Your partner cannot be responsible for making you happy. Your happiness starts with you and then your relationship can act as a supplement to that. When I'm working with couples in therapy, if I observe one person struggling with overall happiness I encourage them to find ways to improve that, whether in therapy or on their own.
I recommend therapy for people who have significant emotional/behavioral consequences from the impact of prior trauma. However, many can benefit from solo exploration into this. The following is for the folks who have realized their unhappiness negatively impacts their relationship - and they prefer to try to try the self-help route (books, research, contemplation, classes, etc) first.
Part of the work of assessing and implementing changes in your emotional health requires a look into your past; your families of origin, potential wounds, trauma and challenging relational experiences. If you had a fairly stable upbringing and life experience, this process may not be as challenging as it could be for others. No matter where you stand on the continuum, get familiar with the following tools should you find yourself in an uncomfortable emotional place during the course of your process. You might find some tools resonate more than others. Rely on what works for you.
Using Your Breath and Mindfulness to Stay Grounded
Learning to be “in the now” and the skills of presence can be a powerful ally to anyone. Not only can it help to re-route the automatic response of your brain (leading to fight, flight or freeze) but it can help you shift to a less reactive and more skillful response to what is happening in the moment. The best news is that with what is now known about the neuroplasticity of the brain (it can rewire across the lifespan), a regular mindfulness practice can help facilitate this. Let’s look at how you can start learning to be present right now:
- Close your eyes and notice your breath coming in and out. Many people bring their awareness to the rise and fall of their bellies. Simply notice this and be with it. The goal is to use your breath as an anchor to the present moment.
- While you continue to breathe you will likely notice your attention straying or some chatter in your mind. Gently bring your attention back to your breath without self-criticism or judgment. Some people imagine their thoughts as clouds floating by, “Oh there that goes…goodbye…” (and back to breath) …”there floats by another…” (and back to breath).
- Whatever thoughts and feelings arise during this time that stick around, notice them without judgment.
“When we are truly mindful, we are never stuck.” – James Baraz
Creating an Internal “Safe Place”
This is particularly important if you have a trauma history and a vulnerability to being triggered and overwhelmed by negative emotions. Many are in a perpetual state of readiness or fear and don’t even realize it! Creating a space to go to in your mind that is soothing can be helpful to bring down the stress response when needed for this work. The experience of conjuring up imagery and mental rehearsal impacts the brain in a similar way as if it were really happening. Here is one way to create an internal “safe place.”
- Take a few moments to close your eyes and breathe slowly. In doing this you are down-shifting your nervous system.
- Imagine a beautiful, serene place either you know of or imagine in your mind’s eye. Put yourself in this scene in a way that resonates. You may be sitting, laying or perhaps walking.
- Experience all of your senses in your place of calm; sight, sound, touch, smell or movement. Let them bring you peace and security.
Enlisting External Support
Let others be a resource for you. Choose one or two people you trust and who care about you. Unexpected things might come up and it could be useful to have someone to process with. Be prepared to lean on them if needed.
Hand on the Heart Exercise
According to Linda Graham, MFT, “Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of the ‘calm and connect’ response and is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. Oxytocin is the neurochemical basis in our body for the felt sense of safety and trust, of connection and belonging, which reassures us, ‘Everything is OK; everything is going to be OK.”
It was first learned that oxytocin is typically released between mother and infant during breast feeding, encouraging the biological need for bonding. Later, it was shown that a twenty-second full body hug has been shown to release oxytocin in many couples. The important elements in both are safe touch and serve to bring the body to a state of security in calm
Many people are able to release oxytocin in themselves. The following “hand on the heart” exercise incorporates the power of visualization and touch as a vehicle for the release of oxytocin.
- Begin by placing your hand on your heart. Breathe a sense of calm, peace, well-being or however you choose to bring in qualities of self-care into you in this moment.
- Reflect upon a moment (or create one) of being with someone you feel completely safe with; a partner, a child, friend, therapist, spiritual guide or whoever resonates for you in this moment, in this way. A pet also works.
- Notice the safety you feel being in the presence of this person or pet. Take in and experience the feelings associated with this experience. Perhaps the person is gazing at you with kindness and compassion – or your pet is cuddling with you on your lap.
- Savor those feelings for at least 30 seconds before letting the image go.
For many, it is an act of bravery to step onto the path of healing emotional wounds. But it has the potential to be the best thing you’ve ever done, for you first and for your relationship. If you find yourself getting stuck or overwhelmed, even with the previous tools at the ready, find a therapist in your area to help you.
Lisa Brookes Kift is a psychotherapist and writer in Marin County, CA. She does individual therapy, couples and premarital counseling. A frequent consultant for the media, Lisa has appeared in CNN.com, HuffingtonPost.com and Martha Stewart Weddings Magazine. Learn more at MarinTherapyandCounseling.com.