I have been privileged to talk about these matters with relationship expert and couples therapist Kathryn Ford. Kathryn has been working with couples for the last twenty years, and she has developed a system and a strategy that is very impressive. In fact, she can provide you with the strategies and tools to deal with the usual and normal ups and downs of healthy relationships and give much-needed help and support to not only deal with various issues and problems at hand but to enable and empower the couple to forge a happier and more resilient path into the future.
Depending on the situation and the specific case histories of couples, different problems may be at the root of it all. It is not uncommon for people to either lack or have underdeveloped self-knowledge. The way we treat ourselves and think about and view ourselves is going to shape and mold the relationships we have with others, especially when it comes to significant others in an intimate relationship.
When you are entering a close and intimate relationship with someone who is interested in you, they will have a front-row seat into your life and the other person will see and observe things that you do not necessarily realize within yourself and that you may not even know about yourself.
This can cause potential friction at worst and be the source of uncomfortable feelings in your relationship. The best way to approach the relationship would be with openness and the awareness that self-knowledge is not fixed and static but rather, in the words of Kathryn, a changing and ever-unfolding trajectory.
It is true that the better you know yourself, the more comfortable you would be in any given relationship, but even so, you want to be a very curious and self-compassionate student about yourself and try to demonstrate patience and show affection to yourself and to the other person. That includes and entails forgiving yourself and the other the necessary missteps and mistakes that will occur on your path and to allow growth and happiness to show and manifest itself.
Being a couple is the amalgamation of two previously separate and independent beings who find themselves in a new and often unfamiliar life system. It includes a necessary process of integration with various adjustments and alignments here and there. And yet, the process of coming together is not about losing your identity, as Kathryn reminds us, but it is important to maintain your autonomy.
Instead, you want to view your relationship as an ambitious project or a promising adventure that both of you are willing to engage in; you want to let it unfold and develop in front of and with each other. The aim is to turn it into a well-integrated system via continuous conversation and feedback between two autonomous caring and loving beings.
It is a delicate and affectionate interplay and compromise of mindful moments of give-and-take that then gradually and consistently form a system that is something else entirely, namely a couple. Being a couple is like a full-fledged forest made of various ecosystems, and yet, they all work and blend together, while the sum of it all is even greater than its individual parts as it is based on a complicated and ongoing learning process that emerges as a high-order life system.
To get to the point where the couple can work like magic, there are many pitfalls to watch out for, avoid and circumvent alongside many deep valleys and mountains of challenges to climb and overcome so that you can come out more united and with a closer bond on the other side.
Apart from being open and responsive, you also want to become real to the other person. That means you would have to let your guard down, become vulnerable and let the other person see you as you are. You may be projecting a (slightly) different persona to the rest of the world outside, at work and with acquaintances, and even with some family members, but in a close relationship, it ought to be who you really are. You may have tried to impress and win over your partner at the dating stage, but once in a close relationship, you would need to have the courage to become vulnerable and show yourself, warts, and all.
When you are genuine and vulnerable, the other person can actually feel it. It is not an analytical process nor a thought but a true emotion that can be transmitted, received, and perceived by the other caring person, the other member, and the other side of the relationship. If you are holding back or not responding fully to the other person, they may perceive you as not quite caring, empathetic, nor gentle.
In fact, as Kathryn points out, real empathy does not necessarily consist of putting yourself in their shoes, which would be a more thinking-oriented process but rather to feel the resonance of the other person, just like you would feel the vibrations of a struck drumhead or the strummed chords of a guitar. If you want a real empathetic response, then you can only receive it when you yourself take the first step and risk putting it out there instead of damping down, closing off, or keeping things tightly screwed down.
But it takes two to tango and your dancing partner would need to have the necessary dancing skills to harmonize with you in tandem. This is where mindfulness can come to the rescue. We all carry beliefs and assumptions based on the past, and they may be or may not be valid vis-à-vis previous conversations, discussions, and disputes we may have had with that person. But we need to also get away from what we think we are going to see and stop prejudging the other person based on information from previous conversations and situations.
If not, we will end up at the same place. It will be an unfortunate case of self-fulfilling prophecy where we are predicting what is going to happen in advance, and without being aware of it, we start sending things in that particular direction and endpoint. Put differently, our beliefs, assumptions and thoughts have gotten the best of us and are going to get in our way as opposed to trying to figure out and tuning into what your partner is saying or communicating to you.
We must both arrive in the present moment and see the person as they are in front of us and under the current light and circumstances, that is, our unfiltered actual awareness and perceptions of our partners right now at this very moment in time. Active listening and clear communication to the best of our abilities are going to be key here.
