Get your relationship off the autopilot

Marriages may or may not be made in heaven but they are turned into hell right here on Earth, and frequently due to mindless communication on the part of the partners. Wayne C Allen invites you to try a whole new way of relating, which he calls Elegant, Intimate Relating. Learn to communicate with clarity and curiosity, and discover how to continue deepening your relationship over time

Woman meditating

It’s funny, how much of our lives are lived on autopilot. From an efficiency perspective, not having to think about, say, how to brush your teeth, is a great thing. Where it’s not so good is when we are relating with something dynamic. I remember, for instance, my first trip to London, and stepping off the curb after looking to the left. I just about got run over by a cab, coming from the right. My autopilot behaviour almost got me killed.

I’d like you to think about your primary relationship. Or better, simply observe your side of things for, say, a week. I suspect that, if you are paying attention, you’ll see much mindless, repetitious behaviour.

It will be things like “tuning out” and not really hearing what your partner is saying [you may even say to yourself, “I’ve heard it all before…”] Or, s/he will do something and you’ll “automatically” be mad or sad.

You may discover that both of you have settled into a “safe” routine and work quite hard at not ruffling each other’s feathers. Or, something comes up and one or both of you retreat into sullen silence.

I’d like to suggest that this is actually a problem of attention, as in ‘not paying any’. Couples in trouble do this stuff all the time, and the only way out is waking up. Because predictability and autopilot do not make for great relating.

Here’s a bit of a running example for you!

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Let’s call this couple Jack and Jill. Jack is 40, Jill is 20, and they’ve been married a year. Their issue: prior to getting married, Jill loved the attention Jack paid to her. After, he started getting really possessive—wanting her “to dress appropriately”, “to be home at a proper time.”

Jill had left home at 16; her father had been cruel and dominating. Guess what? Now, it was like Jack was turning into her father! And Jack played right in, first “suggesting”, then criticising and demanding. When they fought, all there was, was finger pointing and blaming. They were on the verge of separating.

I suggested that they get out of their heads, out of their stories, and relate as Jack and Jill. Initially, they both thought I was nuts—clearly, the other person was entirely to blame! They wanted me to be a judge, and I refused.

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Let’s look at what I suggested that they do next.

Descriptions and Concepts

Let’s start with relating. It’s clear that most people don’t know the “whats” and “whys” of their relationship, and have no clue how to relate elegantly. Think about it: prior to your first relationship, all you knew about relating came from watching other relationships—primarily that of your parents’.

Each parent models how their child relates to: the same sex, the opposite sex, a spouse, their “kids”. You absorbed their way of doing things. But seeing is one thing—doing it yourself is another!

Anyway, so one day you meet Mr/Ms Right, and now you have to paddle your own relationship kayak. With no practical experience.

Most folk have no clue about relating and think it’s unnecessary to go to someone to learn; but then they can’t figure out why they’re always “flipping their kayak”.

The dumb stuff starts happening when the glow of newness [and lust] starts to wear off. One morning, one or both roll over, look at their partner, and shudder: “Who is this person, and what am I doing here?”

Then, the second dumb thing happens: either you try to ignore the differences and difficulties, or you try to “fix” your partner.

Most folk have no clue about relating and think it’s unnecessary to go to someone to learn

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Back to Jack and Jill. Jill had expected to always be adored, and Jack wanted to be endlessly thanked for looking after Jill. But then, as with most relationships, the novelty wore off.

Jill had rebelled at 16, and that was what she did when she felt pressure. Jack would suggest she do things differently; Jill would immediately do something to provoke.

I had to help them get out of fixing and blaming mode.

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I think the “cure” to this drama starts with some reflection. Let’s start with a little exercise.

Exercise 1 – Grab some paper or a notebook, and write down the reasons you are in a relationship. If you aren’t presently in one, and want to play along anyway, just write about a past relationship, or come up with a theoretical list.

Done? Good. Let’s have a look.

First, scan your list. If you were vague, and wrote something like “companionship”, take a minute to flesh it out. What are you really looking for?

Now, put a big plus sign in front of, “To learn more about myself, and to learn more about my partner.” Not there? Hmm.

Let me tell you, in my 33 years as a counsellor, “Learning about myself, and learning about my partner” never made the list, for any of my clients.

What did make the lists?

[Note: this isn’t a complete list, and it’s not in any particular order.]

  • I want someone to complete me.
  • I love him/her.
  • I want someone to look after my needs.
  • I want a cheerleader.
  • I want someone attractive to show off when I go out.
  • I want someone to talk to.
  • I want someone to have sex with.

