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Mindful : April 2015
68 mindful April 2015 Pay attention to little rituals you and your partner do together—those tidbits of shared meaning could be the key to keeping the relationship, and romance, alive. Three days a week, I trot up the cement stairs that separate my home from my office. I switch on the kettle and check that the Kleenex box is full. Nex t, with the ocean reflecting blues and grays on the window, I sit with my palm on my hear t and reflect on love and happiness. And then I welcome the first couple of the day. “He never opens the car door for me anymore,” Desiree gripes. “Yah?” Scott huffs. “Well she says I can’t get a motorbike, and then yells because I don’t feel like some big anniversar y par ty.” She shoots back, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” And so it begins. I have the privilege of meet- ing couple after couple with very different stories. Some are dealing with boredom and emotional disconnect, some with the aftermath of an affair. Some stay together and some break up. But they all have one thing in common—the deep longing to be happy in love. So what predicts long-term relationship happiness in couples? Take a guess. Do you believe it’s due to personality style, or having a good sex life, or never arguing? If so, you’re wrong. But so are these theo- ries made up by people who are supposed to be love exper ts, so don’t feel bad. According to the body of research that investigates the actual causes of relationship success, happy couples show three skills. First, they are great friends—they truly like and are interested in each other. Second, whether they clash frequently or rarely, loudly or quietly, they manage conflict effectively. Third, they share a sense of meaning in their life together. When a couple is in trouble, it’s usually obvious that their friendship is damaged and their conflict destructive. It’s harder to spot the erosion of shared meaning. So let’s explore this third skill. Shared meaning begins during dating, and over time the couple creates a culture for their relationship through rituals, goals, and dreams. Rituals of Connection Habits and rituals create a shared sense of closeness and identity, an oasis of “we” in the deser t of “so much to do.” Some rituals are daily, like sending a lunchtime love tex t, and some are for special events like birthdays. My par tner and I have a ritual for unwinding after a challenging workday. We sprawl on the couch and debrief any frustrations and disappointments, and then we take a long steam shower together. (We used to combine the two, but it turns out talking about work when naked feels weird.) Scott and Desiree had a sweet ritual that began when he carefully held the car door open for her on their first date. This made her feel special, and he knew she loved it, so he did it for years. And because they married in a cour thouse, they had vowed that ever y anniver- sary would be celebrated as a romantic occasion. So now a big par t of their marriage ther- apy is helping them renew old rituals of connection that have lapsed, and create some new happiness habits. Goals and Dreams Sharing our histor y and goals is a natural par t of the dating process, and a primar y way we create intimacy. Scott had grown up with a strict father who refused to let him get a driver’s license. Desiree knows Scott has saved for a motorbike since his teens and it represents freedom and autonomy to him, but she wor- ries about safety. Whatever the decision on the motorbike, this couple needs to re-learn how to suppor t each other’s goals and dreams. Creating Moments of Meaning When rituals fade and dreams are not honored, a couple loses their shared meaning system. They feel lonely and misunderstood. Scott and Desiree, once so happy, now believe they married the wrong person. “You did,” I say, to shocked looks. I then explain that we all chose the wrong person—if we expect that person to make us happy all the time. However, if together we create moments of meaning, rituals of romance, and try to make some of our dreams come true, happiness is available. In fact, it is stand- ing right in front of us. ● Clinical psychologist and sex therapist Cheryl Fraser, Ph.D., is a writer, speaker, and meditation teacher. More mindful loving tips at drcherylfraser.com. mindful practices on relationships Illustration by Sébastien Thibault