There’s a great deal of talk about present moment awareness lately. Because the importance of living in the moment is a topic that has been prevalent in self-help psychology and spirituality alike, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. (Fully experiencing the present moment is the goal of meditation, for example.) What might not be as obvious is what it means to live in the moment of your relationship or marriage, which is the topic I’d like to explore today.
Learn How to Live in the Moment of Your Relationship
For humans with our big frontal lobes (which allow us to ruminate on the past or plan the future), the concept of now can feel like an elusive, slippery thing, a fish we pull out of a tumbling stream only to watch it leap from our hands and back into the rapids before we get a good look at it. Blink and you’ll miss it. There it went. You missed it.
The good news is that there’s always another now and therefore another opportunity for living in the moment…not somewhere on the distant horizon, but now.
And if you’d like a good role model to emulate in terms of existing fully in the present, there’s probably one very close by: your dog or your cat, for instance. They don’t get caught up in the now-sapping thoughts that humans do. However, you might be pointing out that they also don’t have to figure out how to pay the rent and hold down a job. Oh, and their meals get placed in front of them twice a day: they don’t have to worry themselves about where the next one will come from.
And you’d be right. Still, there are things we can learn from looking at our non-human buddies, at least once in a while.
Sometimes, what’s called for is more Being, less Doing
Okay, before we get too mind-bendy here, let’s bring it back to a practical level with a practical question:
Why is it so very hard for most of us to stay in the now?
Not only are we wired to be doing something (our caveman ancestors had to get busy when it came to surviving), but we’re also conditioned to be doing something. Imagine the raised eyebrows your Facebook posts would get if day after day they all said, “Just sat and fully experienced the present moment today.”
To be fair to us humans, our lives come with a bevvy of responsibilities, most of which involve action on some level. Hence the doing. (So don’t be hard on yourself for falling into this overwhelmingly common pattern!) However, what often happens is that we become mentally involved in the doing (via worry or anticipation or rumination) long before the action is even required. It’s this kind of mental activity that takes us out of the now, that, in a way, fritters away the present moment before we can enjoy it.
What does this mean for your relationship?
Are you missing the gifts your relationship offers because you’re spending too much time in the past or in the future?
Because staying in the present moment (which, in essence, is the only moment we truly “have”) is so difficult for individuals, it’s also difficult for relationships. And the difficulty in truly living in the present might be hurting your relationship. The first step in helping your union is what you’re doing right now: becoming aware of it.
Where are you when you’re not in the present?
You can be in only one of two places:
1) In the future (whether it’s welcome or dreaded)
We all must plan for the future, whether it’s something positive, like arranging a well-earned vacation, or whether it’s something that’s not quite positive but necessary, like buying insurance to protect us against unforeseen undesirable events. Again, experts who suggest we spend more time in the now are not saying that we should do away with these dreams or life-maintenance tasks or stop contributing to our retirement funds. It’s not an either/or: experiencing the now or arriving at the future without certain things in place. Instead, they’re saying we should go about our lives and experience the present moment while we’re doing what we need to.
With relationships, we might be thinking more about how we want our union to be (which places us in the future) than we are noticing how it is right now. And for the vast majority of relationships, even those where both partners agree there is lots of room for overall improvement, there are things, right now, that are worth noticing and being grateful for. And you’ll miss those things if you’ve projected your mind and your relationship to some future that may or may not look the way you’ve imagined once you arrive there.
“But I’m thinking positively!” you might be saying. “Isn’t that a good thing, when I’m imagining my partner and I being a different—but better—way in the future?”
Yes and no.
Visualization is a powerful mental tool because it stimulates your thought along specific lines, often paving the way for a change in behavior. However, when you visualize (the future) more than you experience (the present moment), you’re making your relationship more imaginary than real and are short-circuiting what might be expansive moments of connection with your partner.
What about dreading the future? Where does that come in?
I’ve worked with clients that imagine a bleak future for their relationship, founded on worries. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not coming from a rose-colored-glasses place or suggesting that anyone should ever deny marriage problems. But to vividly imagine relationship problems before they even arrive is futile and can be destructive (think self-fulfilling prophecy).
“But what will happen to us when _____?”
One of the couples I’ve worked with came to me because the wife was dreading when her husband retired, assuming all that time together would put a strain on their relationship. Her husband was still eight years away from retirement! She was spending her mental energy in the imagined future and totally missing the present. And remember: mental energy is the most powerful type of energy we have, and it drives all other energy.
Yes, perhaps his retirement will be a rocky adjustment for both of them (but maybe it won’t!). Even if it is, though, it can do neither of them any good to worry about it now, to project themselves into an imagined future and miss out on the meaningful moments that the present holds out to them.
(Note that worry and preparation are distinctly different mindsets. The first fully expects the worst and therefore dreads what’s coming, thereby creating a miserable, dread-filled present; the other takes logical steps while acknowledging what’s within one’s control [which usually isn’t all that much, folks] and then goes about life in the present. Preparation, as long as it doesn’t eclipse day-to-day life, is always preferable to the futile energy-drain of worry.)
Another couple was dreading the time their youngest child left for college. Not because they were worried about their daughter adjusting to life away from home, but because they were worried about the shape their relationship would take when raising children wasn’t the focus. They’d gotten married young and had started having kids right away, so only a tiny fraction of their marriage was spent with the two of them and their relationship as the central focus. “What if we have nothing to talk about?” they wondered. “What if we don’t like each other all that much?” And even worse, “What if we don’t find any reason to stay together?”
Again, preparing for this phase of their life is warranted, in moderation (not to the point of obsession!). For instance, this couple might develop a shared interest that they’ll spend time pursuing when they have more time to themselves. Together, they can gradually shift their perspective from dreading the empty nest to seeing it as an opportunity for new growth as a couple. However, as they do that, the most important thing is still being present in the now and taking stock of all the ways their marriage and their family works and appreciating the gifts they bring.
2) In the past (whether it was idyllic or painful)
“Remember when we _______?” is a common refrain among couples. Indeed, re-living past events together is one way intimate couples forge a unique connection, sharing details or jokes or memories that only the two of them can appreciate.
But when nostalgia eclipses living in the present of your relationship, it drains your union of the very life energy that would feed it. Often people try to scramble to re-create some past moment where they felt everything was perfect (which cannot ever be done, and also, I’d challenge the notion that those moments even were perfect), in the hopes that their future approximates that ideal past. This, in essence, yo-yos them between past and future and completely whizzes past the right here, right now present moment, where life is lived.
On the flip side of the same coin, sometimes couples look at their rocky past and vow, “Let’s never, ever go there again!” That can be a helpful commitment, as long as the majority of your collective emotional energy doesn’t go toward re-hashing that past (which puts you right back in it!). Sometimes we expend so much thought on what we want to avoid that we squeeze out the room necessary for thoughts of things we’d welcome. It’s an imbalanced, stressful way to live.
How to live in the now?
First off, forgive yourself for failing to live in the Now now and again (or often). We all do it.
Next, talk to your partner about this and see if you can make a shared decision to try to live in the moment and appreciate the gifts of your relationship more often. Do this without stress or urgency or blame (the Now is peaceful and blame-free…stress and blame are by-products of past/future thinking).
Try to see this as something to be, rather than something to do. And whatever the present moment holds for you and your partner, whether it’s something that’s perceived as mundane (grocery shopping) or exciting (a cruise), try to notice it fully, without mentally rushing yourself past it. People who live more in the now than the past or present say that this mindset helps make even the most mundane moments feel laced with simple beauty. It can even make the most trying events more bearable.
Here’s to mindful loving!
Dr. Rich Nicastro