Penny, a mother of two young children, felt bored in her relationship with her partner Tom. They were busy with the demands of parenthood and work. Tom too felt a lack of warmth and intimacy in the relationship. And despite a noisy household, he felt lonely. So they started idly listing ideas to renew the spark: a regular date night? A new hobby to share? A weekend away?
Granted, any of these options could provide a temporary fix to the ebb of connection in a relationship. But the issue of disconnection was deeper than a lack of date nights. So eventually, they asked a Buddhist teacher who provided three solutions: attention, attention, attention.
With that, here are tips to breathe life back into your long-term relationship, given to you by a self-identified Buddhist:
1. Adopt a beginner’s mind.
Look at each other as if for the first time. This is what Zen Buddhists call "beginner’s mind." The idea is to experiment with adopting an open, non-judgmental perspective, one that is free of past baggage, free of worries about the future.
Of course, this perspective is difficult to hold onto for extended periods, but if we can dabble in this way of seeing for just a few seconds, as often as possible, we may be surprised by the power of this shift in perspective, from automatic pilot to pure presence.
If we can open to who our partner is in this very moment, we are more likely drop our demands and to listen deeply, and our partner feels seen and heard for who they are. This is not to say we leave important issues unaddressed, only that we make time, or create pauses, amid the habitual wrangling and quibbling, to see each other clearly.
2. Notice way more than you might be inclined to do.
Bizarrely, one study found that those married for many years perceived their partner’s thoughts and feelings with less accuracy than newlyweds did.
Over time, we lose motivation to understand our partner and we pay far less attention in any given moment. As the relationship progresses, we tend to assume that we know all there is to know; so our partners begin to crystallize into fixed characters in our minds so that our view of them is rendered inflexible. We ignore the truth of impermanence, of constant change.
Let me remind you of a fun fact that might change this typical approach. The word respect comes from the Latin word spec meaning "to see." So respect, literally translated, means "to see again." Odds are, you respect your partner. So see them again and again each time you engage.
Another good reason to pay attention is that you're more likely to see things you like. Another study tracked what partners noticed about each other over a four-week period and found that both men and women did not notice about a quarter of their partner's positive behaviors.
3. Challenge your own views about your partner.
Some of us limit our perception of our partners to only their most annoying flaws. At the worst of times we see our partner as a drain on our energy or as best avoided. Or we may perceive them purely in terms of an exchange relationship: someone who gives x, y and z and takes a, b and c.
Whichever way, Buddhist teachings tell us our views are likely to be inaccurate or, at best, an incomplete picture of who our partner truly is. If we pay attention to our partner in the present moment, every moment (or at least try to), we perceive more clearly and thus can connect more deeply.
4. Open to your partner’s point of view.
We would never admit it to anyone, but most of us believe we are the center of the universe. We never quite articulate what we secretly think, but it is probably some iteration of the following: If your world view is different to mine, if you perceive things differently, then you are just ignorant.
This is especially our attitude when we quietly believe we are just a little more intelligent, informed, expert, or experienced than our partner. Occasionally, perhaps years down the track, we can suddenly find ourselves surprised to discover our partner had been right about something all along.
For this reason especially, it is worth considering the increased potential for learning and insight that might come from opening to how our partner perceives the world, by actively trying to open ourselves to their point of view. In Buddhist terms, such a process is called "letting go of attachment to our own views."
Maybe our partner can see something that we cannot. If we are willing to cultivate some humility, and open to our partner’s perspective, our world might well become a bigger, more interesting, more nuanced place.
Zen Buddhism, in particular, emphasizes the value of assuming an attitude of "not knowing," of being prepared to say "I don’t know" more often. After all, the only certainty is that of uncertainty.
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