Anything like these on your list?
OK, let me note a problem or two with the bulleted points, and then talk a bit more on “learning about myself”.

First, all of the above non-helpful bullet points are one-sided. It’s not just semantics. People in bad relationships expect their partner to do what they want, yet have a hard time doing the same for their partner.

For example, I have never heard, “He completes me, and I complete him.” Saying it this way would imply some form of equality in the relationship, and that’s not what most people think relating is about.

One-sidedness happens because, at the emotional level, most adults are infantile.

Man and woman sitting back to back having disappointment
Once the newness of romance wears off, each partner blames the other for their disappointments

Because of our early upbringing, all of us harbour a deep belief that “I am the centre of the universe, and that others ought to be here to meet my needs.”

We learn this in our first year or so, when it is actually true that everyone around us is totally dedicated to our comfort—to keeping us fed and clothed and clean and, above all, happy. We’re infants, after all, and can’t do it for ourselves.

All that attention becomes a hard-wired expectation.

We get older, and eventually begin to play at being adults. But the belief lingers—we still want to be looked after. “People are here to make me happy, keep me healthy and meet my needs. But my parents refuse to do it anymore.”

The fatal idea: “Oh! I know! I’ll marry someone, and s/he can do it!”

Inevitably, we bump our noses against the person we are in relationship with, and unbelievably, s/he dares to act as if s/he is the centre of the universe, and! s/he follows different rules—and! s/he wants you to look after him/her!

Up come the shields, as each hardens, and tries to fix the other.

If you’re having relationship issues, that’s what your list from the first exercise will point to.

And here’s the joke: there’s nothing to fix, because you’re not broken, not incomplete. You’re just asleep. And all of this also applies to your partner!

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For Jack and Jill, the issue was their clinging to the past—to what had worked for them in the past. Except, it hadn’t! Jack had had several failed relationships: “I treated them like queens!” Jill had run away from home and had never had a steady boyfriend. Their stories about themselves were untrue!

As were their stories about each other, of course! If they were unable to see themselves, what possibility was there that they were seeing each other clearly?

We had to begin to work at stopping the reactions they were both having: he lectured, she rebelled. They needed to learn to sit down, and simply listen to each other.

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Is there a way out?

Yes. Mindful relating. Keep reading!

The relating part of the solution was mentioned above—using your relationship to learn about yourself. This requires letting go of the need to be right, to win, to be in charge, to dominate.

This flies in the face of everything most folk know about relating.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a term and practice devised in the USA/Canada, principally by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s a meditator and student of [mostly] Zen, and runs a stress relief project. He recognised the benefits of what he called MBSR [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction].

He decided to see what would happen if he extracted meditation from Buddhism, and taught it as mindfulness. As Wikipedia puts it: “…He removed the Buddhist framework and eventually downplayed any connection between mindfulness and Buddhism…”

The term mindfulness leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth as, for me, the Buddhist psychological underpinnings are pretty important. But rather than get into that topic, here’s what I mean by mindfulness, and what I mean by “Relating with Mindfulness.”

Short-form of the Buddha story: when asked who he was [a god, a sage…] Buddha replied, “I am awake.” Being awake [bodhi] means one can see through illusion, to the true nature of things. I would [and do!] argue that awakening is “what life is supposed to be about.”

OK. So, being mindful is all about seeing through life’s illusions. I mentioned the primary illusion above, but I might rephrase it here as:

The primary illusion is “you”. You know—“centre of the universe you”. That’s an illusion because it’s unsustainable.

Every time you try to place your needs and demands over another’s, you see what happens: others counter with their own demands. We hear “no”, go inside, tell ourselves stories, and make ourselves miserable.

In Buddhist terms, when our desires are not met, we create dukkha, or dis-satisfaction. And, because of our infantile natures, we do two things:

1. we crank our heads around, look for something or someone [our partner!] to blame, and

2. we still expect things to be fixed to our satisfaction, because we think we are the centre of the universe.

So, what is awake?

Being awake, being mindful, is: catching ourselves mid-head turn, stopping ourselves from being caught in our stories, letting go of being dis-satisfied, enjoying the joke, and then sharing our insight with someone else.

Well, that last clause is the relating mindfully part.

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For Jack and Jill, the process began with learning to calm themselves. One or the other would raise an issue, and the fight would begin. This happened because each stopped listening to the other, and started defending. We worked on verbal and signal clues [like raising the hand, and saying, “Let’s take a moment, and bring the volume down.”] They agreed to use this as a time to sit quietly.

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Learning to Wake Up

Learn to meditate. No. Really.

