By Alison Bowen, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
When your spouse leaves dirty laundry two feet from the hamper, the last thing that comes to mind is meditating on your feelings.
But experts say being present in the moment — or having a “mindful” marriage — can translate to happier couples.
We first noticed the mention of mindful marriage when Jennifer Garner and fellow actor and husband Ben Affleck said years ago that they aimed for a mindful matrimony. Theirs has since soured — they announced they’re divorcing recently after 10 years. Others referencing a thoughtful relationship include Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, who announced their own “conscious uncoupling” in 2014.
Mindfulness might not have led to a perfect ending for those couples, but therapists say it helps so many marriages that some are building their practice around it. Couples counselor Maxcia Lizarraga, based in Nashville, Tenn., even credits it for the success of her own 44-year marriage.
“Being mindful is about being present in the moment without an agenda to change that moment,” said Durango, Colo., clinical psychologist Darrah Westrup, co-author of The Mindful Couple: How Acceptance and Mindfulness Can Lead You to the Love You Want. “You’re aware of this moment and watching it.”
This is helpful for individuals as well as couples — anyone can benefit from wrangling his or her thoughts more positively. And in a relationship, this can lead to more patience and compassion.
Westrup said she has increasingly focused her practice on this concept, adding that she feels “more and more people are on this path.”
Key to understanding mindfulness, Westrup said, is that you cannot have an agenda. Being present in the moment does not mean keeping score on small details — for example, taking note of when your partner doesn’t do the dishes. Being more mindful starts with acknowledging it isn’t about changing your partner.
Couples also make the mistake of viewing mindfulness as a quick fix that will make something upsetting less upsetting or an irritating habit less irritating, Westrup said.
“People will talk about accepting or being present, but behind it is this (misconception) that if I do this, then I’m not going to be so troubled by the present,” she said.
Instead, you need to take the practice to the next level: Take time to center yourself in the moment, noting where you are and how you’re feeling — without judgment.
Accept your reactions to your partner. If there is laundry on the floor, acknowledge the emotion of frustration, for example, as well as your reaction.
Therapist Lizarraga, who centers her work on couples and leads Mindful Marriage workshops, said she advises clients to take a step back during a difficult (or even mundane) moment and acknowledge both their emotions as well as the self they hope to be in a relationship.
“Kindness is actually the glue that can frequently hold a marriage together,” she said.
Harnessing your thoughts can be as straightforward as noting the thought, “My spouse is such a nag,” and altering it to, “I’m having that thought about my spouse again.” Take a moment to think of the type of spouse and person you would like to be, Lizarraga suggested, and how that can manifest in the moment.
“Whatever you focus on grows,” be it positive or negative, said Lizarraga.
Corey Allan, a marriage and family therapist based in Dallas, said mindfulness also can combat the inevitable routine of marriage.
“Months, years later, you get into this idea of we’re roommates, we just do life together, and there’s no connection, the spark’s gone,” he said. “I sum up the whole idea of mindfulness as intentionality.”
But in the whirlwind of their lives, when getting the kids off to school is a morning miracle, how can couples train themselves to take moments for mindfulness?
A few moments after the alarm buzzes can be a first step, Lizarraga said.
“It starts off in the morning, saying good morning, how did you sleep, how was your night?” she said. “There’s that sense of connectiveness: ‘Oh, my partner cares how I slept.'”
Getting to know each other is natural at the beginning of a relationship but harder to continue as a couple travels toward the long term.
“When we begin a relationship, sharing is a natural process,” Lizarraga said. “We want to know everything: Tell me about your family, what you think, what you want to do.”
In marriage, those questions — “What do you think?” “How do you feel?” — are equally important but can be eclipsed in the day-to-day tasks of, say, finding a briefcase or buying groceries.
Mindfulness can remind couples to ask those kinds of questions.
But this targeting of truthfulness, said Lizarraga, begins on an individual level.
“The idea is really being able to share a sense of our authentic self, ‘I’m fearful of this,’ or ‘I’m concerned about this,'” she said.
Whether you’re saying “good morning” or marshaling your energy at a scattered-laundry war zone, taking a personal timeout to pursue a few thoughtful moments can have a lasting effect.
“The whole notion of demonstrating compassion in that moment can make the difference in an entire day,” Lizarraga said.
(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Mindfulness can help a marriage grow, but like anything else, it takes a little work. (Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS)