mindfulness couples counseling, contemplative couples therapy

It’s happened again.

The kind of fight with a partner that we dread-the kind that start off seemingly with a simple request or discussion and somehow we’re in a knock down fight , and we don’t know how we got there.  Many couples who come to my practice who struggle with conflict find often ask “how can we avoid these big fights?”   Some couples are truly baffled about what they fight about, and how they escalate so quickly, but they know they want it to stop.

The good news is this kind of arguing has a solution.  One of the solutions I utilize in my practice is mindfulness.  With the right training and practice, mindfulness can be a powerful tool to combat these escalating arguments.   I use it in the sessions with the couple, so they can learn how to use it at home.

Here are 4 steps to using mindfulness in couples work

1).SET THE STAGE: Notice the time, place and setting of the discussion prior to starting to talk.  This is a key element of noticing when to bring up a topic that I think is the crucial first step.  Al Anon, the 12 step program for family members of Addicts and Alcoholics, has a great slogan for this-“does it need to be said, does it need to be said now, and does it need to be said by me.”  This slogan is a crucial one, and I use it often in many contexts, but when using mindfulness, this is sort of like  seeing if the conditions are right, for a discussion on a topic.  We usually know the topics that are hot buttons, and asking beforehand “are you availbale for a brief discussion about money?” can often set the conversation up for success.  Also make sure you’re prepared for a no-if your partner is not available emotionally to talk about money when YOU want to-then try to negotiate a time and place to get your needs met, while acknowledging their answer-if they said no, then take their word for it-they may not be available for a discussion now.

2) STAY IN TOUCH WITH YOUR FEELINGS: But if they say yes-then the fun starts.  We have a conversation started, and we quickly realize that we’re having feelings of anger, frustration, annoyance, or any other of the feelings in the negative column, feelings that are sure to knock this discussion off the rails.  So the second mindfulness talk is to check in with your feelings along the way, and to acknowledge them TO OURSELVES as we’re talking and listening.

3) NOTICE THE ROAD SIGNS: When we feel our feelings are beginning to get the best of us, or we believe our partner is having a hard time holding the conversation, We use mindfulness the same way we check a map when we’re driving.  We don’t get the idea that we’re lost, and keep driving for another 50 miles, right?  When we feel uncomfortable about the route we’re taking, sometimes we gently redirect where we’re going, or we ask for directions, or we even take a break.  Same thing with a heated discussion.

We know when we’re driving to an area we don’t want to go-and we can use several of the Gottman soft start up or attempts at repair to get the discussion back on track.

4) TAKE A BREAK:  Taking the time to self soothe, and DO NOT KEEP HAVING THE DISCUSSION IN YOUR HEAD WHILE TAKING A BREAK.  Research shows that the anger and frustration usually lasts about 30-45 minutes.  If you’re still angry about what was said, or the circumstances, use mindfulness to decide if this is really a good time and place to talk about this topic.  This is not the same as avoiding the topic, it’s just an acknowledgment that this conversation may not be able to be productive AT THIS TIME.  After self soothing it’s a good idea to acknowledge anything you have said you wish you hadn’t, things you may not have meant, and then acknowledge that this is a topic you need to discuss but that maybe right now is not a good time, and negotiate a time to return to the topic.  Sometimes this step produces next steps by each partner, so the discussion can be more productive next time.

In couples counseling with me, I utilize all of the above methods during our session, teaching my couples how to use mindfulness so they can use it outside of the therapy room.  During sessions I often say “can we press pause here”, helping couples to pause the conversation to see if they like where this is headed, and to allow them to correct anything they want to restate or reiterate.


Couples Counseling Mountainside

Chuck Beardsley, LCSW is a level-3 Gottman couples counselor, and is a level 3 Relational Life Counselor.  Chuck utilizes Mindfulness, ACT, and other contemplative practices in his work with individuals and couples.

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