It happens all the time: one of us does or says something and the other is triggered, reacting harshly. To break the habit of reactivity, try this mindfulness tool to develop the virtue of restraint.

While it is often associated with Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has actually been a feature of many religions under different names, including Christianity. It has also become an essential tool in the field of psychology for helping those with disabling anxiety.

Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment”. It is a kind of mental discipline that focuses our awareness on what is happening right now in our bodies, minds and immediate environment.

All of us have had the experience of runaway thoughts that induce panic at the prospect of a possible future disaster. Almost all of us have been caught in whirlpool thoughts where we obsess over some past traumatic or negative encounter.

Neither of these experiences are pleasant or productive. When habitual, they can become seriously disabling, as they ferment excessive shame or resentment about the past and pervasive fear or anxiety about the future.

Joy and wellbeing can only be encountered in the present. These positive states get eclipsed by our focus on the past or future.

Mindfulness in Marriage

Mindfulness provides important insights for our relationships. All too often, we find ourselves reacting – and, dare we say, even over-reacting – in our marriage!

For example, once during a hurried meal at the airport before our flight, Francine interrupted Byron’s attempt to call the kids and asked him to just eat. He reacted with resentment towards her nagging. She reacted with anger to his resentment. A icy standoff persisted until we boarded the plane, both of us silently defending our right to be offended.

This kind of reactivity is understandable but totally unhelpful. While it may feel very much about the specific incident in the present, it’s actually not about that at all.

Whenever we ‘trigger’ each other, we’re tapping into an unresolved past wound that induces a fear-reaction of being wounded again in the future. Our state of agitation makes it really difficult for us to be attentive to what is really happening in us in the present.

Fight or Flight

Reactivity is basic to human life and may save our lives through the ‘fight or flight’ survival strategy. We share this biological reaction with animals, but for we humans, it can be triggered by either a physical or emotional threat.

It is the emotional threats that are the more common issue in our marriages. While a nagging or cranky spouse is clearly not a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat us for breakfast, our bodies respond physiologically in the same way to an emotional threat as they would to a physical one.

Once triggered, we are in reaction mode; our attention is narrowed and the survival emotions of apathy (flight) and anger (fight) take over our awareness. Our spouse ceases to be the person who loves us and who we have been missioned to love. We focus instead on eliminating the threat and restoring our sense of safety.

Time Out to Ask “Why?”

In our relationship courses, we include a simple mindfulness tool for these moments. Called Time out to ask ‘Why?’, the tool helps train us in stepping back from the intensity of our reactions to focus on what’s happening internally.

Why am I reacting this way? Why do I feel threatened or unsafe? What are the deeper, softer emotions hidden under my anger and panic?

This simple practice has profound results when practiced regularly. It trains us to be responsive rather than reactive to our spouse so that we more readily assume good intentions in the other when we are hurt or annoyed. We’re also more capable of expressing our perspective in a respectful and non-blaming way, and to hear the perspective of the other.

This is what happened over the hour or so after ‘the incident’. We stepped back from active relating and used the time on the plane to process our reactions. This allowed us to reconnect softly and respectfully when we got some private time after landing.

Restraint Brings Freedom

The essential virtue in all this is restraint. Restraint allows us to step back from the argument into a ‘time out’ and then use that time to productively focus our thoughts on understanding and diffusing our reactivity.

Restraint is the mechanism by which we transform our self-absorbed reactivity into other-centred attentiveness. Without it, we become trapped by our defensive reactions. With it, we move freely into mature and generous relating, and so encounter new horizons for love and intimacy.

Originally published at Smart Loving. Image by Chermiti Mohamed at Unsplash.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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