The greatest challenge for each half of a couple, is to walk in the emotional shoes of our partner. We often fear that if we defer our own emotional needs in order to receive theirs, even just for a second, we will submit to them entirely, and lose. But relationships are not about winning and losing, they are about connecting.
As a therapist, one way I help my couple clients to walk in each other’s emotional shoes, and to find a secure emotional connection, is to invite them to participate in the following activity.
First I ask each partner to close their eyes, notice their breath, notice the tension in their bodies, and imagine that tension turning into a colorful, fluid energy, that can flow throughout their bodies.
I then ask each of them to imagine themselves in a bedroom from their childhood. I ask who (if anyone) is in the doorway, and to observe their emotional experience of that person. Some clients see one parent smiling, who makes them feel secure and comforted. Others might see two parents in the doorway, or their whole family. Whoever they see may have disapproving expressions on their faces, or they may be watching the client's every move invasively. Some clients see no one at all, and may even hear arguing in the next room.
Then, as we come out of the meditation slowly and they open their eyes, we discuss what they saw, what they felt, and how that applies to their relationship with each other.
This exercise gives us evocative images to work with the next time the couple is in conflict. When disappointment, frustration, anger, resentment, or other hurt feelings erupt, I may intervene, ask each of them to breathe, and then ask each of them to play the other's defense attorney. And to have fun with the role, perhaps by impersonating their favorite TV lawyer. I ask the partner in the role of defense attorney to validate their “client’s” feelings and point of view, with as much curiosity, compassion, and conviction as possible. I may even encourage them to use the images from the meditation as “exhibits” as appropriate. This helps them to embody the other person’s emotional point of view, in a way that is playful and not didactic.
Life would be exquisitely easy if our partners were psychic. If they wanted nothing more than to listen to us endlessly; and entertain us on cue; and satisfy our every sexual need; and be quick to recognize, understand and validate exactly how we feel and why we feel that way, at any given moment. But life would too creepily similar to an episode of Black Mirror, if that was your reality. You’re better off rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard, necessary work it takes to communicate empathically and effectively with your non-psychic partner.
Remember, the efforts we make to understand our partner’s emotional position, and to share ours with them, are not only necessary for a healthy relationship, they can also be creative, playful, and fun.
So go ahead and try your own version of my couples meditation and dialogue with your romantic partner, or any other person you love, at home.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R