The Four Reasons Why Self-Awareness is the Most Important Thing in Your Relationship

I preach self-awareness constantly. Some of you might be sick of hearing it but, you know what I say to that? Too bad! I’m here to help you and I’m going to keep trying to get this point across until my last breath because it really is the most critical piece to have a happy life and relationship. I’ve decided to give you the information a little differently in hopes that I can turn you into a self-awareness believer if you’re not there yet. If you are there, these should help you stay motivated to stick with it when you start doubting or questioning yourself.

So, here are the four reasons why self-awareness is the most important thing in your relationship:

Reason #1: Happiness with Yourself = Happiness with Others

You have to have a healthy relationship with yourself before you can have a healthy relationship with anyone else

Self-awareness is the key to realizing that you are responsible for your own happiness:

Your partner is not.

The more you feel the need to focus on your partner, the more you need to focus on yourself and your own actions and thoughts.

You do this by learning to train your attention to be in the moment, and not in what’s happened in the past or what you think might happen in the future.

Reason #2: Distraction is the Cancer of Your Relationship

The obstacle to being and thinking in the “here and now” is distraction.

Distraction is the termites eating at the foundation of your relationship

Example of partner walking in the house and you’re making dinner or watching TV and you don’t stop to greet them and are distracted

All of this mind wandering leads to misunderstandings, frustration, anger, unhappiness and resentment.

Think of how many times a day you’re doing one thing, but thinking about another

You want to act, not react and you can’t do that if you’re distracted

Many studies have shown a high correlation between some kind of attention training or “mindfulness practice” and an improved, more satisfying relationship.

Couples report more closeness, better communication and a greater acceptance of one another when one or both of them are involved in some kind of attention training

In fact, even when couples do experience conflict, those who utilize attention training say they feel less stressed in those moments so their fights are shorter and less harmful.

Do you ever notice that you often know the “right” or healthy thing to do or say but don’t do it consistently (or at all)? Do you then get frustrated wondering why you know what to do, but don’t do what you know?

One of the main reasons you don’t apply the healthy tools and knowledge you’ve learned is because you’re on autopilot. That’s right, you’re running around, interacting, talking, working, and eating, but you aren’t really “in your day” for much of that, or aware of making conscious choices about what you’re going to do or say most the time.

The problem isn’t that you’ve been intentionally making bad choices. The problem is that you haven’t even been aware you’ve been making choices! It’s like you’ve been sleepwalking. The good news is there’s a way to turn off autopilot and de-hypnotize yourself. You want to get in your life, so you can think and act at your best in moments, instead of reacting from old behaviors and habits. The key is to train your mind to be in the present: in the here and now. The mind is like a muscle in this way: the more you direct it, the easier it gets to stay mindful.

To illustrate this idea of how you unknowingly sleepwalk through most of your decisions, I want you to think about eating just one meal. Every single thing you put in your mouth, is a decision. Every move of your hand or your fork, to your mouth, is a decision. Now, think about the last dinner you had.  Did you consciously think with every mouthful, “Am I still hungry?  Do I need to keep eating this? Do I want to switch from the fish to the rice now?  Should I sip some water in between eating my broccoli and my salad?” Do you remember thinking all that? Probably not, but you did make all those decisions. All through dinner you decided what to start with, how much to eat, in what order to eat your food, how many forkfuls to put in your mouth, when to stop, and so on. Amazing isn’t it?  You think of these things as some sort of automatic or instinct response, but they’re not. This is you making decisions. And that was just dinner! Oh yeah, don’t even get me started on the thought process that goes into getting dressed every morning. Can you see now how you’ve been on autopilot during so much of your day, every day?

Distraction is the termites of your relationship. It eats at the core and creates an environment where people feel unappreciated, unloved and dismissed.

Getting out of distraction is critical to creating a healthy, connected and happy relationship. The good news is that it’s not as hard as you think.

There’s really just one way out of distraction and that’s consistent self-awareness. You need to be driving your bus. You need to think before you speak or act, notice how you’re feeling in a situation and keep yourself in your moments and off autopilot, as much as possible.

Now, picture talking to the people you love. Your partner comes home from work and you say, “How was your day?” (Hey, I know better and I still catch myself saying this). What a waste of time that question is! We get the same canned, disconnected response every day, yet we keep asking. In this case both you and your partner are both on autopilot. Instead, try this the next time your partner comes home. Stop what you’re doing (really), approach him or her, make eye contact and say, “Hey, I’m so glad to see you” and give them a kiss hello. Be fully present – right there with them for that three seconds it takes. You’ll have a totally different response than you usually do. And, more importantly, you will feel differently than you usually do when your partner walks in the house. It’s a decision to connect, versus stay distracted and on autopilot. 

Reason #3: You’ll Remember to Use Your Tools!

And here’s the number one reason why you care about attention training and self-awareness.

Is this the first thing you’ve ever learned about how to be in a happy relationship? I’ll bet the answer is “no.”

My guess is you’ve already learned tools to stop fights, reignite passion or improve communication. But, what’s happened when you’ve been in a fight or stressful situation with your partner?

Did you remember to use any of the great tools you learned? Probably not. That’s because you forget all the great stuff you’ve learned and react with the same old responses, words or actions.

