A 24-year male client in therapy tells me, “The pandemic has been a time where I have ended up spending lots of time alone and missed being in an intimate relationship. You do know that I am on good terms with most of my exes. Last week, I called some of them and asked them about what I could have done better in the relationship when I was seeing them. It’s strange how all of them mentioned that they felt I was never really present in the relationship. They felt that going out to restaurants and partying never really mattered as they felt disconnected at some level. I wonder what I can do to make my relationships work and understand what presence really means.”
As we worked in therapy, we recognised that mindfulness about one’s own feelings, and towards one’s partner, is a good point to start. Over the years, as I have worked with couples and individuals across age groups, I have begun to recognise that what makes a relationship really work is mindfulness.
In simple words, mindfulness can be understood as our ability and capacity to be present and attentive in the present moment to what’s happening within us. It also includes an awareness and Asense of how we are responding to our partner and how we choose to be in their presence. Mindfulness also involves being non-judgemental, and learning how to respond.
We very often talk about shared moments in a relationship, and often make it about a date night, working out or taking a holiday together. We forget that all these activities can feel very empty if the partners don’t feel connected or seen and understood in the ways they want.
Mindfulness begins when we consciously set intent and choose to create time and space for our feelings and relationship. This is followed by our ability to pay attention. Think about the first time you met your partner: What attracted you to them? Most couples I have worked with tell me it’s the undivided attention and presence their partner offered.
Attention can take the form of listening, observing one’s partner lovingly, and even the silences. Attention includes sensing when someone is uncomfortable, or even the smallest non-verbal gesture. I was working with this couple and the wife said: “At parties, when I am getting annoyed or bored with a conversation, my partner always finds a way to rescue me. I once asked him what makes him realise that. He said that when he notices an ‘awkward smile’ on my face for too long, he perceives it as a cue. It’s in those little moments I fall in love with him all over again.”
Mindfulness requires a fundamental shift where we consciously transition from doing to being mode. While this sounds easy, in a world that constantly focuses on productivity and optimisation of every minute, it can be quite a struggle to just be even with your own partner. Our day provides us several opportunities to just practise being with our loved ones. While adults are good at doing it with their children or grandchildren, when it comes to their partners it’s hard for them. Just before we get up from bed in the morning or before we go off to sleep, there is a tiny window that’s available to most people where we can be there for our partner. I often ask clients what happens in those moments. Do you end up looking at your phone or do you turn to one side and sleep right away or are busy thinking of tasks to be scheduled for the next day?
Learning to communicate with intention and also learning when to pause are important components of mindfulness. When it comes to conflict, our reactions come from a space where we feel overwhelmed or threatened. As author Justin Bariso says, “Pausing helps you refrain from making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.” This ability to step back and stay with one’s own discomfort can go a long way in resolving conflict and building mindful communication. Even sexual intimacy requires partners to be present in the moment—and an absence of it can impact how pleasure is experienced.
The journey towards mindfulness involves working inside out. Maybe, as you finish reading this, take a moment to stay with what you are feeling and thinking. That’s a beginning to cultivating mindfulness in your personal life.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear, and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.