Q: It seems like every relationship book I pick up talks about how important communication skills are for a successful relationship. I’ve also read that couples should find shared activities so they don’t grow apart. Is there anything else that couples need to know about improving their relationship that isn’t so obvious? ~Benjamin, Santa Fe
A: Thanks for your question. One of the less obvious but essential couples’ skills is the ability for each spouse/partner to self-reflect and observe their experiences and reactions. Self-reflection (as well as relationship reflection) is the capacity to take a small step outside the perimeter of your reaction in order to observe the unfolding of the experience itself. Easier said than done!!
Periodic self-reflection can go a long way in fostering marriage and relationship enhancement.
To reflect in this way ideally allows us to be both in the experience and a dispassionate witness to what is unfolding within us and around us. In short, while in self-reflective mode, we cannot over-identify with and rigidly hold onto the experience being reflected upon.
The process of self-reflection changes the very nature of the experience itself—this is especially the case when we realize that our experiences/reactions (our thoughts, interpretations, feelings) are inherently biased—a result not of the events themselves, but of the meaning attributed to these events.
The construction of meaning is influenced by our personality style, values, intentions, self-image, emotional vulnerabilities and conflicts, etc.
In short, the multifaceted layers of who we are shape our experiences and reactions to our spouse/partner in profound ways. When this goes unacknowledged, when we assume our feelings are indisputable truths that are caused exclusively by others (an unreasonable wife, a demanding boyfriend, an emotionally unavailable husband), then we remain passive, helpless victims. Learning, self-growth and relationship growth grind to a halt when this occurs.
Self-Reflection Versus Defensiveness
Of course, our ability to be mindful isn’t always easy. Holding up a mirror to oneself (and the discernment this allows) is challenged when we’re under the sway of intense feelings—in these moments it’s as if we get pulled under the currents of emotion, unable to separate the reflective-self out from what we are experiencing (the experiencing-self).
This level of emotionality narrows our perspective, slamming the door on a wider range of possibilities and therefore preventing us from examining our own reactions. In these instances, a defensiveness that propels us to emotionally strike out or recoil is more likely to take hold.
Marriage/Relationship Help Action Step
While the ability to self-reflect isn’t always a given, the willingness to practice and make this skill a regular part of your life and relationship is in your power. The relationship benefits are significant:
- Greater self knowledge (a better understanding of our emotional vulnerabilities and strengths);
- Reduced defensiveness and emotional reactivity;
- Clarity about what our spouse/partner is needing from us;
- A greater capacity to be emotionally present (rather than emotionally distracted or overwhelmed).
I often encourage couples to ask themselves the following questions (these questions help to exercise our self-reflection muscle):
In this moment, why am I having this particular reaction rather than the many other reactions I could be having? (For instance, you might ask yourself why you are feeling anger rather than sadness or compassion in the moment.)
What am I currently telling myself (about my partner or others) that feeds this reaction?
If I weren’t allowed to have the reaction I’m having, what do I imagine I’d be thinking/feeling?