In the moments when you need those healthy tools the most, you forget to use them.

You stay stuck in old cycles or patterns because you’re distracted and “forget.” Self awareness is the key to this door you’ve been unable to open.

There’s one tool that’s key to creating consistent self-awareness. It goes by many names, but they all mean the same thing: Attention training, mindfulness and meditation are all words you can use to describe the practice of self-awareness. You’ll hear me using these words interchangeably here. Know that I’m always talking about the same thing. The word practice is used here on purpose because that’s what it is. You never “achieve” self-awareness permanently. You practice the tools to keep you self-aware so you can be in that state as much as possible. Even the Dali Lama is going to have off moments or days – so don’t expect perfection.

Reason #4: You’ll be Happier in Your Relationship

Research has shown MANY benefits from meditating just a few minutes a day. These include things like increased immunity, lower blood pressure, better sleep, better mental health and feelings of increased well-being. But there’s another SUPER important thing it brings: happiness in your relationship!

Meditating regularly helps you notice more positive things in your life and relationship. Research by marriage expert, John Gottman, has shown that in a romantic relationship, five positive things have to happen for every one negative thing for the marriage to feel “good.” Crazy right? For every 1 crappy thing you do, you have to do five fabulous things just for your partner to think the relationship is “good.” Not great, but good.

Mindfulness practice helps bring that 5:1 ratio down to a less skewed level so we’re seeing more positives in the relationship.

Another reason this 5:1 ratio exists is what neuroscientist Evian Gordon of the University of Sydney calls: the “minimize danger and maximize reward” principle of the brain.  The brain is all about getting to rewards and avoiding threats. But the brain is much more motivated to avoid threats than to go after good stuff. In the end, our brains respond way more strongly to negative experiences than to positive ones.

For example, if you walk into work and walk past the receptionist and s/he smiles at you, you won’t register it as much. But, let’s say you walk past and s/he doesn’t smile but gives you a slight frown or worried look. Objectively, these are about the same. However, you’ll think about that frown all day whereas the smile would barely have registered. Negative experiences impact us much more strongly and last much longer than positive ones do.

This is because we take a lot of things for granted that are neutral in our lives, such as not being in pain, having food, your partner cooking dinner or taking out the garbage and having a car to get us where we want to go. In mindfulness, these things become causes of satisfaction, calm and happiness instead of neutrality, because we stop taking them for granted. We become grateful and appreciative. Pleasant experiences become even more pleasant because our attention is there to fully appreciate them.

So, what exactly is Self-Awareness?

So, what is all this stuff? Basically, attention training is just that. Working on training your attention so it doesn’t wander all over the place. Keeping it focused as much as possible.

When negative thoughts come into your mind, they can run wild and trigger destructive emotions like resentment, fear, depression, hopelessness, hate and anxiety. Mental training of any kind allows you to identify and control your thoughts, which allows you to control your emotions. You feel the way you think. If you want to change your feelings, you’ve got to get a handle on your thoughts.

Being mindful allows you to see yourself and your emotions objectively. It creates something called response flexibility, which is basically the ability to pause before you act or respond. It’s the ability to act, and not react. 

My favorite definition for mindfulness comes from author, researcher and well-known mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, he defines it as “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

Neuroplasticity is the brain's incredible capacity to change and adapt. It’s how the brain physiologically changes itself depending on what you’re doing, thinking and how you’re interacting with the environment. The brain is dynamic and, from the time it begins to develop in utero until the day you die, it remodels itself in response to your experiences. Your brain is NOT a done deal. The brain itself rewires and changes, physically, all the time. What you focus on creates new neural pathways, new connections in your mind and thoughts. It’s said that cells that fire together wire together. Now, the big question is: what are you wiring?

If you cringe every time you walk in your house because you’re waiting to get yelled at and you do this over and over – this creates a neural pathway or wiring. If you allow negative thoughts to occupy your brain, this wiring (what we think of as thoughts) becomes more entrenched or stronger.

The good news is that you can flip the script. You can also use this knowledge for good, not evil.

For example, focusing on being generous with your partner will physically change your brain. Richard Davidson, a prominent neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been working with monks who meditate on compassion, love and generosity for many years. He found that these monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains! His research has shown that “The best way to activate positive-emotion circuits in the brain is through generosity…There are systematic changes in the brain that are associated with acts of generosity.”

Imagine training yourself to focus on being compassionate, generous and patient with your partner (and yourself). The more you do it, the more the brain wires itself in this way and the easier it becomes.

 

How Do You Do it?

There are many roads to Rome when it comes to attention training. I know a lot of you are turned off to the idea because you think you’ll need to meditate for an hour a day or something. You actually don’t need to meditate at all (although that’s a great technique too). There are lots of other tools to learn to stay focused in the here and now. Here are three to get you started:

1.    Try the Alarm Exercise (download link below) twice this week;

2.    Stop and bring yourself to the present every time you eat something; or

3.    Set intention before you walk in the house every day for one week


 
Dr. Abby Medcalf Relationship Therapist

Get the FREE Alarm Exercise I mentioned above. Enter your name & email and I'll send it over right away!

 
Kate Rufener