But here’s the key, and this is essential: don’t have a goal. Don’t meditate for stress-reduction [looking at you, Jon Kabat-Zinn,] or to relax, or to lower your blood pressure, and don’t meditate [despite this article], to have a better relationship.

Meditate, and you’ll learn to see the game.

In meditation, we learn to sit still long enough to notice [without attachment] the workings
of our mind. Period. We learn to be with our mind, and to watch thoughts float by, [which is what they will do if you don’t grab on and play with them.]

As you meditate, you see that all of your games and stories, all of your blaming and uncomfortableness—your unsatisfactoriness—is a figment of your imagination.

And you notice that what is actually going on is one breath, and one breath.

You have to learn to meditate properly.

You need to come to terms with the reality of our unreality—how we judge, blame, demand—getting nowhere but into a pile of dis-satisfaction. And you see that the thoughts that empower all of this are clouds passing on the mind-screen.

Exercise 2 – Find a quiet place, and sit comfortably. Let’s do this one seated on a chair, unless you regularly meditate on a cushion. Sit with feet flat on the floor, and move your back away from the back of the chair. Keep your eyes open and softly focussed on the floor two metres ahead.

Breathe, and just sit there.

After a minute or two, [likely sooner!] you’ll notice thoughts. Just watch them arise. Don’t grab one, not yet. Let a few pass, and you’ll see there’s an endless supply.

Now, here’s the biggie. Think of your partner, and see what comes up. I’d almost bet a disagreement will percolate to the top; if not, think of your last unresolved conflict.

This time, follow the thought.

But only for a minute or two. Now, breathe, soothe yourself, and let the thought go.

Wasn’t that uncomfortable? You likely tightened up, made yourself tense, and told yourself all of your hard-done-by stories.

Now for the big question: what, in the real world, about the situation, changed?

Man and woman looking deeply to each other controlling their anger
Once you become mindful you can tone down your anger and begin to look deeper

Exercise 3 – Same set up. Go back inside, and bring that painful memory up again. This time, though, take an internal step back, and see yourself winding yourself up over a non-real movie in your head.

Have a big breath, and let yourself disengage from the movie; then, return to calm breathing.

Congratulations! You just woke up, only for a second.

Now, keep doing that, repeatedly, until you die!

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Jack and Jill wanted to stay together, so they were motivated. Both had actually meditated in the past, so they quickly learned to sit together. This led them to be able to tone down anger or annoyance... they began to look a bit deeper, and unearth
past relationship material—the stuff they wound up over—and learned to let it go.

They did this repeatedly, because dumb stuff tends to repeat!

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Because… that’s the point

Mindfulness is a dynamic process, not a fixed state. We are awakening, moment by moment, or we are not.

Meditating shows us the game, and shows us how to let go of our crazy-making thoughts. But here’s the kicker: it’s useless unless you do it all the time, off the cushion, and especially when bumping your nose against your partner.

The rules of disengagement [the last exercise] also apply when you are in dialogue: you catch yourself winding yourself up, telling stories, having judgements, etc. You step back, and have a breath. And then, you choose differently.

I’m sure you’re thinking that, when engaging with your partner, things seem real.

Well, yes and no.

It is real in the sense that you can reach across the space and pinch your partner, and s/he is right there.

It is unreal in every other sense. If you slow down and watch yourself, you can see yourself inventing meanings, telling stories, etc. When you do this, you are no longer engaging with your partner—you’re engaging with the imaginary person in your head.

What goes on in your head is not real any more than imagining eating a pizza is the same as eating an actual one

To get this, to wake up, you:

  1. have to realise what you are doing, and then
  2. have to let go of your stories, [just like you do when you meditate] and come back into the situation, minus the stories about your partner.

Relating with Mindfulness

I suppose I could have written, Living with Mindfulness, as what I’m describing is about the whole enchilada, but your relationship is actually a great practice field for mindful living.

It’s great because [theoretically] your partner wants you to be your best “you”, and vice versa.

Awakening is Self-Work

You do this work, and all self-work, for yourself. This is not self-ish. This is wisdom. If you are out of control and acting like an idiot, that’s on you, not on your partner. If you sort your drama out, you benefit [as does the rest of the planet!].

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Example: Next, Jack and Jill learned the Communication Model, which is just a fancy way for saying they learned to talk for themselves. Each took responsibility for speaking always and only for themselves, and learned to ask, rather than demand. Most importantly, they learned to do this for themselves, not to fix the other.

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So, we begin here: the pronoun of your life, from this point on, is “I”.

This is a fundamental shift. You are beginning a path of self-acceptance—who you are and how you do what you do is all you, all the time. Others are not making you do anything, so you need to stop talking as if they are.

