This Is What Prevents Couples From Successfully Resolving Arguments
Tonight when Meg and Danny sit down for their next conversation about travel plans, everything will depend on how well they work together to help each other stay open. Everything means not only what plans they come up with but, more importantly, how they end up feeling about themselves, each other, and the relationship. This is their next chance to build or diminish trust, connection, and love.
Openness is the secret to everything you want in your relationships. Being heard, understood, cared about—even great erotic encounters—all depend on your and your partner's openness. Your emotional aperture, or what I call Aperture Awareness™, is your relationship superpower. It's your ability to pay close attention in every moment to the ever-changing openness that happens as two people reach toward each other. Aperture Awareness is like a delicate dance, and it's the key to unlocking a loving connection.
That said, this awareness takes practice, and we have to learn how to harness this superpower.
Why your conversations aren't going anywhere.
Here are some examples of strategies people use when they don't have aperture awareness:
Focusing on "figuring things out"
Seems like we should try to figure things out, right? Wrong!
Our very powerful cortexes, the most recently developed part of our brains, are exceedingly good at problem-solving. We tend to favor this approach without even knowing that there are, in fact, other ways to use our minds to navigate difficulties, including, and especially, the difficulties of the most complex puzzle of all—relationships.
One of our other navigational skills is mindfulness—the ability to notice what's happening in the moment. This in-the-moment mindfulness is what we need to become aware of openness, our own and the other person's, and to respond as openness changes during difficult moments.
For example: You go to talk to your partner about a difficult topic, such as vacation plans. You can tell your partner is not comfortable with where the conversation is going—his body language is changing, his tone of voice is changing, etc. Your first instinct might be to "stick with it" and "figure this out" before leaving the situation, but that could end badly considering what his nonverbal cues are telling you.
Assuming the past will dictate the future
Another problem with "trying to figure things out" is that we are overly influenced by the past and use it to predict the future. If you start a conversation thinking, "Well, this never goes well, but here we go again," you're basing a future outcome on a past event—rather than using awareness of what's actually happening in the present and responding accordingly.
We want to be in relationships where we are both growing and learning with every encounter. Predicting that the future will be like the past gets in the way of connection. Ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy? This is it. Your expectation of zero positive change limits both of you in your most important teamwork—learning to love each other better.
Controlling instead of connecting
The other thing besides problem-solving that we are very good at, and have had many successes with, is gaining control. From birth we have been involved in the project of working to gain control—first over our own bodies, then increasingly over the world. Many of us have gotten better and better at control and more and more enamored with its usefulness in solving our problems. But what happens when the problem involves connecting with another human being?
When we fall in love, connection seems to be magically supplied as our turbocharged hormones and neurotransmitters propel us toward connection. And then comes the "end of the honeymoon," which means the end of this automatic delicious, nurturing, exciting, connection. Baffled, we cast about for what to do, and we reach for control. We try to get the other person to say yes to our requests, to agree with our ideas, to do the things that we feel we need and want. If only we can get this other person, who we thought cared about us, to give us what we want, all will be well again.
Leonard Cohen in his song "The Sisters of Mercy" says, "Oh, you who must leave everything that you cannot control. It begins with your family and soon it comes round to your soul."
In fact, trying to control the other person and the outcomes of our interactions and negotiations with them cannot produce the loving connection we crave. This can only be done when we are able to trade in the control project for the participation project. That means participating in the interaction, and in the relationships, in ways that are more likely to lead to the mutual openness that results in that delicious feeling of being together and harmonious.
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Tuning out and giving up
Alternatively, when faced with the daunting and seemingly impossible complexity of navigating relationships, we may simply give up. We decide that it's hopeless—sometimes the conversation, and sometimes the relationship itself. We may decide that there's something so wrong with us, our partner, or the relationship itself, that getting the love we want is just impossible. We protect ourselves from disappointment and failure by tuning out.
What to do instead.
The problem with all of these ways of dealing with conflict is that they lack an awareness of what's actually happening for you and your partner in the present. That's where Aperture Awareness comes in.
During conflict, begin to pay attention in each moment as you interact with your partner. Notice your sense of openness, or closedness, also known as your emotional aperture.
Aperture Awareness is a felt sensation. Just as we do not "see" by consciously thinking about the information our eyes absorb, we do not become aware of our emotional openness through thought and analysis. Rather, we learn to feel it, to become aware of it, and then to pay close and careful attention. Simply asking yourself, "Do I feel open or closed right now?" directs your attention to this felt experience. With practice, the experience of Aperture Awareness becomes more accessible.
An open aperture feels like safety, relaxation, trust, optimism. A closed aperture feels like danger, wariness, pessimism, anxiousness, unease. Some people register these physically. Looseness, softness, and warmth often signal apertures opening. Tightness, hardness, or coldness, especially in your chest, belly, or face often coincide with a closed aperture—your own or your partner's.
In each moment with your partner, and especially in moments that feel difficult, check in about openness. Are you open in this moment? Is your partner open? Compare your perceptions. This is how you get better at noticing and using this all-important information.
Once you have this ability, you can begin to use it to shape your interactions toward more trust and satisfaction. When you are both open, it's like a green light for moving forward to talk, to listen, to play, and to connect. When one or both of you closes down, respond by slowing down. Inquire about what changes you can make in your conversation that will make it easier for each of you to reopen.
The trick here is to stay engaged and aware but shift from thinking to sensing. We use our sense of open or closed to guide us in creating open connection. And for most of us, this will feel hard, awkward, and frustrating. We're probably not yet good at it in the same way we are good at other things. But better to bark up the right tree poorly than to bark up the wrong tree well.
Tonight when Meg and Danny talk about their travel plans, Danny will say that he wants to consider going to Europe. Meg will feel a bit nervous. She's nervous about leaving the country, and she's uneasy about their finances. At this point, Danny might try harder to convince her. As she starts to close down and go quiet, his voice might get louder and faster. That conversation likely won't be productive.
But what if, instead, he notices her closing and slows down, even stops and asks what she's feeling and how he can help her be open to this conversation? What if he doesn't run the red light of aperture closure but instead lets her know that he cares about her? Sensing this, Meg may start to reopen. She agrees that they should keep talking. She trusts him a bit more. They continue like this and may leave this conversation feeling happy to be together, a bit more trusting and confident of their ability to have difficult talks.
Using in-the-moment awareness, we can move toward connection and away from injury. Two people can learn to participate in gaining access and contact with each other rather than trying to control each other, pushing through with problem-solving, or abandoning the situation.
Pay attention to what is happening in each moment as you interact with your partner. Each moment that you encounter each other is the next opportunity to get better at listening, understanding, appreciating, caring. And remember that the most important thing you can do to be heard and understood is to find a way to be open, and to help your partner be open.
Kathryn Ford, M.D., has been practicing psychotherapy for over 20 years. She has a private practice in Menlo Park specializing in work with couples and other relationships. She received her M.D. from Brown University Medical School and completed her psychiatry residency at The Stanford School of Medicine. In addition to her traditional training, her life-long meditation practice has informed both her life and her work, including training with teachers at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
Ford helps couples to stay open to each other by cultivating present-moment awareness, especially Aperture Awareness™, the felt sensation of availability for connection. Both her clinical work and her writing integrate neuropsychology, mindfulness, and multiple therapy models.
She offers private consultations and workshops for couples and therapists. She is currently completing a book for couples and therapists that will present the theory and applications of her Aperture model. She lives with her husband in Little Compton, Rhode Island and Eastsound, Washington. Find her at www.kathrynfordmd.com.