This One Practice Can Shut Down Any Fight In Your Relationship

Image by Michela Ravasio / Stocksy

Mindfulness seems to be popping up everywhere these days. In therapy, it can be used as a technique to help patients be aware of what is going on around them as well as what they are experiencing internally in the present moment to help them achieve a state of calm as well as to be less critical of themselves.

In relationships, then, what would happen if couples were more mindful too—that is, aware of what is going on around them with their partner as well as within themselves, being more aware of their physical, mental, and emotional experiences?

Well, a lot, in fact. Especially when it comes to shutting down fights.

Physical awareness

Oftentimes, unfortunately, fighting between couples escalates to the point where one or both reach the level of anger. And once someone reaches that physiological state, they react and say things based on that emotional state that they cannot take back, usually making things worse. While some people truly believe they just go from a state of calm to anger, mindfulness can actually clue you into the subtle cues that occur leading up to reaching a state of anger. There are physical, emotional, and behavioral cues that can let someone know they are heading toward anger. Some of these include clenching jaws, grinding teeth, pacing, or becoming sarcastic, just to name a few.

So, let's say a couple tends to have horrible fights where one of them ends up saying horribly awful things in anger that results in them walking away feeling hurt and even more angry. If they were mindful, the partner that gets angry could be aware of their subtle cues that indicate they're building toward that state of anger and make a decision to go calm down before continuing with the argument. Likewise, their partner could be mindful of their cues and mention this to their partner and suggest they reconvene when they’re calmer.

Navigating "silent bids"

What may actually lead to a fight is a couple's inability to be aware of what they are communicating, verbally or otherwise, to each other about what they need and want. Most people are not straightforward in asking their partner for what they need or want, so they do it in nonverbal ways by "bidding" for their partner's attention. 

Rather than outright asking, "Honey, I am so tired from working so hard today—would you mind doing the dishes tonight?" a person might give a bid toward their partner by sighing loudly combined with a verbal complaint about how many dishes there are in hopes that their partner will "hear" them and get up and do the dishes. When the other person does not pick up on these cues and goes and sits down to watch TV, the "bidding" partner feels slighted, unheard, and irritated at the thought of having to do the dishes. So, they may go confront their partner in anger, resulting in a fight that could have been avoided if their partner had been mindful and picked up on the nonverbal "bidding" cues being communicated by their partner.

So many bids occur between partners all of the time, and when missed consistently, it can lead to resentment, disconnection, and conflict. Making an effort to be mindful of when your partner is bidding toward you and understanding what they need and want when they do this is key to maintaining a healthy, connected relationship.

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Mindful listening

So often in fights, each person is waiting for the other person to stop talking (or yelling) so that they can get their own words in. Both are typically holding strong to their stance and trying to get the other person to see just how wrong they are.

What does it look like when couples infuse mindfulness into the way they argue? If a couple can shift to becoming aware of and focused on what their partner is saying and really trying to understand their perspective and feelings, they gain the ability to empathize with one another. And empathy can shut down any fight. When we feel the pain and emotions that our loved one is experiencing, we're better able to release our anger, resentment, or defensiveness and really work toward a mutual solution or understanding.

Now, empathy can only be achieved if both people are truly present and listening mindfully to what the other is saying. One way couples could do this, for example, is to choose a "talking stick" of choice to use whenever they find their conversation heading toward an argument. (This could literally be something they create together or simply something like the TV remote.) The rule is that whomever is holding it is the only one who gets to speak. The other person cannot speak, no matter how much they want to. They have to wait and practice mindful listening before they'll get their turn to speak.

Here's how it works: One partner gets the talking stick first. They can speak their mind on the issue at hand, and then when finished, the person without the stick needs to show they were listening and that they understand what their partner was saying: "So, what I am hearing you say is…" Then they ask their partner, "Do you feel I heard and understood you?" If their partner says no, then this process continues until the person with the stick does feel heard and understood. Only then does the talking stick change hands. This process repeats back and forth between the partners until they both feel the issue is resolved. This can be a forced process at first for the listener, but it really does push them to stop thinking about themselves and their point of view and to put themselves in the shoes of their partner.

Mindfulness…the key to shutting down fights in a relationship? Absolutely. 

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