This tip is for couples who feel emotionally disconnected from one another.

The longer couples are together, often the harder it is for each person to really see the other and to be emotionally present. Over time, couples may have less quality time together due to busy schedules, children, and different hobbies and interests. When couples have known each other for so long, it also can be hard to see your partner beyond your experience of them.

This pattern is actually an adaptive function of the human mind and brain. When we become familiar with someone, we begin to partially use our memory to form our perception of that person. This process, which takes place below the conscious mind, enables us to devote less energy to seeing that person than we expended the first time we saw them. While this trick of the mind may save us energy in an evolutionary biology sense, in the context of long-term relationships, it can actually cause disconnection and emotional pain.

When we rely too heavily on our preconceptions to perceive a partner, it becomes difficult to see our partner beyond our own filter for them. In the process, we lose out on seeing their full humanity. Over time, we tend to stop seeing our partners as dynamic, complicated individuals and instead see them through the filter of our own preferences, almost as an appendage of our sense of self. In long-term relationships, this can cause pain if our perception of our partner no longer accurately reflects the person they’ve become. It can cause disconnection if our partner senses that we’re so caught up in our story of our partner that we no longer truly listen to what they’re saying.

In order to see and be with our partners in a more present, mindful way, we must cultivate a beginner's mind in our relationships. Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist concept that stresses a mindful stance towards life that is free of preconception and instead fosters openness and curiosity. It can be helpful to think of this concept in terms of how a child sees the world with fascination, wide eyes, and lots of questions. You may even think about being a tourist and seeing monkeys in the wild in Asia, or, if coming to the U.S. for the first time, seeing a squirrel in its bushy-tailed busyness. So, monkeys and squirrels aside, how do we bring a beginner's mind to our relationships?

See and Be: A Mindful Communication Exercise for Couples To Develop Emotional Presence

To create a beginner’s mind, we must practice beholding our partner with an open, curious, and attentive presence. This exercise involves sitting directly across from your partner and alternating speaking and listening. Unlike in normal conversation, in this exercise, there is no dialogue. The lack of dialogue allows the speaker to show up fully as they are without the partner’s influence, and it allows the listener to create a safe space for the partner to be themselves. By removing the expectation for the listener to respond to what the speaker is saying, it becomes easier for the listener to fully pay attention to the speaker moment by moment.

If at first this exercise feels foreign or uncomfortable: 1. That’s completely normal! and 2. That probably means you can benefit from developing the skills for emotional presence that the exercise seeks to strengthen.

Listener

Ask your partner this question once to begin the exercise: How are you today? Then, begin a timer set for five minutes. The listener should bring their full attention to the speaker as they are speaking. Each time the listener notices their mind wandering, simply bring the attention back to the speaker. This is especially advised if you notice yourself beginning to prepare your monologue as a speaker. Try to maintain eye contact with the speaker, and refrain from responding verbally to the speaker or using body language, like head nodding or smiling.

Speaker

The person speaking is expected to speak authentically (or pause in silence) for the full time allotted. Try to speak from the heart, which is to say, allow yourself to be vulnerable and in the moment. It is best if you don’t prepare your monologue ahead of time but instead allow for spontaneity. If you run out of words, you don’t need to fill the silence. Your partner will hold the space for you to be true to yourself during this five-minute period, even if that means you don’t feel like you have anything to say. Once the timer rings, prepare to alternate roles and begin again. Wait until you have both participated as listener and speaker before discussing the exercise more generally.

Now, reflect with your partner on what that experience was like, and if you’d like, you can use the following questions to guide the conversation:

  • How was this way of speaking and listening different from how you usually communicate with your partner?

  • What was it like to be seen and listened to by your partner in that way?

  • How did it feel to hold space for your partner without responding to what they were saying?

  • How might you bring a beginner's mind and emotional presence to your interactions with your partner beyond this exercise?

Try this exercise 2-3 times per week for at least two weeks and then reflect with your partner about whether you feel more present and emotionally connected with each other.

If you feel like you could benefit from further support increasing emotional connection with your partner, consider scheduling with one of our experienced couples counselors.