Filed in Family, Relationships

Getting Along

Loving the other without losing yourselfChristopher K. Germer

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Stephen White, Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, LondonOVER THE YEARS I’ve come to a conclusion: Human beings are basically incompatible. Think about it. We live in different bodies, we’ve had different childhoods, and at any given moment our thoughts and feelings are likely to differ from anybody else’s, even those of our nearest and dearest. Given the disparities in our genetic makeup, conditioning, and life circumstances, it’s a miracle we get along at all.

Yet we yearn to feel connected to others. At the deepest level, connectedness is our natural state—what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” We are inextricably related, yet somehow our day-to-day experience tells us otherwise. We suffer bumps and bruises in relationships. This poses an existential dilemma: “How can I have an authentic voice and still feel close to my friends and loved ones? How can I satisfy my personal needs within the constraints of my family and my culture?”

In my experience as a couples therapist, I’ve found that most of the suffering in relationships comes from disconnections. A disconnection is a break in the feeling of mutuality; as the psychologist Janet Surrey describes it, “we” becomes “I” and “you.” Some disconnections are obvious, such as the sense of betrayal we feel upon discovering a partner’s infidelity. Others may be harder to identify. A subtle disconnection may occur, for example, if a conversation is interrupted by one person answering a cell phone, or a new haircut goes unnoticed, or when one partner falls asleep in bed first, leaving the other alone in the darkness. It’s almost certain that there’s been a disconnection when two people find themselves talking endlessly about “the relationship” and how it’s going.

The Buddha prescribed equanimity in the face of suffering. In relationships, this means accepting the inevitability of painful disconnections and using them as an opportunity to work through difficult emotions. We instinctively avoid unpleasantness, often without our awareness. When we touch something unlovely in ourselves—fear, anger, jealousy, shame, disgust—we tend to withdraw emotionally and direct our attention elsewhere. But denying how we feel, or projecting our fears and faults onto others, only drives a wedge between us and the people we yearn to be close to.

Mindfulness practice—a profound method for engaging life’s unpleasant moments—is a powerful tool for removing obstacles and rediscovering happiness in relationships. Mindfulness involves both awareness and acceptance of present experience. Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—to emphasize our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or condoning abusive behavior. Rather, acceptance often means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which inevitably leads to greater empowerment and creative change.

One of the trickiest challenges for a psychotherapist, and for a mindfulness-oriented therapist in particular, is to impress on clients the need to turn toward their emotional discomfort and address it directly instead of looking for ways to avoid it. If we move into pain mindfully and compassionately, the pain will shift naturally. Consider what happened to one couple I worked with in couple therapy.

Suzanne and Michael were living in “cold hell.” Cold-hell couples are partners who are deeply resentful and suspicious of each other and communicate in chilly, carefully modulated tones. Some couples can go on like this for years, frozen on the brink of divorce.

After five months of unsuccessful therapy, meeting every other week, Suzanne decided it was time to file for divorce. It seemed obvious to her that Michael would never change—that he would not work less than sixty-five hours a week or take care of himself (he was fifty pounds overweight and smoked). Even more distressing to Suzanne was the fact that Michael was making no effort to enjoy their marriage; they seldom went out and had not taken a vacation in two and a half years. Suzanne felt lonely and rejected. Michael felt unappreciated for working so hard to take care of his family.

Suzanne’s move toward divorce was the turning point—it gave them “the gift of desperation.” For the first time, Michael seemed willing to explore just how painful his life had become. During one session, when they were discussing a heavy snowstorm in the Denver area, Michael mentioned that his sixty-four-year-old father had just missed his first day of work in twenty years. I asked Michael what that meant to him. His eyes welling up with tears, Michael said he wished his father had enjoyed his life more. I wondered aloud if Michael had ever wished the same thing for himself. “I’m scared,” he replied. “I’m scared of what would happen if I stopped working all the time. I’m even scared to stop worrying about the business—scared that I might be overlooking something important that would make my whole business crumble before my eyes.”