“I” is the pronoun of presence. [I’m not going to get into the Buddhist principle of “no-I” as that’s another topic.] As I said above, beyond what your senses take in, everything else is you, making things up and telling stories.

Some people like oysters; others don’t. The wise person understands that this has nothing at all to do with the oyster.

Once you grasp this, you see that your judgements have nothing to do with the person [thing, situation] in front of you. It’s why you and your partner have different views—not right/wrong, but simply, personally, different.

We move past this by always and only speaking for ourselves

Exercise 4 – Monitor yourself. [And sorry, you have to do this until you die.] You need to pay special attention to two things: what you think, and what you say.

I want you to watch your internal and external usage of “I” and “you”. The commitment is this: when you say “you”, if you are not describing what you see or hear, you must shift to “I”.

[The only allowable use of “you”: “I notice that you are scrunching up your eyes, and are looking away,” or, “I notice that the tone of your voice just shifted.” (Not “I notice that you sound pissed off.” That’s a judgement, and is about you and your interpretations. Again!)]

Examples:

Instead of saying, “You make me angry!” [No s/he doesn’t! S/he is doing whatever, and you are choosing your reaction.], choose to say, “I am choosing to anger myself right now.”

Instead of saying, “You never listen to me!” choose to say, “I wonder if you’d like to hear what’s up for me.”

[Please note: this is one aspect of the Communication Model we teach. To learn it fully, pick up my book, The. Best. Relationship. Ever.]

Pay attention!

For now until forever, speak always and only for yourself. This means owning your judgements, speaking your truths by saying, “This is what I believe,” and asking your partner for clarification for pretty much everything they say or do.

We ask for clarification because we barely comprehend why we do and think what we do, and we plainly suck at figuring out the motivations of others. Our beliefs about others are self-serving, and are designed to keep us stuck in our prejudices [pre-judgements]. The only way out is through curiosity.

Our beliefs about others are self-serving, and are designed to keep us stuck in our prejudices

The Joy of Curiosity

Here’s the crux of relating with others: you know nothing! Even if someone always reacts a certain way to something, that is not ever predictive of future behaviour.

Proof: You read this article, and adopt its way of being. If the above were true, you couldn’t change. Or worse, your partner would never believe you could or would change.

Your beliefs about others are just stories, and usually non-helpful.

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Jill began to realise that she dressed and acted provocatively for two reasons: to get attention, and to be seen as a rebel. The truth was, she was a showboat, and the more insecure she felt, the more she acted out.

Jack realised that he really believed that men were “supposed to” protect and take care of women. He liked to feel like a white knight.

Both realised that they blamed the other for their discomfort with themselves! Which is pretty common. It took a while, but soon, their favourite line was, “Boy, am I ever getting myself wound up about [whatever], and I’m about to blame you!”

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So, with your primary partner, and later with others:

Exercise 5 – Ask questions! But be honest, too, about your silly, silly stories in your head.

“I see you tightening your eyes, and the story I am telling myself is that you are angry, so I’m gearing up for a fight. But I’m not mind reading anymore, so let me ask, ‘What’s up for you right now?’”

Because, curiosity!

Relating is a Mirror

Man and woman looking elegantly to each other
Relating elegantly means that you and your partner hold up a mirror for each other in which to see yourselves

Here’s the best reason for being in an Elegant, Intimate Relationship [according to me]:

Relating elegantly means that my partner holds up a mirror for me to see myself in, and I do the same for him/her. My partner is the perfect person to provide me with requested feedback, emphasis on requested. And, emphatically, vice versa. After all, s/he sees me being me, all the time.

The time for establishing “mirroring” is any time there’s a quiet moment, as opposed to in the middle of a fight.

Here’s an example of what such an agreement might sound like: [notice the “I” language]

“I know that when I upset myself I can get lost in my stories, and get lost in blaming people and events for what I am experiencing. In that moment, I lose sight of how much I’m winding myself up. I’d like to make a deal with you. I’d like you to listen to the stories I’m telling myself, and then I’d like you to invite me to notice that I’m winding myself up [upsetting myself, making myself angry] and invite me to stop. And I will do the same for you.”

Now, I know. You’re thinking, “Real people don’t talk or act like that!” So, I’d just ask you to look at how people in relationships you value—the ones you think are great examples—communicate. I’ll bet they are doing some variation of the above. The rest, well, they’re getting by, or are resigned to a meaningless relationship.

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After a few months with the Communication Model, and speaking for themselves, Jack and Jill began to trust each other enough to hear, “You seem to be agitating yourself, and I’m wondering what you might do differently?”

