The transition from one year to the next often invites reflection on the last year as a whole. It can be an opportunity to think about what habits of mind, feeling and behavior we might want to leave behind, and which habits we might want to foster and cultivate for a better future. In my work as a couple’s therapist, I specialize in helping my clients foster relational health. The longer I have been in the field, the more passionate I have become about this work, as more and more research1 confirms just how central and vital our relationship health is to our overall well-being. In fact, our relational experiences beginning in infancy impact the way we see the world, what we learn to expect from other people, and even how we see and relate to ourselves. So if you want to have a great 2023 (and beyond!), you couldn’t choose a better place to focus than on the quality and health of your closest relationships.
Despite the truth of our inherent social nature, in the United States we live in a culture that often teaches us something quite different – almost the antithesis of our true state of interdependence on each other – that we are separate, distinct individuals responsible for our own “success” and “failure” in life. This mentality leads to the pathologizing of normal human states like needing help, feeling overwhelmed, not having all the answers, needing reassurance, and having a general desire to rely on others and acknowledge our vulnerability in the world. This focus on independence and the individual also has implications for many forms of social bias that perpetuate social injustice. A deeper discussion of how this functions culturally is outside the scope of this particular article, but noteworthy for its subtle presence and devastating impacts. Changing this cultural narrative of “rugged individualism” is an important part of working for racial and gender equity2.
This focus on independence typically shows up in romantic or intimate relationships through a difficulty with appreciating our impact on our partner, especially if the impact is negative (i.e. we used a harsh tone of voice with them in a moment of crankiness and it hurt their feelings), combined with a difficulty with acknowledging vulnerability (i.e. not talking about hurt feelings because I’m not “allowed” to have hurt feelings). This combination often leads to the most common pattern in relationships: “attack – defend”.
It sounds something like, “don’t talk to me like that!” (snappy, harsh tone) – “What? You know what your problem is? You are just way too sensitive” and you can imagine where the conversation goes from there.
So how do we challenge these notions of separateness and independence in our relationship? How do we intentionally put energy into taking care of our relationship with our partner? And what sorts of habits might we commit to practicing in 2023 that would bring us more joy and security in our partnership (and all our relationships for that matter)?
In Buddhism, there is a teaching called equanimity or nondiscrimination which refers to the practice of being mindful of our interdependence. Like two fingers on the same hand or two passengers in a rowboat, what happens to me happens to you, and in turn what happens to you happens to me. This in turn means that if we work together we can accomplish great things, and if we work against each other, we stay stuck.
The late Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes, “In a deep relationship, there is no longer a boundary between you and the other person….Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.” Seeing through the eyes of equanimity, it no longer makes sense to say things like, “well, that’s your problem” to your partner or “I can’t help you with (insert issue)”. While it is simultaneously true that our ability to connect with others is related to a deep understanding of our own pain and suffering so that we don’t inadvertently cause harm to our partner, all these processes feed into each other like rivers into an ocean – you cannot see where one process ends and the other begins!
Seeing with the eyes of equanimity takes practice and willingness. If reading this, you notice resistance to the idea, ask yourself, “What would it mean if my partner’s suffering and happiness were my suffering and happiness? What would I need to feel? What would I need to face inside myself? Where am I holding a resentment towards my partner and why?” These questions often point us towards the blocks to equanimity and of course, those need to be lifted or at least softened to begin to practice!
To practice seeing with eyes of equanimity, I recommend doing the following every day:
- Look around the home you share with your partner: where do you see evidence of their hard work, the influence of their unique tastes and personality? Note this and say a silent thank you (insert their name) at least once per day. (Recently, I was in my basement and caught sight of the furnace/air conditioning unit and thought, “As long as we have lived here, I have never changed a filter! Thank you, Steve!” (my partner).
- At least once per day, make a wish for your partner that they are having a good day and feel happy and secure.
- Warmly say hello and goodbye with a smile anytime you or your partner come home or are leaving – no matter what mood they seem to be in. Like sun on an ice cube (especially if neither of you are used to this practice), give the ice cube time to melt. No matter their reaction at first, keep it up!
- The most advanced practice that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends for equanimity is to ask your partner, “Do you think I understand you enough?” In different places over the years, I’ve seen him write that if your partner starts crying when you ask this question, this is a good sign (tears of relief are what I imagine when I think about that!). Then invite them to tell you about their “difficulties, suffering and deepest wishes”. The more deeply we understand our partner, the more connected we will feel and the more clear it will be how to be a source of joy for them.
Try all of these practices and see if you can notice even more evidence of how your suffering and happiness are intertwined. If you can do this for at least one month, the changes between the two of you should start to become more and more evident, the connection between you should strengthen, and the reality of your interdependence should be more and more undeniable! Equanimity as a paradigm helps us to remember that “however I treat my partner is actually how I am treating myself.” When we think of “self-care” in 2023, this is a really important principle to remember.
Of course, if you and your partner are noticing blocks to connecting with each other that feel like the two of you need more support to understand and remove, The Family Institute specializes in healing relationships, and we are here to help you put these and other relationship tools into practice. You can learn more about our work here.
We hope the practice of equanimity inspires you to have a more connected, secure and joyful 2023.
1: Mineo, L. (2018, November 26). Over nearly 80 years, Harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
1: Martin, R. (2020, May 11). In 'together,' former surgeon general writes about importance of human connection. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/11/853308193/in-together-former-surgeon-general-writes-about-importance-of-human-connection
2: Individualism. White Supremacy Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/individualism.html