With that, a light went on for Suzanne. “Is that why you ignore me and the kids, and even ignore your own body?” she asked him. Michael just nodded, his tears flowing freely now. “Oh my God,” Suzanne said, “I thought it was me—that I wasn’t good enough, that I’m just too much trouble for you. We’re both anxious—just in different ways. You’re scared about your business and I’m scared about our marriage.” The painful feeling of disconnection that separated Michael and Suzanne for years had begun to dissolve.

From the beginning of our sessions, Michael had been aware of his workaholism. He even realized that he was ignoring his family just as he had been ignored by his own father. But Michael felt helpless to reverse the intergenerational transmission of suffering. That began to change when he felt the pain of the impending divorce. Michael accepted how unhappy his life had become, and he experienced a spark of compassion, first for his father and then for himself.

Suzanne often complained that Michael paid insufficient attention to their two kids. But behind her complaints was a wish—not unfamiliar to mothers of young children—that Michael would pay attention to her first when he came home from work, and later play with the kids. Suzanne was ashamed of this desire: she thought it was selfish and indicated that she was a bad mother. But when she could see it as a natural expression of her wish to connect with her husband, she was able to make her request openly and confidently. Michael readily responded.

A little self-acceptance and self-compassion allowed both Suzanne and Michael to transform their negative emotions. In relationships, behind strong feelings like shame and anger is often a big “I MISS YOU!” It simply feels unnatural and painful not to share a common ground of being with our loved ones.

We all have personal sensitivities—“hot buttons”—that are evoked in close relationships. Mindfulness practice helps us to identify them and disengage from our habitual reactions, so that we can reconnect with our partners. We can mindfully address recurring problems with a simple four-step technique: (1) Feel the emotional pain of disconnection, (2) Accept that the pain is a natural and healthy sign of disconnection, and the need to make a change, (3) Compassionately explore the personal issues or beliefs being evoked within yourself, (4) Trust that a skillful response will arise at the right moment.

Mindfulness can transform all our personal relationships—but only if we are willing to feel the inevitable pain that relationships entail. When we turn away from our distress, we inevitably abandon our loved ones as well as ourselves. But when we mindfully and compassionately incline toward whatever is arising within us, we can be truly present and alive for ourselves and others.

Christopher K. Germer is a clinical psychologist, specializing in mindfulness-oriented couples therapy and treatment of anxiety, and a co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. His website is www.meditationandpsychotherapy.org.

Image: Love Love's Unlovable, Gary Hume, 1994, gloss paint on panel, 85 x 144 inches. Photo: Stephen White, Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London.

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D. Anderson's picture

"Radical Acceptance" of our emotions is the wisdom presented by Christopher. Turning instead to the many available distractions, such as over work, is a sure way to continue suffering. I my opinion a reduction in suffering is good psychotherapy as well as good Buddhism.

roxrichardson's picture

I was missing the fourth step, "trust," in Christopher's technique for addressing recurring relationship issues, and as a result, was getting nowhere in my own process of resolving some deep rooted habitual responses to conflict. My anxieties never went away, because, without trust that that resolution would arise naturally, I was only tightening my emotional knots when I'd try to force decisions upon myself that I was not ready to make. So, thank you, Christopher for that particular insight.

vasmabill's picture

I must see that if I am not present, I serve only my ordinary self and go toward the destruction of what I truly am - Jeanne de Salzmann.

joliminor's picture

Thank you Christopher, this is a very insightful article and eyeopening as so many of us in todays society disassociate from ourselves, others and the world around us. It is a reminder of the importance of how to stay fully aware and focused, in the present moment, with tools necessary to achieve it. Very, very good!

celticpassage's picture

Yet another 'mindfulness' psychologist who really spends two pages saying nothing except of course his want of telling spiritual communities what they are actually doing when they are 'mindful'. Without the author's clarification on this point, I don't know what Buddhism would do...wander lost I suppose.

It's truly unfortunate that the major public face of "Budhism" in North America is really a thinly veiled psychology-of-self and those who promote it for their own fame and fortune.

lworks11's picture

I am afraid that Buddhism in North America is and will continue to follow the usual trail that befits the world of shallow minded shiny metal object mentality that is the kind of white noise that lives in the space that nobody can stand to just sit in. Everybody is on the Buddha bandwagon, psychologists, media, clergy, business. Everybody is in a big hurry to make everything better. To not really feel anything but to get to a safe place. When all the current popularity of Dharma subsides, as it certainly will, then its on to the next thing. Too much emphasis is placed on getting ones needs met through various personal relationships in this culture. We have too many needs! If people trusted themselves enough to place the relationship with themselves as most important then wouldn't a lot of trouble be avoided?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Our relationship to our selves is just one cog in the workings of life. But North Americans are a social bunch so amicable relationships with one another are just as crucial. A healthy society is a reflection of healthy individuals. That "everybody is on the Buddha bandwagon" may be an indication of the growing number of North Americans cognizant of the efficacy of some aspect of the Law.

lworks11's picture

Agreed, Lest any seeds be left untended, morph city here we come!

Tharpa Pema's picture

Dear Celtic Passage:

What do you want Buddhism in North America to be like instead?

celticpassage's picture

I have no desires, goals, or directions for Buddhism in North America or anywhere else. I was just highlighting that psychotherapy shouldn't be considered a religion or even very much help.

For example. Clearly Michael in the article should have been thankful for the opportunity for a divorce, so he could find someone more compatible. After all, why would anyone want to be married to a spoiled whiney baby.

melcher's picture

...and why would anyone want to be married to a fat workaholic? Or to someone who continually whines about people who don't see the world (or Buddhism) as he does? Why even bother with tools like psychotherapy when we've dispensed with basic feelings of compassion and understanding toward those outside of ourselves?

Just asking.

khickey's picture

Holy cow! May you be at peace...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Could it be such psychologists are messiah wannabes? Who doesn't want to save the suffering masses (even for personal reasons)?

celticpassage's picture

Well, I don't want to save the sufferring masses.
I know I can't save even one person let alone the sufferring masses, and neither can anyone else. And I certainly don't have a messiah complex...although perhaps not a few psychotherapists (and perhaps many Buddhists) do.

wtompepper's picture

I've got to to say, celticpassage, that it seems you're being disingenuous here. Surely if you had no hopes at all to awaken anyone from their delusions,and to intention to improve the direction of Buddhism, you wouldn't bother posting here. Clearly, people causing their own suffering by clinging to delusions bothers you, right? You would like to encourage them to stop doing this, wouldn't you?

celticpassage's picture

Yes of course.
But that's not my saving them.
Ignoring whether saving is the right term or not, only they themselves can do that.
I can't even eat, drink, or sleep for anyone never mind saving them.

This would be true even if absolutely everything I ever did or thought was the work of the Buddha Dharma.

melcher's picture

This childish reaction against anything that relates to one of western culture's attempts to understand its own mind (psychotherapy) exposes little more than a cultural bias that employs some self centered idea of "Buddhism" as a front for religious bigotry.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Law saves those who save themselves? Places the onus for one's own karma right smack in each individual's hands (where it belongs anyway).

Tharpa Pema's picture

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them; however inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to master them; however limitless the teachings are, I vow to study them;
however infinite the Buddha-truth is, I vow to attain it.

- Quoted from the Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk‎ by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Zenchū Satō

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." - Albert Einstein. Religious idealism is fine, when it is practical.

youngc23's picture

While I agree with Christoper's article, my experience of the four-step technique recognizes it to consist of numerous and intricate parts; moreover, the fewer concepts one tries to work with the better. When we find ourselves wrapped around a belief, for example, we tend to lose focus of the feelings and, therefore, our mindfulness. Clarity gives way to confusion. Carroll Young (Solutions Via Clarity)