addition, mindfulness interventions favorably impact a couple’s ability to respond constructively to relationship stress and deal more effectively with relationship conflict.

Mindfulness practices can have a great benefit on a couple’s sexual life, too—increasing desire, arousal, and satisfaction, among other things. So if you want to support your own happiness, and your relationship, you just might want to get yourself to the meditation cushion.

Now, remember the earlier me who was sitting on her own cushion, failing to meditate because of the pain of a broken heart? Well, let’s fast forward fifteen years. Today I am in a great relationship. A flawed, challenging, great relationship. And I am far better at practicing what I preach.

When my sweetheart and I were newly dating, we attended The Art and Science of Love and got tools for our toolbox because we knew that the house we were building would need a strong foundation. The Gottman Method has helped us change from the outside. And we both meditate. That helps us change from the inside.

My relationship works partly because I don’t think it is my partner’s job to make me happy. I realize that my own mind is the primary source of happiness. Here’s an example.

When I find myself frustrated because my beloved forgot to buy cat food, I apply mindfulness.

What is the story in my head? He is thoughtless and unreliable. I can’t count on him.

Is this story accurate? No.

How does my body feel when I believe this inaccurate story? Tense and unpleasant.

Can I pay attention to my breath instead of my negative thoughts and emotions? Yes. It’s not easy, but practice helps.

What happens when I focus on my breath? The unpleasant body sensations start to decrease.

I’m able to see that he forgot to buy cat food. That doesn’t mean he is unreliable. That’s a story I am making up. Then, I’m able to let go of my unhappiness and give my beloved a hug. Instead of arguing, we are happy, and the cats are happy too, because they get tuna tonight. All is well.

So I didn’t end up an organic tomato farmer. I still work with couples in private practice, as well as in online courses and weekend retreats. And two months ago that beautiful man, who often forgets to buy cat food, and I were married against the backdrop of a Mexican sunset and Buddhist prayer flags.

We plan to write a mindful love story, together.

Originally published on The Gottman Institute.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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