Saving Your Relationship: One Exercise at a Time

Most of us have either been to or seen family footage of (lord help us all) that 50th wedding anniversary where some smug young videographer and Scorsese wannabe went about the round tables, capturing meaningful angles of the parquet floor, the loafers and high heels before finally arriving at his principal players, the octogenarian couple at the head table and asking “So how in the heck did you make it work for 50 years?” Almost assuredly one of them delivered the classic “Never go to bed angry” line. And that is some damn solid advice. Getting the hutzpah to resolve this evening’s dustup before settling in for a good night’s sleep or some quality make-up sex and cuddling is next-level shit. Much like exercise, it’s the bazillion-dollar cure they can’t package and sell in a bottle.

As a dating and relationship coach, my new world addition to those timeless words of wisdom would be two more relationship salvaging mantras: “What else could that mean?” and “I will not pile on.” In brief, “what else could that mean” gets us out of our preconceived notions of what someone else’s words, text message, facial expression, or pregnant pause really means on a given occasion while “I will not pile on” serves as a reminder to keep life present and in front of us, rather than tacking on this particular perceived faux pas, failing or fuck-up onto those that seem strikingly similar, and would undoubtedly, when added into the historical chain of evidence make for a positively damning indictment of your partner’s character, intent or judgment.

The relationship-salvaging balm at work in both of these mantras is a bit of mindfulness–in this case reminding ourselves to remain incredibly present in our lives, particularly when we’re under duress, like just after an argument with our loved one. More easily written than done, no doubt. When we fail to take the time to consider this current flare-up or perceived slight on its own merits, and instead pack on all the baggage we meant to or felt we should have addressed previously, we do both ourselves and our partners a great disservice. Even when a strikingly similar annoyance triggers our predictable reaction, by taking a breath and a moment of reflection and addressing this situation and this situation only – considering what’s going on at this precise moment for our partner and for ourselves, we are acknowledging the incredible complexity of human behavior and the manifold influences that can pitch any of us into our bad habits, annoying behaviors or bitchy states of being.

Let’s dig a little deeper into some examples of what I’m trying to say in my longwinded fashion. You text your partner some question he or she’s already answered like a half-dozen times, well because you have ADHD and you’re a bit unsure of yourself when it comes to recipes, technology or whatever. Your partner isn’t writing you back. Obviously, you’re getting the cold shoulder because this fucking question has been answered, see above, half a dozen times already. So now besides being a bit befuddled, you’re positively pissed off. Hey you just wanted to make sure, right. Perhaps if you had taken that deep breath, kept this moment present and asked yourself “What else could that mean… that lack of a responding text message?” you could have surmised “well he or she may not have seen my text,” or “maybe they had a bad day at the office and my nagging question just set them off a bit”, or even “well, I can be pretty damn annoying, Christ, I even annoy myself; I’ll just let it go.”

Obviously, the above example is a fairly low-key scenario, but let’s be fucking honest, isn’t it the stupidest shit that we let snowball, turning relatively harmless issues into heaping, rolling, out of control piles of shit that can bowl us over and bury us. The “what else could that mean” tool also works for that silent simmer you may encounter on a given evening, or even something hurtful said right to your face. Remaining empathetic to someone else’s obstacles and issues can help you put behavioral outliers into perspective, as you acknowledge your own ability to let the day or the moment get the better of you. “What else could that mean” might just mean you may have unintentionally or passive aggressively pushed your partner’s buttons. “What else could that mean” may get you to see more from your lover’s perspective as you acknowledge difficult facets of your own behavior that have not only set off your wife or husband before but pissed off friends, coworkers or family members on occasion. It could just mean that it’s time to give your significant other some time to work through their own shit, because not everyone spills all the beans on what went wrong in their day like you do; some people need to process their issues another way.

 

What if your spouse comes home late from work and not only did you not start making something for dinner but you didn’t even clean the dishes from your own meal; you sat there and watched Netflix then fell asleep. Well, despite their very difficult day, if they’re able to take a deep breath and vow “I will not pile on” perhaps they’re graciously refusing to link this time you forgot to make dinner or do the dishes with those other two times you screwed up several weeks ago. In their mind, they might allow that you also had a shitty day and you may have arrived home late too or just relapsed into an old, annoying behavior due to excessive stress.

When we live more in the present and remain mindful of adding past grievances, no matter how closely related or how valid onto our existing beef with our loved one, we are literally uncocking the weapon and putting the safety on our emotional guns. Now as I alluded to above, this is not easy to do. Our memories codify and collate all perceived slights into efficient little file systems retrieved on a hyper-second’s notice when we are triggered. These thoughts, reactions and behavioral responses literally become habits (see related article) that are hardwired old-brain, amygdala-fueled mechanisms that we have to consciously disentangle and pour over using our executive brain function – a long way of saying we need to think about our own behavior and how our reactions pour fuel on the fire.

All of this is not to say we don’t address the underlying issues or instances of fuck-upery, we do. But we choose our moments wisely, refusing to try and defuse a bomb when our nerves are so fried our hands are shaking. We need to become better about discussing our feelings and perspectives in times of calm, rather than unloading both breaches of our emotional sawed-off shotgun in times of stress. Again, easier said than done. One of the best ways I’ve found to address these issues is to really help my clients understand that we cannot view our loved one’s behaviors and reactions from our own perspective, oversimplifying things by putting yourself in their shoes and believing “I’d never handle it like this.” It’s about “how would I feel if I were them” not “how would I feel if it were me”.

To get a bit deeper into our own personal biases and begin to unravel them I write customized meditations so my clients can gain a deeper insight into their subconscious states of being. Reflecting on ourselves in a relaxed, meditative state can bring a much deeper understanding of ourselves and our own hypersensitive triggers, defensive posturing and annoying ticks. I also go over journaling techniques and assign writing exercises for individuals or couples, because when we start to express ourselves on paper (as in pen and paper-not your laptop), the act of writing itself begins to untether our tightly held beliefs and biases. It doesn’t mean we won’t still have them, it means we become more aware of them, and in doing so allow our partners their own particular quirks.

One particularly effective writing exercise involves writing a recent argument out as if a scene in a film or play, creating two fictitious characters (including introductory background blurbs) who are in fact our avatars. This allows for some emotional distancing and perspective. It’s easier to express ourselves and allow for our very human frailties and failings by creating avatar stand-ins.  I encourage my clients to make these brief scenes way over the top in terms of dialogue and emotional pitch with highly exaggerated stage directions like “He looked at her with that eye… that all-judging, evil eye” or “Her scornful tone scraped upon his ears like press-on nails on a chalkboard” and things like that. Then I tell them to rewrite the scene in the most empathetic manner possible… “She raised her eyebrow, it was a lovely eyebrow really, as she lifted it in that way; she was at her wits end, well because he was being an asshole.” The point here isn’t to become Neil Simon or worry about the writing, the point is to get ourselves on the page so we can see ourselves from a broader perspective…someone else’s perspective–getting back to the mindfulness approach that underlies much of my work as a coach.

This is but one exercise you and your loved one might try in the days following your next argument. I guarantee that minimally you’ll both get some laughs out of your over-the-top dialogue and cartoonish characterizations. A good laugh can be that crucial step preventing you from going to bed angry…which could be the precursor to some awesome makeup sex, which cures everything of course. For some reason should this single exercise fail to “cure everything,” drop me a line, we’ll have an in-depth, complimentary coaching conversation, see if our chemistry sets combine and decide how we can proceed further.