As the authors of The 80/80 Marriage and this newsletter, we have a confession to make. We've talked here about all sorts of tips, strategies, and tools for improving your marriage. But, when it comes down to it, working on yourself might just be the most powerful way to enhance your marriage.
Something happens several microseconds before you can even begin to utilize these marriage tools. It’s what the Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl calls the gap between "stimulus and response." It’s that brief moment between when your partner says something that lands wrong (the stimulus) and when you fire back with a piercing or sarcastic comment (the response).
You can go on marriage retreats. You can read books about marriage. You can go to couples counseling. But if you can’t expand this space between stimulus and response, between the moment you feel triggered and the moment you lash out, none of this matters. All these amazing tools vanish into the fog of your anger, irritation, and fear.
If, on the other hand, you're able to expand the space between stimulus and response, radical change becomes possible. Instead of firing back, “Are you kidding me? That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard," you can pause and respond with kindness and curiosity.
So how do you expand this space? How can you work on yourself to create a happier, stronger relationship?
You’ve probably heard all about the science-backed benefits of mindfulness and meditation. You probably know that top performers in virtually every field rely on some form of mindfulness practice to ensure that they are not just physically fit but also mentally fit. To begin experiencing these benefits, set aside a small amount of time each day. Sit quietly with a straight spine and observe the sensations of each inhale and exhale. When your mind wanders, notice and then gently bring your attention back to the sensations of each breath. If you want to go deeper, check out Mindful's (Nate's company) Beginner's Guide to Meditation.
Another profound inner technology for expanding this gap between stimulus and response is a process for questioning your stressful thoughts is called "The Work." It’s a practice that pushes you to ask “Is it true?“ when experiencing the thoughts that trigger your stress, tension, and anxiety. To learn more about the full practice of inquiry, we recommend checking out Byron Katie‘s website.
Many of us live in a state of constant doing. We're either working, caring for children, or stimulating our minds with social media, podcasts, Netflix bingeing, and the thousand or so other distractions of modern life. Rarely, if ever, do we give ourself and our mind space to simply be. Carving out space to intentionally break this habit is the final way to expand the space between stimulus and response.
Take a short stroll around the neighborhood. Lie down on the couch for a brief power nap. Sit outside and gaze at the night sky. By giving yourself space, you're allowing your mind to breathe and enhancing your ability to navigate even the most contentious moments of marriage.