If both parties cannot do so, then we will not be able to understand each other and would start closing down. At this point, it would become futile to continue with the conversation. Nonetheless, this may not be the end of things and may only be a signal that the other person or that you yourself are not open at this precise moment.
This is where aperture awareness becomes such a paramount and important life skill. According to Kathryn, aperture is connected to the realization of whether the other person is open or closed to us at a given moment. We all have moments where we open up to others and other moments where we shut down emotionally. It can be shown and transmitted through gestures, signals, and in some cases even directly communicated by words. Aperture is about being aware of and reading those signs as well as putting mindfulness into practice.
In fact, Kathryn gives a first-hand example of a couple she was coaching where the wife kept on talking louder and faster, while her husband retreated more and more into silence. In fact, the less he said and communicated, the more she took over the conversation. This is not an uncommon sight in relationships where both partners are essentially non-communicative with each other, hence both are closed to themselves and to each other.
But it may not be just a lack of awareness. In this case, the woman was perfectly aware that her husband was closed off and unresponsive, but she simply did not know what else to do and her only default strategy was to keep on talking, faster and louder. It comes down to not knowing what to do in certain situations and how to deal with this type of stress and tension within the relationship.
That is when both would benefit from the advice of experienced others, be it couples that they confide in and trust or a professional coach like Kathryn who can teach you how to correctly interpret the signs and provide practical and insightful strategies and action plans for both parties involved.
In fact, we often do not know what the life of a couple looks like and what really goes on behind closed doors and within the privacy of the couple’s lives, which is often a closely guarded secret of some sort. Most of our information about relationships may be tilted, slanted, biased, and may simply not be applicable to our current situation and circumstances.
So what should you do? The first step would be to notice when the other person is open and when he or she is closed. Pushing on where the partner is not open would not only be futile, but it might add to a repertoire of negative feelings and build up resentment over time.
Effective communication would happen when both are open to the discussion, but they are also honest and vulnerable. In most cases, intimate relationships have a head start because both are interested in the other person, and both usually want the relationship to succeed and hence are looking for ways to improve and are willing to do the necessary groundwork.
The mindful approach of seeing apertures, openings where one can proceed, and closure when it is best to wait and show patience, is utterly brilliant in my view. You would not want to drive on when the lights are red and the same would apply to relevant conversations and discussions with an intimate partner.
It is like the gates of electrical circuits, and our brain works in a similar manner when it comes to memory. For instance, we gate general information about answering our phone when it rings but also with conditions and strings attached of not doing so when we are driving on the road. Depending on the context and where we find ourselves, we can opt for answering or not answering the call.
If the other person is never emotionally available or consistently fails to become open and vulnerable, then the relationship would not be able to proceed to a more intimate close bond between the two persons involved. Many couples fail to see that relationships are not contests and competitions, and love is not about being right or having the last word in an argument. In fact, in most cases, both views are correct, yet what we want and need to always look at is the big picture in front of us.
It is so easy to get into a debate of either/or and who is right, but whenever you find yourself in that space, you might intuitively sense that you are not in a good conversation there. But if you treat both views as equally true and valid and look and walk past the ingrained need to be right, then you can be more productive as a team or as a unit. There are many things that will evolve and that will make you grow as a couple if you are willing to take the exploration and make discoveries together.
Yet you cannot force the other person and if they are unwilling to take the journey with you, you would have to make a difficult and necessary decision that would be for the benefit of both parties. In those moments, you would need to be open to your wide array of choices and possibilities. If either or both of you are not committed or dedicated enough, then you would have to ask yourself, what is the next step to take.
If you have a partner who is closed-minded and prefers being right over being happy, if he or she is not willing to compromise and does not realize that it is not only about them but rather about both of you embedded in a sophisticated but emotionally and spiritually enriching and resonant high-order system of two autonomous beings, then it may be better to break off the relationship and to move on and close that chapter of your life.
But when both are innovative and are thinking outside of the box, when both parties want to succeed in that adventure and promise and want to fulfill the potential of their relationship and take it to unprecedented heights; if they find, they are compatible with each other and enjoy the other person’s company, if they want to understand, love each other and get the most possible loving connection with the other person, then the best path would be to keep their eyes and hearts open and to take the mindful path together hand in hand.
It was a pleasure and absolute delight to talk to Dr. Kathryn Ford, who has perfectly and beautifully combined three approaches that I am very fond of and passionate about myself: psychotherapy, Buddhism, and neuroscience.
I was not able to include all the wisdom and insight of that interview in a limited blog post but highly encourage you to check out the full interview either on YouTube or on my podcast.