Ooh, couples, what is it that really breaks our heart?
A lack of joy.
It doesn't matter if we're embroiled in anger and blame, or frozen out by cold and distant withdrawal. Couples in crisis are not experiencing joy, either individually or together.
In The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (with Douglas Abrams), eight pillars of joy are presented to help bring happiness to our lives. As a relationship therapist, I realized with nerdish glee that each of these pillars can be applied specifically within our relationships to bring connection, intimacy and -- of course -- joy.
"With our mind we create our own world." Wise words from the Buddha and oh how true for couples: we create our relationship by the way we view it and our partner. Many of us get stuck believing our perspective is right... and therefore our partner is wrong! The Dalai Lama suggests we hold a wider perspective.
For couples this can mean seeing that our crisis comes from a broader dynamic in which we each play a role. Instead of honing in on a partner's perceived flaw, we can consider the context for this behaviour, and how we may be contributing to it. If we want to take an even bigger view, we can try and understand the impact of our childhoods, and society, and other factors. We do not have to take the narrow -- and joyless -- view that our partner is fundamentally wrong or bad.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop insist that "We can't solve everything or control all aspects of life. We need others." Yes, it can feel vulnerable to admit that we depend emotionally on our partners. Scary enough that we put up defenses to protect ourselves, which actually pushes our partner away. Real intimacy comes from acknowledging our basic needs (and neediness!) and turning toward our loved one to be there for us. (This also requires bravery, so let's be humble and brave.)
No surprise that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop spend most of their time joking, laughing, and kindly teasing one another. Alas, this playfulness is notably absent for couples in distress. The Dalai Lama says, "It is much better when there is not too much seriousness." How true of relationships! As the Archbishop mentions, learning to laugh in times of adversity is a skill. Couples can learn to use humour to diffuse tense situations, and to laugh at themselves rather than getting stuck in perpetual crisis. (Note: sarcasm is really not funny and will harm a relationship.)
The Dalai Lama tells us that "stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be." So it is for couples who expect their partners to change. Of course we can learn to be more skillful in our relationships, and learn to break self-defeating patterns, but that is not the same as wanting our partner to be something they are not.
We have to accept our partners for who they are, otherwise we perpetuate a cycle of disappointment and frustration. And frankly, we give up control when we expect someone else to change. Rather, we can be empowered and change our perspective from criticism to compassion and kindness. This is one of the most powerful and joyful things we can do in a relationship -- see our partner for who they are, flaws and all, and truly accept them.
Sometimes our acceptance requires forgiveness first. The Archbishop recounted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and of mothers whose children were killed and who were able to forgive those responsible for their deaths. It makes me believe that forgiveness is always possible. And that means we can "heal ourselves and be free from the past."
It can be devastating to endure betrayal in a relationship. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, ignoring, or condoning the behaviour. And it is "a thousand per cent wrong" to see forgiveness as weakness, says the Dalai Lama. It means getting to a place where we can have empathy for our partner, understand the context, and release the relationship from ongoing resentment and hostility. If we choose to hurt back our partner instead, we just keep the cycle of harm going. And then really, we will never feel joy.
Oh Honey Bun, I'm so lucky to be with you! Can you imagine if we expressed this (or some version of it) to our loved one every day? Imagine how good our partner would feel, and how this positivity would impact the relationship. Not surprisingly, according to research in this book, "Grateful people report more positive emotions, more vitality and optimism, and greater life satisfaction as well as lower levels of stress and depression." Couples that regularly express gratitude in their relationship benefit from a stronger, closer, more trusting relationship... and that certainly brings joy.
"Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering', says the Dalai Lama. Relationship expert Stan Takin also cites 'pro-self' thinking as a cause of relationship breakdown. It is only when we shift our thinking to our partner, or to protecting the couple, that we build a secure relationship.
The Dalai Lama is emphatic that the 'true secret to happiness' lies in alleviating the suffering of others. The more we worry about ourselves and getting what we want, the less content we are, and the less stable our relationship. The more we think about our partner, and have compassion for their feelings and needs, the stronger our connection.
"Our book says that it is in giving that we receive," says the Archbishop. This does not only mean giving gifts to our partner, but includes the generosity of our efforts, attention and affection. Why hold back? Couples that measure out who is doing more, or getting more, or not doing enough, are at risk of tension, disconnection, and just plain misery. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop talk about "the generosity of spirit" -- being big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, forgiving and kind. It is precisely this generosity of spirit that can infuse our relationships with joy.
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