Connecting Body Awareness and Couples Therapy

Using Mindfulness to Explore Emotion in Couples Conflict

Molly Layton

Even with two people sitting quietly, an interpersonal space isn't an empty space---it's alive with a peculiar quality. I got a measure of this quality one long day in a mindfulness-meditation retreat, when our instructor had us each pair off with someone we didn't know. He asked us to sit on the floor opposite each other and focus on the other person's face. Gently, he said, focus gently, for 10 minutes.

The only tool we had was mindfulness. We could notice all sorts of reactions and then let them go---the judgments, the efforts to manage our stiff or rubbery expressions, the thumping tension in our chests, the mounting vulnerability of our buck-naked eyes. We had plenty to notice, plenty to let go, and then in the next breath, there they were again, waving and wagging. It was strangely exhausting, for people who were seated quietly.

This exercise was a lesson in the overwhelming power of direct contact, among other things. If we leave aside, for a moment, the usual rush of judgments and projections that typically fill our relational space, we get to sit...with something else.

Slowing Down

Long-term couples can trigger in each other that onset of judgment and negative prediction, not to mention blame. The space between two people who've been partnered for years can be many things---lively, dull, dangerous, robotic, cozy, crazy-making, sensible. All in the same couple!

I'm a couples therapist, more than 30 years now, and I get paid to sit in the room and watch this happen.

I still think that we should slow down and listen carefully to each other; that we should generously give each other the experience of a fair hearing. But something else is going on at such times that need tending: we don't know how to open up to our own thumping heart. There's a physical experience to being in a couple---a physical substrate in which our bodies are registering sensations all the way from boredom to open warmth to anxiety to sexual interest to irritation to outright rage and more. I've come to see that it's just as likely to be the other way around: the physical sensation triggers the argument. Often the physical substrate is itself an expression of memories and shaping experiences held in the body, but not the mind.

The argument between one couple I saw, Mike and Julia, wasn't what you might think it was. Initially it seemed like the classic story of a man looking for sex and warmth from his wife, and then getting angry because she wasn't going along with him. Mike was angry, all right, in that shoot-yourself-in-the-foot way that upped the tension level between the two of them. Actually, though, Julia would have been happy to climb into bed with Mike. But that wasn't enough for him. Even in bed, they both agreed, he was angry.

"How do you know you're feeling anger?" I asked Mike in one session.

Mike pointed to his chest. "Actually, I feel cold." He made a rueful smile. "It feels steely inside, like I'm holding back. Holding back a lot. Like a coiled snake. I could strike.... But I won't," he added.

As Julia came undone, her husband just got more upset. It seemed he hated to see her collapse, but perversely hated her "understanding" (more mush) as well. They were back in their usual postures with each other---Mike's charged disappointment vs. Julia's deflated withdrawal. And yet I hoped to keep them coming back---and going down into---their inchoate somatic sensations.

From the Mind's Story to the Body's

If we can bring awareness into our own pulsing bodies, we get a chance to explore the hidden well of physical discomfort caused by our memories and emotions and our crazy defenses against that discomfort. The body, you might argue, is the unconscious. No one welcomes discomfort, but the fear of becoming overwhelmed, the fear of unleashing strange forces, of "wallowing" in negativity, can funnel our energies away from tolerating even the mildest turbulence of our felt experience.

Finding the Soft Spot

I thought about the difficulty of "letting yourself be," rather than scrambling to put someone else in charge of your own unsettling feelings. For example, in one session with Mike and Julia, I looked into Julia's face and saw how dismayed she was. We spent the rest of that session experimenting with the specific physical sensations she felt. "Slow down," I said once again, pointing downward like a signalman on the road. "Just notice what's actually going on in your body."

We worked, Julia and I, for several sessions on how she might be more mindful of those signals to flee; how she might hang out with them, develop a tolerance for what had heretofore been a desire to retreat pell-mell. What is it like to feel those sensations? Can she face into them, can she soften her defensiveness? Can she even soften into the sensation of numbing up, of blanking out, of resisting her own curiosity? Like all mindfulness practices, if we explore this territory in therapy sessions, we give up the agenda to get somewhere, to produce some specific outcome, to move on.

I was reminded of the soft-heartedness we all felt sitting on the floor of the hotel ballroom, looking into the eyes of a stranger, weathering the gauntlet of nerves and censure. But to get there, I remember, I had to accept in myself a level of awkwardness and inadequacy that most days I'd rather not tolerate.

This blog is excerpted from “ The Soul of Relationship". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mind/Body | Anxiety/Depression | Couples | Mindfulness

Tags: add | couples therapist | ED | emotion | meditation | meditation retreat | mindful | practices | psychotherapy | sex | TED | therapist | therapy | Psychotherapy Networker | pot

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