This led to “breathing”, then to dialogue regarding the internal fears, thoughts and issues that were actually behind what, in the past, would have led to blaming, then to a fight.

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Practice, all the time

Couples enjoying the conversation
Commit to spending 30 minutes a day with your partner for a dialogue in which you talk only for yourself, using the “I” language

OK, so most couples have this dumb idea that relating ought to be easy—indeed, if it isn’t, they think they need a new partner. Not so! Living and relating mindfully, like meditation, is a discipline, and any discipline takes practice.

In counselling, we start couples off with a Communication Model, and insist that they practice it for 30 minutes, every day.

Why?

So that they learn it in the normal times, so it’s second nature the next time they have a disagreement, and the situation is ramped up.

Exercise 6 – Have a meeting with your partner, and set aside a time and place to have a 30 minute a day dialogue. The rules: show up, and use “I” language, talking only for yourself, about yourself. In general, share the 30 minutes equally.

When the first person stops talking, the second does not refute what the person was saying! Instead, “Thanks for sharing your story. Here is what is up for me.”

Intentions

Back to where we started. Now what is your intention for your relationship? Go back to your notebook, and write it again.

Hopefully, you wrote something like,

“My relationship is the container in which I best learn about myself, while encouraging my partner to learn about him/herself.”

If this, or something like it, is not the intent for you, and you’re still stuck on being looked after, or right, well… thanks for reading this far.

For those of you that didn’t bugger off, let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that we agree to call this Elegant, Intimate Relating.

Here’s the deal: from this point on, when you dialogue with your partner, and especially when things are heating up, you say to yourself:

OK, have a breath! [Then, have one, or several, breaths] Think, or say: “My overriding goal is to be present, which means I must escape from my stories. So, as I enter into this heated dialogue, before, during, and after my speaking, I am going to ask myself, ‘What is my intention in saying this?’”

“If my intention is to win, or hurt, or punish, I’ll have another breath, and remember Elegant, Intimate Relating.

“If I didn’t actually say something dumb, I’ll tell my partner I almost slipped. If I did slip, I’ll apologise as soon as I notice, and invite my partner back into dialogue.

“If my partner slips and deviates from Elegant, Intimate Relating, I’ll have a breath and “not bite.” And if I do bite, as soon as I catch myself, I’ll [you guessed it] take a breath, and bring myself back to Elegant, Intimate Relating.

“In no case will I pretend that my behaviour is dependent upon what my partner is doing. In other words, I have decided to engage with my partner [and with life!] mindfully, and that is entirely about me. I will no longer excuse my deviating behaviour by blaming others, situations, or even myself.

“I will continue, with each breath, to get over myself, and get over my delusions. I will self-soothe to eliminate the suffering I create for myself, and I will open myself to vulnerable dialogue.”

Phew!

Really?

Yup. This is what works. And it is work. Endless work, as we fight against our accusatory, blaming, suffering natures.

Remember: Being awake isn’t a place. It’s a process.

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Jack and Jill, years later, continue together. They do sit together regularly, and use the Communication Model all the time. They still react to triggers, but catch themselves. They have a gained sense of humour over their triggers, and continue to laugh with each other.

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Learning to be Open and Vulnerable

Exercise 6 – Sit with your back against the headboard of your bed. Have your partner sit between your open legs, his/her back to your chest. Reach around and rest your hands on his/her heart.

Hold them for a while.

Then, say: “I am curious and interested in who you are, and who you are becoming. My wish is that you always feel safe and secure with me, just like now. So, I promise to be this open and vulnerable with you, to hold you and your heart gently, and to agree to look at things from your perspective. I can never see things exactly as you do, but I promise to be open to listening, and responding.”

Then, change places, and repeat.

OK, so here’s a taste of what waking up—mindfulness—is all about. Needless to say, shifting your relationship in this direction is not a one shot deal.

Being present with your partner is a moment-by-moment, for-a-lifetime kind of thing

So, I’d encourage you to decide to do just that. Revisit, with your partner, your commitment to talk for 30 minutes a day, and then commit to going deeper.

The “deeper” part is to begin the sharing of your underlying stories, the hurts and pains that have caused you to tighten up and slip into autopilot. You make a new pact, to be open, honest, and vulnerable with your principal partner, about all of it.

Do that, and you’ll find yourself Relating with Mindfulness!

[Shameless plug: as I mentioned above, I wrote a whole book about this, called The. Best. Relationship. Ever. It’s a much more thorough walk through of the above, and includes the full Communication Model, as well as a lot more exercises. I’d urge you to pick up the paperback or Kindle version at your friendly, local Amazon location, worldwide!]


A version of this article was first published in the October 2015 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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